Far-right poster boy fighting fake news

On YouTube, Caolan Robertson frequently found himself recommending right-wing “alternative media” videos


Young, gay and “pretty liberal-minded”, Caolan Robertson was hardly a typical extremist.

But that all changed five years ago when, after being sucked down a “rabbit hole” of alt-right online material, the London-based graduate underwent what he now describes as “very distinct form of radicalisation”.

Robertson would go on to work as a correspondent for Rebel Media, a far-right website, and as a video director and producer for a slew of leading figures on the British and American far-right, including radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, political activist Lauren Southern and the former head of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson. The content he produced has been watched by millions worldwide.

Having now turned his back on the far-right, Robertson last month launched a website — Future Freedom — which is designed to help those who want to do likewise.

Robertson’s journey into the world of the far-right began when office talk about Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump in 2016 led him to start paying more attention to the news. On YouTube, he frequently found himself recommended right-wing “alternative media” videos — an antidote, he suggests, to the dominant media narrative “that was calling everyone who voted for Trump or Brexit racist”.

But it was the Islamist terror attack at the Pulse nightclub in Florida that summer which proved a turning point. The top-rated results on YouTube about the massacre were people on hard-right websites “sort of championing gay rights from a genuine violent threat” and appearing “far more tolerant of gay people than the Islamists or even the left-wing media”. As he watched more content, his inbox filled with further, often more extreme, recommendations. Robertson describes the online far-right as “an incredibly complex, very disguised ecosystem... It’s very friendly, diverse and open and tolerant at the mouthpiece of it. It’s all about free speech,” he suggests. “But, he argues, “it’s like the start of a tunnel and the further you get pulled into this tunnel, through these algorithms, recommendations and connections, you end up … at the end of this hole with the [neo-Nazi] Daily Stormer website, [white supremacist] Richard Spencer, antisemitism and Holocaust denial.”

This process of radicalisation, Robertson warns, is very different from — and potentially more dangerous than — how people used to be drawn into far-right politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, he argues, if you wanted “to join a skinhead Nazi gang, you go to a pub. It’s openly antisemitic. There are swastikas, there’s open Holocaust denial. You know what you’re getting into and most rational people don’t join those groups. That’s why they’re so fringe.”

A video that he made mocking demonstrators at a protest in London on the day of Trump’s inauguration in 2017 went viral and became Robertson’s entrée into working for the online far-right. However, it wasn’t simply his production skills that the movers and shakers on the far-right who were now knocking on Robertson’s door were interested in. “Normally people that make content like this have a dark history or have been involved in violence, whereas I had none of that,” he says. “Looking back now, it’s because they want to use the friendliest, most diverse-looking people to push a more sinister message.”

While his friends and family began to distance themselves, Robertson was hired by Rebel Media and started working with the former EDL leader Robinson before later shifting his focus to the US. He readily acknowledges enjoying the work for a time. “Alex Jones was a lot of fun,” Robertson says of the host of the far-right “Infowars” channel. “He was very, very cool and … wasn’t like he is on the show … crazy and screaming about everything.”

As he moved in far-right circles, Robertson is now aware, he was gradually being softened up. “It’s far more radical behind the scenes and off camera than it is in terms of what they’re producing.” Robertson says the online far-right attempts to deploy humour — albeit of a distinctly tasteless variety — to lure people into antisemitism. They claim that free speech means no topic should be off bounds, he suggests, “but the people spouting that stuff behind the scenes genuinely are antisemitic and they know they’re doing it to recruit more people to antisemitic ideas and that’s the most dangerous thing”. Although it is not always immediately apparent, conspiracy theories spun online are “drenched in antisemitism”.

At the core of both the “great reset”, which claims that wealthy people are attempting to exploit the Covid pandemic to take control of the global economy, and the “great replacement”, which suggests mass migration of non-white immigrants into predominantly white countries is being orchestrated in order to wipe out the populations there, rests the notion that “deep state” Jews are controlling everything.

Similarly, the QAnon conspiracy theory — which, says Robertson, is seeping into the timelines of “Facebook Mums” — also ultimately targets Jews. Although far removed from the kind of individuals he worked with, Robertson describes the case of Met police officer Ben Hannam, who was last week convicted of membership of the banned neo-Nazi group National Action, as “just another example of how common it is for ostensibly ordinary or ‘respectable’ people to hold extremist beliefs”.

“Simply identifying and proscribing problematic groups is doing very little to combat the beliefs of their members,” Robertson believes, “and we need to consider other, more holistic approaches to understanding and undoing extremist belief systems in the UK.”

Robertson didn’t make a sudden break with the far-right. There were, however, “a lot of moments” when doubts began to creep in. Working on a documentary with Southern about migration into Europe, he expected to be filming “angry, violent young men who were going to threaten us”.

Instead, he found the scenes of “old women and young people with bin bags of all their belongings heart-breaking”. Having already ditched most of those he had worked with, the Christchurch mosque massacres in March 2019 proved the final straw. The killer’s manifesto was “so similar to the way that everyone [in the far-right] talks behind the scenes”. “I felt that I couldn’t work in that environment ever again,” Robertson suggests. He likens his departure to leaving a cult — “it was really, really dark” — and says he spent a year trying “to start my life again”. He switched off the internet, steered clear of politics, and began rebuilding relationships with his family and friends. “It just took a long time to realise that the real world is a totally different place from the online world. It’s far more boring and normal,” he jokes.

Robertson now works for the online newspaper Byline Times’ new TV channel focusing on disinformation and extremism. The Capitol Hill riot in January, however, encouraged Robertson to team up with a number of other former far-right activists to set up Future Freedom, an online resource for those starting to feel their way out of the web of extremism. “We have this kind of unique insight as viewers, organisers and producers into how this world works in the way that no one else can really understand yet,” Robertson believes. Talking to people still entangled in the far-right over the past year, he suggests the main reason many say they can’t leave is because they don’t know how and don’t know anyone else who has been able to walk away. “I realised the main issue is that there isn’t any representation from people that have left and gone on to live normal lives and there isn’t any information about how that system works,” Robertson argues.

By telling the stories of people who have moved on from extremist right-wing groups, and “explaining how the rabbit hole works”, Future Freedom, he hopes, will fill that gap.

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