Media platforms and social media deplatforming: Some history and context

With the decision by Twitter and Facebook to deplatform Donald Trump and other far right accounts, as well as on-going debate about the reporting on the far right by the media, I thought I’d post this excerpt from book, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech. While it is not up to date and is UK focused, I hope it provides some context for the current debates. I will try to write something about the current situation during the week, but here’s something for now…

A debate that happens in the orbit of ‘no platforming’ is around the mainstream media (particularly television and radio) providing a platform for the far right and other figures that air racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic views. Since the 1930s, the British press and the British Broadcasting Corporation have portrayed explicit fascist groups in a negative light, but have, at times, allowed fascists and racists (not to mention misogynists, homophobes and transphobes) a platform. Janet Dack has shown that while some British newspapers gave some positive coverage to Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, after the violence at Olympia in 1934, the newspapers and the BBC were, broadly speaking, ‘opposed to Mosley’ and the BUF [British Union of Fascists]’ and ‘clearly anti-fascist’.[1] In the immediate aftermath of the events of Olympia in June 1934, Mosley was ‘given the opportunity to defend the actions of the BUF’ on the BBC, but Dack shows that ‘following the debates on the violence at Olympia in Parliament and in the press’, Mosley became person non grata at the Corporation.[2] Robert Skidelsky suggests that this was due to pressure brought on the BBC by the government at the time.[3] Mosley would not appear on the BBC (this time on television) until 1968, when he appeared on Panorama – he had also been interviewed by David Frost on ITV the previous year.[4] 

While the BBC denied Mosley a platform, it did give airtime to other fascists at different points throughout the post-war era. In 1959, the BBC show Panorama interviewed the White Defence League’s Colin Jordan.[5] John Tyndall and Martin Webster were both interviewed in the 1970s at the height of the National Front, which were condemned by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).[6] Furthermore both BBC and ITV aired electoral broadcasts for the NF at the 1974 and 1979 elections.

Barry Troyna wrote in Patterns of Prejudice in 1980:

while NF politics are generally denounced in news and editorial coverage of the party there is less agreement about how the news media can most effectively convey to their audience opposition to the Front and, as a corollary how to discourage electoral support.[7]

This concern led to campaigns by the NUJ, as well as the Anti-Nazi League and the London-based Campaign Against Racism in the Media (CARM), for greater media scrutiny on the NF and for the media, especially the television stations, to deny a platform to the NF in the late 1970s. CARM, an offshoot of the All London Anti-Racist, Anti-Fascist Co-Ordinating Committee, called for journalists ‘to adopt a hostile line when reporting statements and activities of fascists and racists’, as well as for journalists ‘to boycott letters/phone-ins from national Front/National party candidates and supporters’.[8] The NUJ produced a pamphlet titled Black and Front, which produced a number of guidelines for journalists reporting on the NF, which suggested:

DON’T report racist parties on an even keel with Tories, Labour and Liberals. Even if they get some electoral support the fascists will only flourish if journalists fail to expose their racist, anti-democratic views.[9]

The NUJ argued that journalists could not ignore the NF, but told journalists, ‘you can go in for exposés and investigative reporting instead of re-telling what they say in press handouts or at news conferences.’[10] Barry Troyna and Nigel Copsey both note that there was a backlash by some in the media against these campaigns, with some insisting that ‘the National Front, as a legally formed political party, could not be denied a broadcast simply because the ANL disapproved of its policies’.[11]

In the mid-1990s when the British National Party started to get national attention after its ‘Rights for Whites’ campaign in the East End of London and its subsequent win in the Tower Hamlets council by-elections, both television and the newspapers gave BNP members a platform. For example, the BNP’s Deputy Leader Richard Edmonds appeared twice on the BBC in January 1993 to which Searchlight complained that Edmonds was given ‘screen time to pretend the BNP is a normal political party, without challenge’.[12] As a result of this renewed media interest, the members of the reformed Anti-Nazi League founded Media Workers Against the Nazis, which followed the principle laid out in the 1970s that the media should not give fascists and racists platforms to espouse their ideology. An example of the campaigning of this group came in April 1994 when a BNP Press Officer had a letter published in The Independent newspaper, which led to journalist Paul Foot and several colleagues (including Seamus Milne) writing to the paper on behalf of Media Workers Against the Nazis, asking why the paper published the BNP letter.[13] The letter writers declared, ‘[t]he normal rules of free speech and expression cannot possibly apply to those who aim to deny the most basic rights and freedoms to entire sections of the population.’[14] This was followed by a debate between Foot and Andrew Marr, a columnist for The Independent, in which Foot criticised the newspapers for being ‘too uncritical of the BNP’.[15] An account in The Independent of the debate reported that Foot argued:

