Twitter bars alt-right accounts: Will it quash or spark the movement?

The social media company suspended the accounts of several high-profile alt-righters on Tuesday, leading some to question the future of the largely online movement.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
The Twitter logo is displayed on a screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City on Sept. 28, 2016.

Twitter suspended the accounts of several high-profile leaders of the so-called alternative right on Tuesday, raising new questions about the largely online movement's potential for influencing national debate.

White nationalist Richard Spencer, his National Policy Institute think tank, his online magazine Radix, his publishing company Washington Summit Publishers, former Business Insider chief technology officer Pax Dickinson, and alt-right voices Ricky Vaughn and Paul Town were among the accounts suspended, USA Today reports. The suspensions were unexplained, but came the same week that the social media platform unveiled new tools for curbing hate speech.

Mr. Spencer, who coined the term "alt-right," described the suspensions as "corporate Stalinism," telling The Daily Caller News Foundation that "Twitter is trying to airbrush the Alt Right out of existence. They're clearly afraid. They will fail!" 

The history of the alt-right, a movement rooted in white nationalism that can be found primarily in online communities, suggests that Twitter and other social media platforms are a vital tool for the movement's growth and success, as they are largely responsible for its recent propulsion into the national spotlight.

But while the suspensions may damage the movement by limiting its ability to spread its ideology, the move could also make the alt-right stronger, by feeding into its narrative of liberal censorship and the death of free speech, says Eric Gander, an associate professor of public argument at the City University of New York's Baruch College.

"It will clearly have an impact in the sense that they will not be able to as easily get their message out," Professor Gander tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. At the same time, however, "it plays into the hands of their own narrative, which is that these individuals who are liberal are really not committed to liberal values, they're committed to censorship."

"If anything," he adds, "it could help the alt-right's argument."

Political scientists credit social media with providing the alt-right with a space where strangers across the country with similar white nationalist views could connect and find validation for their radical ideology. 

"If you go through American history, we've had dark forces before, but they tended to be more atomized," said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism," in a recent interview with the Monitor. "Social media gave [the alt-right movement] a community that gave them a little more legitimacy. And instead of sort of being in the shadows, because they understood that most people didn't believe what they believed.... Now they have level of legitimacy that they never would have dreamed of having before."

Twitter, which does not require users to use their real name or photo, and allows any user to tag any other user in a tweet, is a particularly useful tool for those who wish to spread racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic messages to a wider audience, including individuals who do not share the same ideology. "It's like being able to shout obscenities at a ballplayer at the stadium where only he and your friends hear you," Drew Margolin, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, told the Monitor last month.

Experts say this unique ability afforded by social media has helped the alt-right attract the attention of high-profile journalists, celebrities, and politicians, bringing the movement out from its own corners of the internet and into mainstream discourse. 

Now, in the wake of the suspensions, some alt-righters have suggested migrating over to Gab, a months-old social media platform that promises "free speech for everyone" and minimal censorship. Yet others worry that relocating could cause the movement to lose some of its influence.

"Gab just seems like a pointless echo chamber, there are enough alt-right blogs and forums," wrote one user on the alt-right's Reddit page. "The benefits of twitter are interacting with normies [non-alt-righters], influencing discussion and getting altright memes trending." 

But while a mass exodus of alt-righters from Twitter – resulting in fewer interactions with those who don't share the ideology – may be welcomed by users who don't support the movement, communications experts warn that banning those who espouse alternative right messages may be just as dangerous, if not more so, than allowing them a voice in the conversation. 

"There's always this danger ... that you don't want to necessarily drive these hateful voices underground, because it's harder to know who they are and harder to actually engage with people who might be on the fringe of thinking they might want to join," Gander says. "So there's a theory that keeping them within the discourse, but also answering what they say, is actually better than driving them underground."

Those in favor of the suspensions, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, applauded Twitter's decision on the grounds that the accounts violated the platform's policies against online abuse and harassment.

Still, scholars say, it takes more than suspending social media accounts to stop a movement. 

"Not knowing about negative behavior online doesn't make that behavior any better," said Nicole Ellison, a professor of information at the University of Michigan, to Wired. "It doesn't solve the problem in an enduring way." 

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