Digital personality cults: How far-right social media personalities have capitalized on the U.K. election to drive support for extreme views

By: arron williams&
July 4 2024

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Digital personality cults: How far-right social media personalities have capitalized on the U.K. election to drive support for extreme views

(Source: X/Screenshots/Wikipedia/Composite by Logically Facts)

It may surprise readers to learn that the U.K.'s most popular politician on TikTok is not the prime minister of the day but Nigel Farage. The leader of the right-wing party Reform UK has amassed over 765,000 followers and over 13.4 million likes — far more than the measly 1,000 followers that the only other party leader on the platform, Rhun Ap Iorwerth of Plaid Cymru, has garnered. 

Farage, meanwhile, uploads daily videos that regularly receive up to a million views — significantly more than videos uploaded by his party's account, which has just 209,000 followers. Although Farage is a mouthpiece for the party's policies, it is clear that interest is far higher in the man himself than in the party he represents - evidenced by the difference in reach between his and his party's accounts.

Screenshot of Farage's and Reform's TikTok followings. (Source/TikTok)

Through TikTok, Farage gains access to a new demographic. TikTok's general audience is about 60 percent Gen Z, meaning those born after 1996 and before 2012 — a stark contrast to the traditional voter base of UKIP, the party Farage previously led, which was supported mainly by those over 60. With the U.K. general election on July 4, these voters are up for grabs, with 11 percent of undecided voters being 18 to 24 — and Farage is betting that TikTok is the place to reach them. It's a tried and true technique for other right-wing parties across Europe, which saw great success at engaging younger voters prior to the EU elections and often had the biggest followings, particularly in France and Germany

However, it's not just politicians seeking to grab attention in this digital political battleground — far-right influencers are also seizing upon the election as an opportunity to spread extreme rhetoric and repeat debunked misinformation narratives in the context of the vote. The informal yet influential involvement of such figures in the electoral campaign raises concerns over political influence and moderation of those not governed by traditional political rules.

Prominent influencers 

With Ofcom reporting that those aged 16-24 are overwhelmingly more likely to get their news from social media, it's no surprise that their politics are often shaped by popular influencers. Social media algorithms also play a major role in the growth of such influencers' followings. Maia Kahlke Lorentzen, a researcher and expert at the Danish cybersecurity and digital media network Cybernauts, told Logically Facts, "Our social media apps are built to prioritize certain types of provocative content, and influencers from the far-right figured this out early and weaponized it, basically copying the way lifestyle influencers collaborate and boost each other, and coast on the algorithm, but for political purposes," she said.

Some of these creators are overtly political — for example, U.K.-based right-wing influencer Carl Benjamin, a former UKIP MEP in the European Parliament, uses his YouTube channel to peddle anti-feminist, anti-Islam views to more than 870,000 subscribers. 

Others have no current or prior involvement in the traditional political sphere, nor do they typically share political content. However, in a major election year worldwide, figures like Andrew Tate and Tommy Robinson are capitalizing on the vote and its associated uptick in political engagement as an opportunity to share their usual extreme rhetoric, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.

Tate, for example, has made a career out of spreading misogynistic rhetoric, including assertions that women should take responsibility for rape and are lazy. A large focus of Tate's rhetoric focuses on masculinity and how the West has become softer or more feminine. He also frequently discusses immigration — tapping into key electoral issues including the so-called culture war, and echoing the rhetoric of actual political candidates.  

Tommy Robinson as a case study

Perhaps no single figure exemplifies this trend better than the British far-right influencer Tommy Robinson. Robinson, who has over 600,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter), frequently shares far-right and anti-Islamic messages. He is banned on other mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, and his YouTube account suffered heavy restrictions and a "shadow ban," which is still ongoing. 

Robinson has continued to push anti-Islamic and anti-migrant rhetoric in the run-up to the election, including turning his ire toward Labour, recently posting to X, "Vote @UKLabour to Islamise the U.K." Logically Facts debunked the AI-generated image of Keir Starmer that he shared to claim that Labour no longer represents the white English working class. 

