Dear #Remainers, I beg you, stop normalising the far right.
It’s been 31 long, long months since the Brexit referendum, and while positions haven’t exactly softened, it’s fair to say they’ve gone a bit stale. The country may be edging ever closer to soldiers in the streets and food and medicine shortages, but somehow, the overall mood manages to be one of boredom. We had the vote, people say, now stop bothering us and doom the country already.
But on social media, the Remain campaign is still in full swing. Twitter users declare their loyalties with a seemingly endless supply of hashtagged alphabetti spaghetti: there’s #FBPE, #PCPEU, #WATON, #ABTV, not to mention more straightforward slogans like #StopBrexit or the ever-popular #BrexSHIT. The various tribes even have their own celebrities — people like Femi Oluwole, spokesperson for anti-Brexit group Our Future Our Choice (#OFOC), and Madeleina Kay, an artist and singer who recently toured the UK in a crowd-funded “#BollocksToBrexit” bus.
For the most part, their antics are harmless — perhaps not always how everyone would choose to spread a serious political message, but popular enough among their acolytes. But one trend among these darlings of the hashtag Remainers has raised a few eyebrows: too many times, they have defended, and even disseminated, racism and xenophobia, interviewed extremists, and referred to far-right activists as “mates” and “friends”.
The standard justification you will hear is that this is outreach. They’re here to win hearts and minds, and that means stepping outside their Remain bubbles and facing the real world, racists and all. But — despite what they like to tell you — most Brits aren’t Tommy Robinson fans. Most leavers aren’t Tommy Robinson fans. His support, according to YouGov, stands at a paltry 13 percent — even if you take all Remain voters out of the equation, that’s nearly three-quarters of Brexiters who don’t like the man. 40 percent of the public, the lucky bastards, have never even heard of him.
There’s a popular view — that of the idea free-marketeer — that would place this last fact as a negative. Ideas, even distasteful ones, must be heard, the argument goes, so that wiser, more rational commenters can reveal them for the nonsense they are. Thus we see anti-Brexit campaigners posting videos of themselves lecturing points of EU law to far-right activists, or Nick Griffin sitting on the panel for Question Time.
The problem with this — as you might have guessed — is that it doesn’t work. It didn’t work in 1933, when the New York Times wrote that a certain German politician’s success in recent elections would only serve to “expose … his own futility”. It certainly doesn’t work in the modern, online world, where Nazi blog sites wrap their racial slurs in layers of irony and far-right groups radicalise their audience with memes and shibboleths. You can’t beat fascism with a well-thought-out syllogism: by the time you see someone openly sharing anti-Semitic conspiracies, you’ve already lost the debate.
So if the selfie campaign isn’t turning extremists into Lib Dems, what is it doing?
In December 2018, Oluwole posted a video from the far-right-led “Brexit Betrayal March”. Despite a fleeting appearance from Yaxley-Lennon himself, the star of the video was really “Danny Tommo”, a convicted kidnapper with a known history of violence. In the two minutes that made the final edit he was free to rant about “fake news” and “unelected bureaucrats”; when Oluwole brought up Brexit’s effect on the economy, he deftly redirected the conversation with an impassioned speech about sovereignty. At the end of the video, they shook hands.
“To be fair, he doesn’t come across as a bad guy,” remarked one viewer. “Actually seems quite a nice lad … Clearly not racist either.”
“You kind of blow the idea that [Tommy Robinson] and his group are racists out of the water though, don’t you,” said another.
Sharing your platform with extremists, however noble your intentions, means three things. Firstly, that you’re exposing their views — most likely a honed, marketable version of their views — to a whole new audience. Secondly, that their ideologies are given a legitimacy that they didn’t previously enjoy. Put extremist ideas in the mainstream media, and you make them — almost by definition — mainstream ideas. Take a selfie with a far-right activist, and you risk being used as proof that “We all stand together as one … Every colour, every race, every religion!!!”
But finally, and most disappointingly, you alienate your natural allies. Just this week, self-styled “#EUSupergirl” Kay tweeted that she had “made friends” with a right-wing extremist in favour of “repatriation” and driving out “degeneracy”.
“I’m seriously wondering what the hell is going through the popular remainers heads right now,” tweeted writer and policy analyst Julien Hoez in response to Kay’s announcement. “[The European Parliament’s] Young European of the Year … is making “friends” with white supremacists[.]”
“The [yellow vests] want people like me dead. Sooner than later,” wrote another tweeter. “I’m so glad #EUSupergirl can make friends with them while ‘fighting Brexit.’”
“Maddy wants to sympathise with the concerns of people who want a ‘homogeneous society’ of white rulers over a white Britain. I’m mixed-race,” said another. “What do Maddy’s new friends have planned for me? Oh … I’m not from the EU. I’m ‘already under the bus’ as Femi puts it.”
Ironically, this policy of love-bombing the far right even risks undermining its own justification. There are Leave voters that can be convinced to back Remain, but they aren’t marching with Tommy Robinson. They’re the small business owner who didn’t realise the turmoil a vote to leave would release, or the doctor who voted out to help the NHS. People who would, no doubt, be aghast at the implicit suggestion that Robinson and his ilk were considered their representatives.
It’s somewhat hackneyed at this point, but it’s still true: with great power comes great responsibility. If you have tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers, it is your responsibility to carefully consider how you use your platform. What seems like a gotcha for racist Leavers today can easily be used by racist Remainers tomorrow; what you think of as a video highlighting Leaver doublespeak may well end up convincing people that a violent criminal has some good ideas.
It’s not exactly fashionable to say, but: we don’t need to listen to these people. We’ve heard their ideas before. We fought a war over it. Deplatforming extremists is one of the most potent weapons we have in the new fight against the far-right; it behoves us to use it.
After all, if remaining in the EU means targeting minorities and befriending Nazis, then really — what was it all for?