Lennon’s ability to attract large numbers onto the streets mirrored a year of growth on social media.

For those who are perennial watchers of the far right, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), has been an ever-present spectre in British politics over the last decade. Whether smashing up town centres as founder of the English Defence League (EDL), marching at the head of a derisory crowd as leader of Pegida UK or more recently as a self-styled alternative media ‘journalist’ and free speech ‘martyr’.

However, 2018 was the year in which Tommy Robinson became a household name in the UK. A YouGov poll commissioned by HOPE not hate at the beginning of 2019 found that a staggering 55% of respondents ‘have seen or heard’ of Tommy Robinson, thereby making him one of, if not the, best known far-right leader in Britain since Oswald Mosley. His arrest and imprisonment made him a national and internationally known figure and he was splashed across the newspapers, covered by TV news and even discussed on Radio 4’s comedy panel show The News Quiz.

Social media

Far right thug Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson's twitter profile
Lennon’s ability to attract large numbers onto the streets mirrored a year of growth on social media.

His most important platform was Facebook on which he has over 1,080,000 followers and 996,300 likes at the time of writing, putting him roughly on the same level as the whole Labour Party, and hundreds of thousands more than the current Prime Minister. His posts on the platform regularly receive in excess of 10,000 shares. Meanwhile, on Instagram he has grown to over 140,000 followers in 2018.

The second most important platform for Lennon is YouTube where, since starting his channel in December 2016 he has racked up nearly 24.5 million views with over 15,190,000 of those coming last year alone. He saw significant growth in 2018, starting with 61,000 he added over 208,000 new subscribers to his channel by the close of the year. However, 2019 opened with a blow for Lennon as YouTube belatedly took the decision to demonetise his channel, thereby removing his ability to make money from advertising on the platform.

YouTube isn’t the only platform to have moved against Lennon recently with Twitter, on which Lennon had over 400,000 followers, landing a significant blow in March 2018 when they permanently banned him after it was judged that he was in breach of its “hateful conduct” policy. Another blow came in November when the online payments system PayPal also banned him, saying”

“We do not allow PayPal services to be used to promote hate, violence, or other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory”.

International far-right superstar

international far right " free Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy robinson" protest outside Westminster Palace, London
“Free Tommy” protest in London, 2018

Lennon’s significant social media presence has, in part, contributed to his evolution from a significant far-right leader in Britain into a bona fide superstar of the international far right. While he was well known previously, especially with the international anti- Muslim movement, 2018 saw his supposed oppression at the hands of the British government become a cause célèbre for far-right activists around the world.

A HOPE not hate investigation found that only 68% of the over 616,000 signatures on a pro-Tommy Robinson petition were from the UK with nearly 10% coming from both Australia and the USA. Similarly, our analysis of over half a million tweets using the hashtags #FreeTommy and #FreeTommyRobinson found that only 40% came from a domestic audience. In addition to the UK, demonstrators hit the streets in the USA, Austria, Hungary and Denmark as well as Australia and Canada to show their support.

Most worrying was Lennon’s increased celebrity status across the Atlantic. It was soon revealed that the UK demonstrations were, at least in part, being funded by the American neoconservative think tank, the Middle East Forum. The right-wing conspiracy theory channel InfoWars, on which Lennon has appeared numerous times, broadcasted reports from his team and its figurehead, Alex Jones, referred to Lennon as a “political prisoner”. Donald Trump Jr., Mike Cernovich and The Gateway Pundit’s Lucian Wintrich all also spoke out in defence of Lennon last year. ACT for America, Brigitte Gabriel’s anti-Muslim organisation – which claims to have 1,000 local chapters across the USA – told its email list that Lennon’s case meant that “free speech is under attack”. Major right-wing channel Fox News has also chimed in with Tucker Carlson giving Lennon’s case significant airtime on his show.

Also offering Lennon significant assistance was Ezra Levant and his the far-right Canadian alternative media platform Rebel Media, a former employer of Lennon, which jumped to his defence. Levant also concocted a “Tommy Robinson chant” ringtone. 

Further evidence of his growing influence across the Atlantic came when he was invited to America to address two events in November; one at the invite of key Islamophobic ‘Counter-Jihad’ organisations, the Middle East Forum and the David Horowitz Foundation, and another by Republican Congressman Paul Gosar and 6 other members of Congress, to speak at the Conservative Opportunity Society in a closed-door event. However, the trip was blocked after HOPE not hate worked with Ruth Smeeth MP’s office to organise a letter from a cross-party group of over 50 MPs to the US State Department, asking that they refuse his entry.

Despite being refused entry, the very fact that he was invited by elected Republican congressmen in
the first place is hugely significant and an exemplar of his growing reach and influence. While 2018 was not an easy one for Lennon, his prison sentence has done wonders for his international profile, making
him significantly more dangerous now than during the heydays of the English Defence League. He is already planning to capitalise both politically and financially on his heightened profile with a (now postponed) tour to Australia in 2019 planned alongside numerous other international trips.

UKIP leader Gerard Batten (left) with EDL founder Tommy Robinson
UKIP leader Gerard Batten (left) with EDL founder Tommy Robinson

In the UK, his links to UKIP seem set to grow ever closer, though question marks remain over the likelihood of any foray into electoral politics. He has, however, announced a new alternative media venture and his intention to campaign across the UK around the issue of child sexual exploitation by Muslims.

Whether 2018 will prove to be the highpoint for Lennon is hard to say but turmoil surrounding Brexit in 2019 will likely offer him significant opportunities to mobilise his supporters. The questions is what he decides to do with them.

Download a PDF of the report here