the BNP had received a disproportionate amount of publicity and argued journalists should “self-censor” on the basis of social consequences and ensure “no platform for fascist propaganda”…

The history of the 20th century showed the danger of providing the “privilege” of free speech to a group which would “wipe out free speech forever” should it gain power.[16]

Marr’s response, similar to many in the press, was that the ‘bad arguments and false logic’ of the BNP could be dealt with and that this could be done with reporting and investigative journalism,[17] but overlooked the fact that anti-fascist campaigners did not want an end to reporting on the BNP and other fascist groups and instead wanted the media to not uncritically repeat assertions made by fascists, provide them with prominent interviews or invite them to participate in media debates.

Nigel Copsey suggests that for the most part, anti-fascist efforts to deny fascism a media platform ‘proved futile’ throughout the 1990s[18] and once the BNP gained some momentum in the 2000s, anti-fascists found it even harder to discourage the media from providing platforms to the revamped party under Nick Griffin (even though a number of critical exposes were broadcast and published at the same time). Daniel Trilling shows that the BBC in particular allowed Griffin and other BNP members to speak on television and radio throughout the 2000s, while also producing a documentary by an undercover journalist that provided ‘compelling evidence’ that the BNP ‘remained a part which nurtured violence and racism’.[19] The dual approach by the media in Britain, giving airtime and column inches to the BNP’s electoral messages, while producing highly critical pieces that poked holes in the BNP’s attempts to soften its image, culminated in the invitation of Nick Griffin on BBC’s Question Time in late 2009. It has become somewhat of a liberal myth that Griffin’s poor performance on the show revealed the true nature of the BNP and voters abandoned the party at the next election, overlooking the grassroots activism by anti-fascists to challenge the BNP in key battleground seats. The Question Time episode has become a liberal rebuttal against the tactic of ‘no platform’, arguing that the problems of fascism and racism can be exposed through reasoned debate and giving fascists enough rope to hang themselves.

Over the last decade, this argument has been replayed ad infinitum. As Nesrine Malik has written, the decade since Griffin’s appearance has seen the expansion of what has been considered ‘acceptable speech’ and there has been a view by ‘neutral’ media outlets that ‘every opinion must have a counter opinion’[20] – allowing the marketplace of ideas to determine what is reasonable and unreasonable. The main benefactors of this outlook has been the far right in its various guises.

With the decline of the BNP after the 2010 election, two groups occupied the void, the English Defence League (EDL) and the UK Independence Party (UKIP). The EDL was an anti-Muslim street movement, co-founded by Tommy Robinson, while UKIP was a right-wing Eurosceptic political party that under the leadership of Nigel Farage gained significant electoral influence (especially in the European Parliament) and corresponding media attention.  Anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigners have argued that the mainstream media has given prominent attention to and platforms for Farage and Robinson (as well as others), which has contributed to a mainstreaming of far right politics. As Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter have noted, Farage has been ‘a regular guest at BBC question time, but also was given a slot on LBC and regular columns in prominent newspapers’, while Robinson has also been given a media platform on a number of occasions, such as on ITV’s Good Morning Britain.[21]

This media coverage can translate into tangible political benefits for the far right. For example, a 2018 study by Justin Murphy and Daniel Devine found that ‘media coverage may have played a unique causal role in increasing support for UKIP, in a fashion irreducible to previous levels of support or election outcomes.’[22] Furthermore, as Joe Mulhall has shown, Robinson’s combination of anti-Muslim, pro-free speech and anti-elite rhetoric has attracted some of largest number of far right supporters since the 1930s.[23] Despite various campaigns, both online and on the streets, against the media platforms given to far right politicians like Farage or Robinson (or controversialists like disgraced columnist Katie Hopkins), the dominant view held by British media is that in a free society, extreme views on race, gender, homosexuality and trans rights (amongst other things) should, in the spirit of debate, be  allowed to be heard, regardless of their offensiveness or inaccuracy. As a result, the media engages in the same combative spectacle as the debating societies in the student union buildings across the country’s universities.