He has also shared other AI-generated images, including one of a miserable white girl in a school wearing a Union flag jumper and non-white girls in hijabs sitting around her with the caption, "It's time to decide what future you want for your daughters." These posts echo aspects of the Great Replacement Theory, a debunked far-right conspiracy theory. Proponents of the theory allege that the increased presence of immigrants in "white" countries will result in a non-white majority population that will take control of national institutions and destroy the white population or culture. The theory has circulated in the U.K. ahead of the elections

Robinson himself has previously propagated debunked conspiracy theories, including sharing content on X suggesting that the COVID-19 vaccines are responsible for excess deaths. He also reshared a post by independent candidate Andrew Bridgen, a former conservative MP expelled from the party for comments about the vaccines. The post falsely claims that vaccines caused a significant increase in breast cancer. In his retweet, Robinson states, "Anyone who's still blind to the effects of the vaccine really needs to wake the fuck up, it's insane people are still taking it."

On June 1, 2024, Robinson held a march in London. About 6,000 people turned out to show support, the largest number attending a far-right demonstration since 2018. Beyond the physical attendance, a livestream was also available on Robinson's X account, which gained over one million views. Other attendees also made their own livestreams of the event.

Overt support for political candidates

Tommy Robinson is not the only influencer to have expressed support for political candidates participating in the upcoming U.K. election. Tristan Tate, the brother of Andrew Tate, has also been using his platforms to push support for Reform UK, including making X posts supporting Nigel Farage. Videos of him talking about his hopes for Reform UK to win the election have similarly been shared on TikTok

In a now-deleted X post, Tate stated, "Send me proof you voted @reformparty_uk on election day and I will randomly give one of you 5,000 dollars."

Screenshot 2024-07-04 at 16.24.46Tristan Tate's deleted X post. (Source: X/TateTheTalisman/Screenshot)

This could fall foul of bribery laws, and such acts during an election could be considered electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission defines electoral fraud as: "offering an incentive to someone to get them to vote, to vote a certain way, or to stop them from voting." A spokesperson from the Electoral Commission told Logically Facts, "Encouraging people to share proof of how they voted could be a breach of electoral secrecy requirements. Any allegations regarding electoral fraud or breaches of secrecy requirements are matters for the police and should be reported to the relevant local police force. The Commission does not undertake investigations into allegations of electoral offences." 

Both Tate brothers have had previous interactions with Nigel Farage. Andrew was photographed with Nigel Farage in 2019, credited by the Guardian as being from Tate's Facebook page, and Farage, in an episode of the Strike It Big podcast, stated that Tate was an "important voice" for emasculated men. The Tate brothers also did a livestream on Rumble with a partial segment on X, on July 2, in which both shared their thoughts on the U.K. election, with Andrew stating: "I'm in, let's vote Reform."

A political home 

Robinson and the Tate brothers have received supportive comments below their posts expressing overt political opinions. Robinson's posts on X about not voting Labour received comments such as: "vote labour get Sharia," "please don't if you want jihad everyday," and "ain't been labour since John Smith died." Below Tristan Tate's X posts calling on his audience to vote for Reform, hundreds of people have commented affirming they plan to do so and voicing their support for the party. Others state that they have never voted before but will now vote Reform - some even explicitly state they will vote for Reform because of Tristan. In another recent X post, Tristan asked his audience: "Drop a Union flag below if you're voting reform tomorrow." The post has 1,700 comments, with many doing as requested or expressing support for Reform.

A collage of several comments under Tristan's X posts and the Rumble video. (Source: Rumble/Screenshots/Composite by Logically Facts)

Lorentzen explained that the far-right has been "strategically gifted at reaching younger audiences" because they provide simple answers to complex questions that are easily turned into short social media clips. "What if there is no climate change crisis, your only problem is ‘immigrants?' Do you find the world confusing and the outlook bleak? ‘Revert to traditional gender roles, become a tradwife/alpha male' may be a more appealing message than the politically complex reasons we are in many of the multiple global crises we are in now," she added.

"The far right is also excellent at masking their true ideologies under a surface of reasonable concern and principles," Lorentzen continued. "Calling themselves "Islam critics" or "pro-traditional family" to mask what is, for instance, replacement theory and anti-gender ideology." This is a particularly applicable strategy in a general election campaign where social and cultural issues are already at the forefront of political discourse. 

How platforms are responding

When it comes to moderation, social media platforms are engaged in varied efforts to counteract election misinformation and handle the influence of figures like the Tate brothers and Tommy Robinson. All these figures are active on X but banned on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. However, supporters and fans still upload clips or videos of them to the platforms, and their content can still be found via a quick search, circumventing the bans. While some videos get taken down, others remain live on the platform.

