On June 9th 2018, supporters of right-wing activist Tommy Robinson took to the streets of London to protest his arrest and imprisonment. The protest and entire freedom campaign are being mobilised via Facebook groups and Twitter with a growing global support system.
In late May 2018, Tommy Robinson was arrested and sentenced to 13 months in prison after breaking contempt of court laws via Facebook live. The video shows Robinson reporting on a court trial where he clearly shows the face and the identity of the man being prosecuted as he walks into the courthouse.
His vigilante-style reporting that takes the media’s role as a watchdog and the fifth estate to new extremes has landed him in trouble before, and this is certainly not the first time that he has broken court reporting laws. When he broke the same laws in May 2017, he was told by the police that if he did it again then he would face prison.
In response to his jailing, thousands of people have come to his support to see him freed from his allegedly unjust prison sentence.
The online presence of Robinson supporters and those on the far-right who wish to protect free speech does not only exist within the United Kingdom. The campaign to free Robinson has gained attention from Donald Trump Jr., Geert Wilders, and members of the public across the world.
This sentencing comes at a time when far-right ideologies are taking hold over the political sphere on a global scale, not just a national one. What is clear is that Robinson’s case has global appeal.
Simply searching “Free Tommy Robinson” on Facebook brings up multiple groups with thousands of followers dedicated to Robinson’s freedom. They write Facebook posts exposing the ‘truth’ of his arrest and what will happen to him should he serve his full 13 months sentence. There are links to petitions to have him freed as well as GoFundMe pages to aid with legal fees.
Beyond supporting Robinson, they discuss the issues that lay at the heart of his political agenda. There are reams of posts about Muslim rape gangs, immigration, and broader issues with freedom of speech. A quick browse of these videos and posts will unveil the alleged truth over what is happening in the UK and the true reason why Robinson was jailed.
Yet, there is little that binds his supporters other than seeking his freedom.
They may have one overarching cause but their individual motivations for aiding the cause are easily blurred. There are those who support the cause because they believe free speech is being attacked, those who get behind it because they believe Muslims orchestrated the arrest, and those who believe that Robinson is the voice of the people in the UK who have been left behind by the political progression of the last 20 years.
On Facebook, there are few people within these groups challenging the motivations behind the Free Tommy movement. On Twitter, however, the debate is far more nuanced with people questioning the movement and debunking the fake news that is being shared by these accounts.
The Twitter campaign is focused on #freetommy or some variation of this hashtag with a constant stream of new tweets being added to the timeline. Here, we see how truly global the campaign is. There are tweets in a wide range European languages, American users are joining the debate with the hashtag #MAGA, and British users are dominating the debate.
Fake news also dominates the timeline, users are sharing non-accredited citizens news sites that have shaky headlines and seem to have been poorly researched. Robinson’s vigilante journalism has inspired plenty of people to take it upon themselves to break down the alleged 'cover-ups' and dictatorship operating in the UK. They are sharing right-wing publications such as Breitbart with news stories that fit their personal agendas, and they are sharing stories from other publications that may not be relevant but they are attempting to make it fit.
Amongst the most shared content is a video from Rebel Media, the media outlet Robinson often features in, about the recent Free Tommy protest that took place in London. It is hosted by prominent right-wing journalist Katie Hopkins and at the time of writing has over 50 thousand views.
Mixed in with the tweets about Muslim rape gangs and saving Britain from multiculturalism are tweets from those who are attempting to debunk some of the claims being made by Robinson’s supporters. They are fact checking these news stories, Robinson’s claims, and the claims being made by these accounts.
However, they aren’t enough to outweigh the voices of the supporters and they very quickly get lost in the sea of tweets being posted.