The continued presence of a U.K. far-right activist on YouTube’s platform has been raised by the deputy leader of the official opposition during ministerial questions in the House of Commons today.
Labour’s Tom Watson put questions to the secretary of state for digital, Jeremy Wright, regarding Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s use of social media for targeted harassment of journalists.
This follows an incident on Monday night when Yaxley-Lennon used social media tools to live-stream himself banging on the doors and windows of a journalist’s home in the middle of the night.
“Every major social media platform other than YouTube has taken down Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s profile because of his hateful conduct,” said Watson, before recounting how the co-founder of the Far Right English Defence League — who goes by the made-up name “Tommy Robinson” on social media — used social media live-streaming tools to harass journalist Mike Stuchbery on Monday night.
Stuchbery has since written about the incident for Independent.
As we reported on Monday, Facebook removed the live stream for violating its policies after it was reported but not before Stuchbery had received a flood of abusive messages from other Facebook users who were watching the stream online.
Yaxley-Lennon appears to have been able to circumvent Facebook’s ban on his own account to live stream his intimidation of Stuchbery via Facebook Live by using another Facebook account with a fake name (which the company appears to have since suspended).
Following the incident, Stuchbery has reported receiving physical hate mail to his home address, which Yaxley-Lennon gave out during the live stream (an intimidation tactic that’s known as doxxing). He has also said he’s received further abuse online.
“Does the secretary of state think that it is right that YouTube, and the parent company Alphabet, continues to give this man a platform?” asked Watson, after highlighting another vlog Yaxley-Lennon has since uploaded to YouTube in which he warns other journalists “to expect a knock at the door.”
Wright responded by saying that “all internet companies, all platforms for this kind of speech need to take their responsibilities seriously.”
“I hope that YouTube will consider this very carefully,” he told the House of Commons. “Consider what [Yaxley-Lennon] has said. What I have said, and reconsider their judgement.”
“We all believe in freedom of speech. But we all believe too that that freedom of speech has limits,” Wright added. “And we believe that those who seek to intimidate others, to potentially of course break the law… that is unacceptable. That is beyond the reach of the type of freedom of speech that we believe should be protected.”
We’ve reached out to YouTube for comment.
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was banned by Facebook last month for repeat violations of its policies on hate speech. Twitter banned Yaxley-Lennon a full year ago.
But he remains active on YouTube — where his channel has more than 350,000 subscribers.
The company has resisted calls to shutter his account, claiming the content Yaxley-Lennon posts to its platform is different to content he has posted elsewhere and thus he has not broken any of its rules. (Though YouTube did demonetize videos on his channel in January, saying they violated its ad policies.)
In a follow-up question, Watson raised the issue of online harassment more widely — asking whether the government would be including measures “to prevent hate figures, extremists and their followers from turning the online world into a cesspit of hate” in its forthcoming white paper on social media and safety, which it’s due to publish this winter — and thereby tackle a culture of hate and harassment online that he said is undermining democracy.
Wright said he would “consider” Watson’s suggestion, though he stressed the government must protect the ability for people to carry out robust debate online — and “to discuss issues that are sometimes uncomfortable and certainly controversial.”
But he went on to reiterate his earlier point that “no freedom of speech can survive in this country if we do not protect… people’s ability to feel free to say what they think, free of intimidation, free of the threat of violence.”
“Those who engage in intimidation or threats of violence should not find succour either online or anywhere else,” the minister added.
YouTube’s own community guidelines prohibit “harassment and cyberbullying,” so its continued silence on Yaxley-Lennon’s misuse of its tools does look inconsistent. (YouTube previously banned the InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for violating its policies, for example, and there’s more than a passing resemblance between the two “hate preachers”).
Moreover, as Watson noted in parliament, Yaxley-Lennon’s most recent video contains a direct threat to doorstep and doxx journalists who covered his harassment of Stuchbery. The video also contains verbal abuse targeted at Stuchbery. However, YouTube told us the video does not violate its policies.
In one of the live streams recorded outside Stuchbery’s home, Yaxley-Lennon can also be heard making allegations about Stuchbery’s sexual interests that the journalist has described as defamatory.
YouTube previously declined to make a statement about Yaxley-Lennon’s continued presence on its platform. It has not responded to our repeated requests for follow-up comment about the issue since Monday.
We’ll update this post if it does provide a statement following the government’s call to rethink its position on giving Yaxley-Lennon a platform.
This post was updated with information from YouTube regarding Yaxley-Lennon’s latest video.