Following his deplatforming, Andrew Tate moved to the alternative streaming platform Rumble in 2022, which saw a surge in active users as a result. The platform describes itself as being "anti-cancel culture." Tommy Robinson also has a channel on Rumble, where he uploads his podcast series "Silenced" and other videos to a viewership of up to 20,000.

Logically Facts contacted X for comment to learn more about how they plan to tackle election misinformation on the platform but only received an automated response. Since Elon Musk's takeover of the platform, X has been heavily criticized for its moderation of harmful and misleading content. X's Civic Integrity policy states that; "You may not use X's services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes, such as posting or sharing content that may suppress participation, mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process, or lead to offline violence during an election." However, the policy does not apply to other false or untrue information about politics or civic processes. 

Screenshot of where X's policy does not apply. (Source: X Help Center)

Despite this policy, X has reinstated previously banned accounts like Tommy Robinson and Andrew Tate, leading the European Commission to conclude disinformation is most active on X. The platform, along with YouTube, was criticized for failing to take action against disinformation ahead of the EU elections, with Facebook and Instagram performing better and YouTube the worst. X was reported to have removed a feature that helped users report misinformation about elections back in 2023.

Facebook directed Logically Facts to this newsroom post, which states that Meta has invested more than $20 billion into safety and security across its platforms and will activate an Elections Operations Centre for the U.K. They add: "We don't allow ads that contain debunked content. We also don't allow ads targeting the U.K. that discourage people from voting in the election; call into question the legitimacy of the election and its outcome; or contain premature claims of election victory." Meta states they are committed to tackling influence operations and the abuse of generative AI.

TikTok's community guidelines outline what is and isn't allowed on the platform, which includes content like pornography, graphic content, and fake engagement to protect the platform's integrity. The platform also prohibits the paid promotion of political content, including political advertising or fundraising by politicians.

A TikTok spokesperson told Logically Facts: "We protect the integrity of elections on TikTok by removing harmful misinformation about civic and electoral processes, hateful content, and other content that breaks our rules. We also reduce the reach of claims that can't be verified." 

Both TikTok and Meta also work with independent fact-checking organizations that are certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), which includes Logically Facts. These fact-checkers help monitor the platforms for misinformation or disinformation trends and write evidence-driven debunk articles to ensure accurate information is spread around the elections. Logically Facts' coverage of the U.K. election and misinformation trends surrounding it can be found on the Logically Facts website.

Similar to other platforms, YouTube has both a general misinformation policy and one specific to elections. The latter states that YouTube will prohibit content that interferes with democratic processes. A YouTube spokesperson also told Logically Facts: "We previously terminated channels associated with Andrew Tate for multiple violations of our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service." They added that the YouTube homepage surfaces election content from authoritative sources and directs users to relevant governmental voting sources. 

Despite these efforts, concerns remain around how platforms are tackling mis- and disinformation around elections. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS), which is a joint committee in Parliament, not a government body, formed to monitor the implementation of the government's national security strategy, raised concerns that social media platforms are not doing enough to combat foreign interference and misinformation, stating: "social media algorithms encourage potentially damaging echo chambers." The BBC also found that there were several inauthentic accounts posting support for Reform UK. It stated: "It is one more piece of evidence in this election that suggests individual social media users and anonymous accounts have the ability to shape the online conversation just as effectively as the content coming from the political parties themselves." However, Dr. Thomas Colley, a senior visiting research fellow at King's College London, said, "While social media is often blamed for disinformation, it actually gains greatest traction when spread by political elites and supportive mainstream media outlets."

The observable impact of these influencers on the election remains to be seen. On election day, exit polls will give us an indication of how people voted, while data released by the Electoral Commission will indicate the level of political participation from Gen Z by showing how many of that cohort registered to vote. Although the response to these influencers has been positive, especially with Tristan Tate's posts, that doesn't necessarily equate to votes — many of those expressing support may not be in the U.K., have the ability to vote, or have a Reform candidate running in their constituency to vote for. What is certain is that the involvement of these influencers has ignited political discourse in a sphere typically untouched by traditional politics — but will that politicization continue after the election?

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before