New study shows Twitter white supremacists relatively unchecked

The study by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism comes in the midst of a Twitter crackdown on accounts of Islamic militant groups such as ISIS.

Richard Drew/AP/File
This Friday, Oct. 18, 2013 file photo, shows a Twitter app on an iPhone screen in New York.

Sometimes it seems that hate speech is just a part of life on the internet. With so much media available online, there are countless sites devoted to all sorts of niche bigotry and racism.

Twitter users don't have to look far to find online hate.

A new study from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism shows that white nationalists and Nazi sympathizers on Twitter have been allowed to run basically unchecked on the popular social media site, and their Twitter following is growing. While Twitter has taken a hardline approach to Islamic extremism, the company has done less to restrict the flow of white nationalist propaganda on the site, the researchers found.

According to the study, 18 prominent white nationalist accounts have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. In 2012, the accounts were able to pool together about 3,500 followers. Today that number stands at over 25,000.

Twitter has done very little to check the tide of white supremacy on Twitter, according to Reuters. The website does have the ability to suspend accounts for violent extremist groups, but has largely focused its efforts on Islamic terrorist organizations, especially the self-described Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The website has suspended more than 360,000 accounts that show signs of sympathy with Islamic extremism since 2015.

"There is no one 'magic algorithm' for identifying terrorist content on the Internet," the website said in an update on the site's anti-terrorism efforts. "But we continue to utilize other forms of technology, like proprietary spam-fighting tools, to supplement reports from our users and help identify repeat account abuse."

The massive effort being undertaken in combating Twitter accounts associated with the Islamic State is in sharp contrast with the blind eye turned towards white extremist groups, however.

“White nationalists and Nazis outperformed ISIS in average friend and follower counts by a substantial margin," the George Washington University report said. "Nazis had a median follower count almost eight times greater than ISIS supporters, and a mean count more than 22 times greater.”

While this group of extremists outnumbers the Islamic State on Twitter considerably, "white nationalists and Nazis operate with relative impunity."

According to the study, many of the accounts examined showed support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Trump's Twitter page drew criticism in July for retweeting an image of Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton with a Star of David that was linked back to white supremacist forums, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.

White supremacist groups have made a major shift online in recent years. The Monitor recently reported on the so-called White Lives Matter movement, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group, that has gained considerable traction online. Traditional hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan can be pursued through traditional legal action by holding the whole group responsible for the criminal actions of only a few of its members. By operating online, white supremacist groups like White Lives Matter are much more difficult to define as a cohesive group, making it harder to fight such organizations through litigation.

It is also more difficult to go after white supremacists on Twitter for other reasons. Since many white supremacist groups are based in the United States, there are difficult free speech considerations to take into account when dealing with such nebulously defined groups, which are also not always as clearly connected to real-world violence as is ISIS hate speech.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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