The deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson, has demanded that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg never again allows far-right activists to fundraise on the network, criticising him for having a “contempt for social responsibility”.
A Guardian investigation on Friday found that a hidden global network of US thinktanks, rightwing Australians and Russian trolls were providing financial, political and moral support to Tommy Robinson, who has more than 1 million followers on Facebook – his main social network after Twitter suspended him for claiming “Islam promotes killing people” in March.
Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, raised hundreds of thousands of pounds through online donations, some via the social network, until the Guardian alerted Facebook. It promptly disabled the function, which was meant to be reserved for charities alone. However, supporters visiting Robinson’s Facebook profile continued to be directed towards his website where they could make donations through a form.
The far-right activist has told supporters that he planned to use the money to sue the British government over his time in prison and to hire three journalists to launch a “European InfoWars”, the US site whose founder Alex Jones has been banned by Facebook, YouTube, Apple and most other major content networks.
Facebook has suffered sustained criticism over its handling of a series of crises in recent years including interference during the US presidential election and the Brexit vote, allowing dissemination of hate speech and a data breach affecting millions of users.
The company faces little regulation, but with trust in social media companies weakening, calls have been growing for Facebook to be regulated in the same way as the mobile phone and broadband industry.
Watson, who also holds the shadow culture, media and sport brief, said that Facebook did not respect democratic accountability and called upon Zuckerberg – who has so far avoided giving testimony to the parliamentary “fake news” committee – to go further than withdrawing Robinson’s “access to the donate tool”.
“Facebook’s contempt for democratic accountability is once again to the fore,” he said in a blogpost. “Single-handedly its founder Mark Zuckerberg is – through his contempt for social responsibility – making the strongest case for an independent and powerful social media regulator.
He added: “Facebook has now withdrawn Yaxley-Lennon’s access to the donate tool. But Zuckerberg needs to go much further. Today I call on him to give a full explanation of how this dire breach of Facebook regulation occurred, pledge that it will never happen again, and, as an apology, make a match-fund donation to Hope Not Hate.”
Matthew McGregor, Hope Not Hate’s campaigns director, said that Facebook should be ashamed that it had enabled Robinson’s efforts to “divide communities and stoke up hate”.
He said: “Facebook has continually failed to deal with the fact that their platform is vulnerable to exploitation by extremists, until after it is too late. Warm words after the damage is done don’t help reverse the damage caused.”
Watson’s remarks come after the Guardian and De Smog revealed thatSpiked, a rightwing magazine that has repeatedly defended far-right figures and taken anti-environment standpoints, is funded by the Koch brothers, the oil tycoon Republican party donors. On Friday it published an editorial headlined: “If Tommy Robinson is a monster, the left is his Dr Frankenstein”.
Robinson, as well as donations taken on Facebook and a number of crowdfunding sites, has received funding from other channels. These include a Philadelphia-based thinktank, the Middle East Forum (MEF); a US tech billionaire, Robert Shillman, who helped finance Robinson’s salary at the rightwing Canadian media website Rebel Media; and a small Australian rightwing group, Australian Liberty Alliance.
“Dark money, as we have seen through the Trump election and the EU referendum, poses a grave threat to democracies all over the world,” Watson said. “Today we learn of a global web of alt-right pressure groups, thinktanks, Putin-controlled Russian trolls, and a US tech billionaire using their wealth and influence to propagate a cult movement around one particularly hideous goon in our country.”
Watson said that Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League and a recently appointed Ukip adviser, was “a vile anti-Islamist” and the “chosen puppet of this global fascist movement”.
However, he said that Robinson was being sent money from around the world “in broad daylight”. “It’s not just the dark money that is funding Yaxley-Lennon,” he said. “Today’s Guardian investigation reveals that he has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds around the world, in broad daylight, through the Facebook donate button – a tool solely designed for charity.”
A Facebook spokesperson said: “We have removed the “Donate Now” button from this page. This function is only available for pages that list themselves as a “charitable organisation” and allows them to link to an external webpage of their choice. As this page is for a person we have now removed this.”