Far-right British troll Tommy Robinson spewed hate speech on Facebook for years, even after his posts allegedly contributed to a violent attack on a schoolboy. It was only on Tuesday that Facebook and its sister company Instagram finally banned him.
Robinson, whose real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is British racist whose anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant stances have attracted a considerable following, despite Robinson’s multiple criminal convictions for passport fraud and violent offenses. Until Tuesday, Robinson preached those views to more than 1 million Facebook followers. The platform was one of Robinson’s loudest megaphones, and is currently expected to be sued alongside Robinson for alleged involvement in an attack on teenage refugee in the U.K.
“Facebook was Robinson's most important social media channel,” said Melissa Ryan, an editor with Hope Not Hate, an organization that has been tracking Robinson’s actions for years.
“His Facebook page had 1,080,000 followers and 996,300 likes,” Ryan said. “His posts regularly hit more than 10,000 shares. He was able to take advantage of the existing ecosystem of far right Facebook pages and groups to expand his reach, particularly with Americans who might not know who he was otherwise.”
Facebook cited its rules against hate speech in its banning of Robinson from the site, as well as from Facebook-owned Instagram.
“Tommy Robinson’s Facebook Page has repeatedly broken these standards, posting material that uses dehumanizing language and calls for violence targeted at Muslims,” the social media giant wrote in a Tuesday blog post. “He has also behaved in ways that violate our policies around organized hate. As a result, in accordance with our policies, we have removed Tommy Robinson’s official Facebook Page and Instagram profile. This is not a decision we take lightly, but individuals and organizations that attack others on the basis of who they are have no place on Facebook or Instagram.”
Robinson has previously been ousted from social media platforms like Twitter, as well as payment processor Paypal. YouTube still hosts his videos, but has demonetized them, barring him from running ads on the videos for profit.
“I wouldn't call this ban a mortal wound for Robinson's ability to spread hate but it is absolutely a huge blow. He's already been banned from Paypal and Twitter,” Ryan said. “YouTube is the only platform he has left and he can't even run ads on his content there anymore. So his ability to spread hate and profit from it has been curbed generally. And with Facebook and Instagram he's lost his largest amplification network.”
Facebook was Robinson’s primary media outlet, as well as part of his claim to victimhood. In addition to posting regular racist updates for his million-plus followers, Robinson used the platform for livestreaming from his far-right rallies. He has frequently (and falsely) cast himself as a political prisoner over a 2017 livestreaming incident, in which he committed contempt of court for streaming from a trial and making racist remarks about the defendants. He was briefly imprisoned after his conviction, and went on to allegedly commit a similar offense in 2018 (he was found guilty, but the case is being retried).
Meanwhile, Robinson is expected to face a civil suit for his Facebook activities. In October 2018, social media users posted a video of a 16-year-old boy attacking a 15-year-old classmate at school. The younger boy, whose arm was in a cast, was a refugee from Syria. The older student grabbed the classmate to by the neck, pushed him to the ground, and attempting to crudely waterboard him with a plastic waterbottle. “I’ll drown you,” the attacker said, as other classmates shouted insults at the refugee student.
The attacker appeared to be a Robinson fan, sharing posts from Robinson and other far-right figures on Facebook. Robinson intervened after the incident, interviewing the attacker in a Facebook video, allegedly breaking a law against identifying the victim. Robinson also falsely accused the victim of violence, misidentifying him as a boy who attacked a female student.
In January, the victim’s family announced plans to sue Robinson and Facebook. The family’s lawyer argued that Robinson had previously violated Facebook rules that would have resulted in his account being banned but that, due to his status as a Facebook power-user, he was allowed to stay.
Facebook was partially liable for Robinson’s attacks on the Syrian refugee child, because the company had afforded Robinson “special treatment [that] seems to be financially driven,” the family’s lawyer argued.