Skip to navigationSkip to content

While Twitter chases ISIL accounts away, homegrown extremists are thriving on the platform

A more complex issue.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Twitter has earned a reputation for being a recruiting ground for the Islamic State, but the terror group only represents a fraction of the site’s extremist landscape.

White nationalists and self-identified Nazi supporters—who’ve been around much longer than ISIL—have grown their follower count more than six-fold over the last four years, according to a new study published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. With ISIL’s social media tactics gaining traction in 2014, other groups have mimicked its propaganda techniques to further their reach. Currently, the white extremist accounts post tweets more often than their ISIL counterparts.

The researchers first identified the most prominent white nationalist organizations and leaders, who had a strong offline presence too. Then, they downloaded accounts following these influencers—over 25,000 of them—and scraped the 200 most recent tweets from them. In 2012, the same technique had yielded only 3,500 accounts. (These assessments do not include all white nationalist and pro-Nazi accounts but are representative of them.) Over the last two years, ISIL’s online presence declined as criticism drove Twitter to crack down on them, but their social media tactics live on as examples for other hate groups. ”There is some reason to suspect they have learned from ISIS but social media also offers structural advantages for extremists,” author J.M. Berger told Quartz in an email, citing anonymity, reach, and the speed of contagion on platforms like Twitter.

The overwhelming majority of the accounts originate from the US and the upcoming elections is adding fuel to the fire. Donald Trump is a hot topic among these accounts—three out of the top 10 hashtags pertain to the Republican nominee. “The increase in white nationalist activity online is not solely attributable to Trump, but he has definitely energized them, and they talk about him obsessively,” Berger said.

Both the white nationalist movement and ISIL used similarly fashioned “organized social media activism” to boost user interest, according to the research. However, containing the influence of ISIL leaders and white nationalist parties are completely different efforts. Berger calls ISIS “the easy problem,” describing the terror organization’s clear policy violations in a post on his website:

The hyperactivity and hyperviolence of the Islamic State’s social media is prone to break most social media platforms’ terms of service, the rules that users agree to when they sign up. The Islamic State is also a discrete organization, an entity with a geographic locus. And it is the ultimate outsider, so incredibly marginalized that virtually no one will advocate on its behalf as its social media accounts are suspended – not even al Qaeda.

By contrast, white nationalists are embedded in mainstream politics and are increasing in numbers. From 2014 to 2015, there was a  14% rise in the number of hate groups, according to Southern Poverty Law Center. As growing offline presence pours onto online platforms, social media companies have to reconsider where to draw the lines in terms of suspending people. The microblogging site cannot take as aggressive a stance against these groups as they do with terrorism because they often don’t violate regulations against abuse. And so these accounts continue to operate with “relative impunity,” the report describes.

Over the last year, Twitter has ramped up efforts to make itself a more welcoming platform: It shut down 360,000 ISIL-related accounts and wiped clean those celebrating the attack on Nice. However, targeting one terror group with precision has done little to solve a more widespread hate problem—especially in cases where hate does not have a clear-cut definition like terrorism does.

Discussions on “white genocide,” the notion that the “white race” is directly endangered by the increasing diversity of society, may border on bigotry and racism, but don’t always pose a threat or incite harm. (That’s not to say that Twitter can’t do a better job of weeding out those who do break the rules).

Many extremist groups—black nationalist, antigovernment, sovereign citizens, anarchists, non-ISIS jihadists, non-Muslim religious extremists, and countless others—pose the same challenges not just on Twitter, but across various social media platforms. Berger explains why clamping down on them is complicated: ”There is no one who will make the case for ISIS, but there are people who will make the case for various gradations of racist activity.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.