June 17, 2018

Understanding the International #FreeTommyRobinson Campaign

By Patrik Hermannson

Last weekend London hosted a demonstration in support of Stephen Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) who was detained and later jailed for obstructing court proceedings in Leeds on 25 May. Nevertheless, Lennon’s conviction sparked the #FreeTommy campaign, claiming that Lennon is the target of state repression for reporting on an issue that the legal system ignores, namely so-called “Muslim rape gangs”. The campaign has been supported by large sections of the far right, from the UK and abroad and the rally was headlined by leader of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders.

The rally attracted as many as 10,000 people onto the streets of Westminster, making it over double the size of any demonstration held by the English Defence League (EDL), Lennon’s previous anti-Muslim street movement. However, #FreeTommy has become a cause célèbre for the international far right and received media attention around the world. The Twitter campaign trended in many locations around the world, amplified by many large far-right Twitter accounts such as Katie Hopkins and Raheem Kassam in the UK and high profile American figures such as Donald Trump Jr., Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones of Infowars. On the day of Lennon’s arrest a Change.org petition was also created and it quickly made the rounds on social media. At the time of writing it has over 616,000 signatures.

In order to learn more about this campaign we have analysed 61,000 of the openly published signatures on Change.org as well as half a million tweets that used the hashtags #FreeTommy and #FreeTommyRobinson between 25 May and 11 June.

Here’s what we found:

An International Campaign

A focal point of the campaign to free Lennon has been the hugely successful Change.org petition, which exploded quickly online and now has over 616,000 signatures. Analysis of a large sample of the signatures shows how truly international this campaign has become. Only 68% of the signatures are from the UK with nearly 10% coming from both Australia and the USA.

The table below shows the ten most common specified countries of origin of the signatories on Change.org.

chart of top countries

While the petition data shows how international this campaign has become, it likely underestimates the percentages made up by foreign audiences due to being primarily aimed at the UK justice system. As such, the Twitter data perhaps gives us a better indication here. While just 68% of the signatures came from the UK, the support from Twitter was even more international with only 40% of the tweets using the hashtags coming from a domestic audience. While the US came third with 9.25% of the signatures, a huge 35% of posts on Twitter were from the US. These figures show how truly international this campaign has become and how it has caught the imagination of, in particular, an American audience.

An Affinity to the US and the Far Right

While the sheer size of the campaign is an indication that it’s reaching outside of the traditional audience, a sample of the 17,000 accounts that have used the hashtags reveal that many of the people that engaged with the hashtags on Twitter are also followers of far right accounts, many of which have been profiled by HOPE not hate before.

As many as 43% follow British far-right YouTuber and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson on Twitter, the third most common account to follow after President Trump who takes the first and second spot with his personal and official account, respectively. Among the far-right accounts that are commonly followed are Lauren Southern (24%), Mike Cernovich (25%), Stefan Molyneux (26%), Katie Hopkins (28%) and Ann Coulter (31%). It is likely that it is via these far-right figures that the campaign has spread. International activists, plugged into events on the UK far right, have picked up the story and then spread it through their own networks, the result of which has been an this internationalisation of the #FreeTommy campaign.

This has been most pronounced in American with 43 out of the top 50 most followed accounts being from the US.

chart of top followed Twitter accounts

Changing Gender Balance

The available data also gives an interesting insight into the gender balance of those talking about this campaign, suggesting that males make up 61.1% and females 38.9%.

These estimates are created by using census data on names and gender to determine if each signatory’s name is traditionally female or male. This is not an exact method and it is not a representation of how people identify their gender. However, it does give an overall indication of the gender balance within a movement that we have little insight into.

That 38.9% are likely women is significant and notably higher than one might expect. This supports HOPE not hate’s own observations on the day of the rally, that more women were in attendance than are commonly seen at far-right rallies in the UK. The number of women certainly appeared more than would have been found at the EDL demonstrations where Lennon first gained prominence in the British far-right scene. These observations have been born out by the petition data.

male to female

One possible explanation for this relatively higher proportion of women is that the core issue around which this campaign centres, namely so-called “Muslim grooming gangs”, has disproportionately affected young and vulnerable women.

Framed as State Repression

Our sample of Twitter posts, as well as comments on the petition, shows that the “state repression” narrative has proven effective in mobilising support online for Lennon. That his conviction quickly became a matter of free speech among the far right on Twitter might also explain the unusually high prevalence of attention the topic received from the US, where free speech is an issue that engages many across the left and right.

Lennon is consistently described as a reporter, rather than an activist, and his arrest is commonly described as a sign of the repressive tactics used by the state against alternative media. The second most common narrative is the idea that the British state, by not doing enough to stop grooming gangs and hindering journalists from reporting on them, tacitly support these groups, looking past the fact that it was the fair outcome of a trial of one of them which Lennon jeopardised.

Among the most retweeted tweets were posts by Raheem Kassam, Geert Wilders and alt-light YouTuber Steven Crowder. Roseanne Barr’s post has received 16,983 retweets at the time of writing. Barr is a TV host whose show on ABC was cancelled earlier this month after racist tweets. These tweets are good examples of the main narratives on the #FreeTommy hashtag.