Some, such as Nesrine Malik, have suggested that the proliferation of social media and online platforms have aided this shift, writing that ’[t]he expansion of media outlets meant that it was not only marginalised voices that secured access to the public, but also those with more extreme and fringe views.’[24] It has been well established that the growth of the internet (and in recent years, social media) has given the far right a massive boost and that online platforms have become more and more integral to far right organising, alongside the dissemination of far right ideas.  As Stephen Albrecht, Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston have written:

Far-right movements from around the world have relentlessly intervened in both the private and public spheres of our digital worlds, from the deep web to the surface net, from public chat rooms to multi-player gaming environments. Digital platforms that bypass traditional editorial and governmental controls yet overlay our traditional political milieus have empowered such groups to directly broadcast their content globally to witting and unwitting audiences alike.[25]

The centrality of social media platforms to the far right has led some to call for the deplatforming of far right activists and trolls from these platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In the wake of several right-wing terrorist attacks over the last few years, these calls have intensified. For example, the New Zealand government pushed for social media companies to take greater steps to limit violent far right content online.[26] In Britain, the campaign for deplatforming has been largely spearheaded by anti-fascist organisation, Hope Not Hate. Writing on the group’s website, Joe Mulhall has argued that online hate, distributed via social media, had ‘dangerous real-world effects’ and to fight this, social media companies needed to be pressured to ‘remove hate speech and hateful individuals’.[27] Citing the decline of Britain First and alt-right provocateur  Milo Yiannopoulos after they were both banned from Facebook and Twitter, Mulhall declares that ‘[d]eplatforming works’ and that the far right losing their social media platforms has greatly impacted their ability to organise in the ‘real world’.[28] Unlike the initiative of the New Zealand government and others, such as the Royal United Services Institute, who have called for government intervention to induce social media companies to remove violent far right content from their platforms,[29] the Hope Not Hate campaign is a traditional campaign to pressure social media providers to act. As Mulhall concludes:

The last decade has seen far-right extremists attract audiences unthinkable for most of the postwar period, and the damage has been seen on our streets, in the polls, and in the rising death toll from far-right terrorists. Deplatforming is not straightforward, but it limits the reach of online hate, and social media companies have to do more and do more now.[30]

Although this may not be so straight-forward, with Jeff Sparrow warning that ‘[i]t would be naïve… to expect reforms of the major social media corporations to provide an answer to [atrocities like] Christchurch’.[31] Sparrow argues that ‘a thorough ban on fascist or far-right [social media] accounts seems unlikely’ because:

[e]ven if they can be shamed by political outrage, they’re ultimately driven by the pursuit of profit – and the inflammatory accounts of the far right deliver user engagement that can be monetised via advertising.[32] 

Nonetheless, for Hope Not Hate, deplatforming has become a central part of their anti-fascist activism, coming at a time when the organisation has moved away from the position of ‘no platform for fascists’, which had guided anti-fascist activism since the 1970s. Mulhall was quoted in The Guardian in 2018 as saying that the internet had ‘fundamentally undermined “no platform” as a tactic’ and that ‘in the traditional sense, it doesn’t work anymore’.[33] Physically ‘no platforming’ speakers and organisations from public and semi-public spaces wasn’t seen as a priority, when the internet and social media allowed the far right access to much larger audience. Another piece published on the Hope Not Hate website by Safya Khan-Ruf expanded on this:

Although no-platforming has expanded and remains controversial, the internet allows anyone – including far-right personalities – to create their own microphone. The power of social media has changed how opinions are shared and makes the tactic of no-platforming redundant to a certain degree.[34]

