A spike in far right radicalisation should terrify us – here's how to stop it in its tracks

The distraction of a chaotic and disruptive Brexit is a genuine risk to our ability to fight this brand of extremism

Smoke bombs set off outside London's Downing Street by far-right 'yellow vest' protesters

The British government’s Prevent program has been a magnet for criticism but its tracking of extremism has at least offered some revelations. Key among these has been a 36 per cent spike in referrals for people at risk of far-right radicalisation.

In less turbulent times, this would have seen a surge in concern certainly, at least, a debate. On the cusp of Brexit, amid panicky reports of empty shelves, delays at ports and possible civil unrest, it remains a very real crisis that risks being ignored.

This summer we will be three years on from the death of Labour MP Jo Cox, murdered by a man radicalised by both mainstream media and fringe sources. It seems we’ve learned nothing about how extremist actors use various communication channels to grow support and influence the actions of individuals.

In 2019, a sizeable section of social media has become dominated by a number of far-right groups, large and small, that use the medium both to spread their message and gather funding.

While pro-Brexit lobby groups such as Leave.eu and Leave Means Leave were responsible for driving a staggering amount of right-wing traffic last year, it is perhaps the smaller figures that we should focus our attention on.

The “success story” of 2018, if you can call it that, was the rise of “Tommy Robinson”, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. His arrest for contempt of court was artfully turned into a combination of free speech debate, political campaign and donation drive that netted him around £2m in donations and a plum paid role for UKIP as a “grooming gangs advisor”.

This surge in popularity and funding has emboldened Robinson, leading to a string of incidents last year in which the far-right activist turned up to the scene of incidents to “report”, or in other words, inflame tensions. Most notably, a Syrian boy, shown in a viral video being “waterboarded” in Huddersfield, is still in hiding due to threats made on his life after Robinson visited his town. Another young man, in Cumbria was threatened for supposedly leaking Robinson’s address.

The increased funding, and apparent invulnerability to serious prosecution, has also encouraged a number of minor far right activists such as James Goddard, “Danny Tommo” and “Vinnie Sullivan” to begin their own crowdfunded efforts, live-streaming from rallies, protests and other events. Their activities outside parliament, and subsequent arrests, have been turned into opportunities to soapbox against “authoritarian” government and police and to ask for donations.

While each doesn’t have a large viewership the low thousands at most, together they represent another means of radicalisation, especially considering each has adopted the mantle of the “yellow vests”, first seen in France. They livestream to Facebook, and upload to YouTube regularly, providing the regular small hits of content that many experts believe drive the process of radicalisation.

You will likely have seen this how this ugly UK version of the yellow vests has seen increased numbers attending demonstrations, particularly in the capital. Anti-fascist activists on the Strand on Saturday caught footage of an Asian couple being harassed and jostled by protesters, having stopped their taxi, as well as a flare thrown into Charing Cross police station.

Elsewhere, more extreme groups appear to have free rein on Twitter and YouTube, An increasing number of individuals linked to groups such as Defend Europa and Generation Identity are using both platforms to circulate videos with a distinctly anti-migrant, white supremacist agenda. Buoyed by the success of figures such as Paul Joseph Watson, who has over a million subscribers, they skirt YouTube rules by broadcasting dog-whistle messages of “not all cultures are equal” and “diversity is not our strength”. In my view, they try to sail as close to racist hate speech as they can without getting their accounts suspended.

All these individuals have happened on a way to bypass mainstream channels to reach people particularly the young where this target audience consumes most of their media. They are reached via their smartphones and tablets. Free from the regulation that controls print and broadcast media, there is only really the terms of service of various platforms stopping vile, hateful content being shared.

The problem here is that, as we have seen in the Tommy Robinson and yellow vests cases, banning groups and individuals from platforms isn’t the answer it only manufactures a “free speech” debate that is very hard to argue against, and is ultimately used a source of revenue generation.

The distraction of a chaotic and disruptive Brexit is a genuine risk to our ability to fight this strand of far right extremism. What we need is a coordinated solution which pulls together government, big tech, educators, anti-racist organisations and anyone else who doesn’t want far-right rhetoric to gain a foothold.

We need something cohesive at a time when cohesion is not in fashion. We need solutions that involve counter-messaging and digital literacy. We need solutions that aren’t afraid to address confronting the most hateful material, and which encourage dialogue around it, rather than conflict.

And crucially, those solutions must make it more difficult to profit from dreary, bitter rhetoric that marginalises and demonises groups within British society. A large part of the resurgence of the far right in Britain is due to the ease with which they can support their activities financially.

To tame the beast we must starve it. Then we may be able to contain the influence of extremist groups at a time when they pose a greater threat than they have for decades we simply cannot risk ambling nonchalantly through the months ahead, allowing them to drive a narrative that drags people into their gutter.

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