Throughout the post-war period, the ability of the British far right to exert influence beyond the confines of the political fringe has very much depended on its cohesiveness and size, neither of which has been taken as a given.
Today, though, there is an autonomous mass of far-right activists propagating hate independently of formal far-right organisations, some of which we have outlined in our new report out today, State of Hate 2018. Some of the biggest names in this world are from the UK and they have global audiences. Many of the largest and most influential far-right sites in the world are visited by huge numbers of UK activists.
It is unwise to measure the importance or danger of the far right purely in terms of electoral strength or number of feet on the street – it only takes one right-wing extremist to bomb a pub or murder an MP. But at the same time, the far right’s ability to influence mainstream political debate, especially on issues like immigration and integration, has generally been tied to the relative importance and scale of political parties and street movements.
However, the explosion of social media during the past decade has also created a momentous shift in the political world. This is especially true for the far right.
In recent years, we have seen the rise of far-right social media personalities who, despite not being part of traditional activist organisations or parties, now have the ability to reach unprecedented numbers of people.
A right-wing alternative media has emerged, stretching from the edges of the mainstream (such as former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News Network), to scores of YouTube vloggers, Twitter accounts and professional media outlets like Rebel Media and InfoWars. This framework allows activists to propagate their views without the need for traditional structures such as a party.
In November, appearing on an episode of InfoWars’ The Alex Jones Show, former English Defence League (EDL) leader Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) claimed that in a four week period his tweets reached 193 million people and his Facebook videos were viewed 49 million times. Similarly, Paul Joseph Watson, the British editor of InfoWars, who frequently posts content like “The Islamic State of Sweden” and “Staged Video Shows Refugee Fake Drowning”, has claimed over 1.1 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Each of his videos receives hundreds of thousands of views and some well into the millions.
It has to be recognised that these players are reaching a global audience, with much of their viewership outside the UK. The Scottish alt-right vlogger Colin Robertson (aka Millennial Woes) – one of those we focus on in our forthcoming undercover film into the movement – claims that just 20 per cent of his audience resides in the UK.
However, estimates (via services such as SimilarWeb and Alexa) of UK web traffic to extreme far-right sites suggests that there are thousands of people actively engaged in far-right politics, just semi-autonomously, outside formalised organisational structures and sitting behind computer screens and keyboards.
After the US, the UK provides the most traffic to almost every major alt-right website in the world. Counter-Currents.com, the website of American white nationalist Greg Johnson, received 206,887 unique visitors in November 2017 with 6.41 per cent (13,000) of the traffic coming from the UK.
When it comes to one of the largest white nationalist websites in the world, Stormfront, Similarweb estimated there were one million visitors before the domain was terminated, with 11 per cent of those coming from the UK. That means there have been 110,000 visits from the UK to an explicitly white nationalist website. Stormfront Britain is the site’s second largest section after Newslinks and Articles with over 111,746 threads as of December 2017. This is before one even considers the Daily Stormer, which has superseded Stormfront to become the most prominent white nationalist bolthole on the web.
For most of the post-war period, “getting active” required finding a party, joining, canvassing, knocking on doors, dishing out leaflets and attending meetings. Now, from the comfort and safety of their own homes, these extremist keyboard warriors can engage in far-right politics by watching YouTube videos, visiting far-right websites, networking on forums, speaking on voice chat services such as Discord and trying to convert “normies” on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
And we know that in the case of Finsbury Park mosque attacker, Darren Osborne, who killed one and wounded a dozen others last year, that he rapidly self-radicalised online after gorging on content provided online by Tommy Robinson, Britain First and others.
The fact that this can all be done anonymously hugely lowers the social cost of activism. There is now a veritable online army of far-right activists acting completely anonymously without the danger and risk of being ostracised for doing so.
This relatively new means of engaging in political activism also facilitates a more international outlook.
We would be foolish to be complacent despite facing what appears, in terms of the traditional far right, to be a fractured and splintered movement.
If we wait for a period of far-right unity so that we can once again mobilise en-masse against this enemy, we risk society being changed by thousands of people gnawing away at it and propagating the whole package of far-right ideas in the meantime.
Dr Joe Mulhall is senior researcher for HOPE not hate @JoeMulhall_. HOPE not hate’s State of Hate 2018 report is launched today.