For Khan-Ruf and others at the organisation, there was an impression, shared by many of the centre left, that the current usage of ‘no platform’ as a tactic had strayed from its origins as an anti-fascist tool against the National Front and the British National Party and had been ‘used to shut down legitimate viewpoints under false accusations’.[35] Although Khan-Ruf repeats the trope used by many from the conservative right to the centre left that ‘no platform’ had been employed in recent times ‘as an excuse to shut down views some people don’t like at universities’, she does acknowledge that the expansion of the tactic has been ‘in keeping with our better understanding of damage and harm that can be caused to vulnerable people by non-physical actions.’[36] While the internet and social media has, in the words of Richard Seymour, ‘acquired jackboots’[37] and the need for pressure upon social media companies to act responsibly has been mounting, events over the last few years in Britain, as well as across the English speaking world, show that shutting down fascists and racists (as well as sexists, homophobes and transphobes) in the ‘real world’ remains vitally important.

[1] Janet Dack, ‘“It Certainly Isn’t Cricket!”: Media Responses to Mosley and the BUF’, in Nigel Copsey & Andrzdej Olechnowicz (eds), Varieties of Anti-Fascism: Britain in the Inter-War Period (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 154.

[2] Ibid., p. 153.

[3] Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London: Papermac, 1990) p. 517.

[4] The Times, 24 October, 2009, (accessed 25 October, 2019).

[5] Paul Jackson, Colin Jordan and Britain’s Neo-Nazi Movement (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) p. 87.

[6] Denis MacShane, Black and Front: Journalists and Race Reporting (London: NUJ pamphlet, 1978) pp. 6-7.

[7] Barry Troyna, ‘The Media and the Electoral Decline of the National Front’, Patterns of Prejudice, 14/3 (1980) p. 26.

[8] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (London: Routledge, 2017) p 136.

[9] MacShane, Black and Front, p. 20.

[10] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[11] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 138.

[12] ‘The BBC and the BNP’, Searchlight (February 1993) p. 24.

[13] The Independent, 4 April 1994; The Independent, 13 April, 1994.

[14] The Independent, 13 April, 1994.

[15] The Independent, 11 May, 1994.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 179.

[19] Daniel Trilling, Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right (London: Verso, 2013) pp. 122-123.

[20] Nesrine Malik, We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent (London: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2019) pp. 101-103.

[21] Mondon & Winter, Reactionary Democracy, p. 143.

[22] Justin Murphy & Daniel Devine, ‘Does Media Coverage Drive Public Support for UKIP or Does Public Support for UKIP Drive Media Coverage?’, British Journal of Political Science, 2018, DOI: 10.1017/S0007123418000145.

[23] Joe Mulhall, ‘Modernising and Mainstreaming: The Contemporary British Far Right’, 19 July, 2019, (accessed 24 October, 2019).

[24] Malik, We Need New Stories, p. 102.

[25] Stephen Albrecht, Maik Fielitz & Nick Thurston, ‘Introduction’ in Maik Fielitz & Nick Thurston (eds), Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US (Bielefeld: transcript, 2019) p. 7.

[26] The Guardian, 9 August, 2019, (accessed 30 October, 2019).

[27] Joe Mulhall, ‘Deplatforming Works: Let’s Get On With It’, Hope Not Hate, 4 October, 2019, (accessed 30 October, 2019).

[28] Ibid.

[29] See: Lella Nouri, Nuria Lorenzo-Dus & Amy-Louise Watkin, Following the Whack-A-Mole: Britain First’s Visual Strategy From Facebook to Gab (London: RUSI, 2019).

[30] Mulhall, ‘Deplatforming Works’.

[31] Jeff Sparrow, Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre (Melbourne: Scribe, 2019) p. 123.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Cited in The Guardian, 26 October, 2018, (accessed 30 October, 2019).

[34] Safya Khan-Ruf, ‘The Mutating of No-Platform’, Hope Not Hate, 18 May, 2018, (accessed 30 October, 2019).

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine (London: The Indigo Press, 2019) p. 191

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