In August, Twitter proudly announced that it had suspended 235,000 accounts connected to the “promotion of violence or terrorism on our platform.” The company’s blog post focused on accounts of the Islamic extremist variety—it mentions ISIS and partnerships with the organizations Parle-moi d’Islam, Imams Online, and True Islam, and includes an Arabic translation.
But according to a new report from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, while Twitter might be making strides in its crackdown of Islamic extremist supporters, it’s lagging behind with another faction: white nationalists and Nazis.
“White nationalists and Nazis operate with relative impunity,” wrote study author J.M. Berger.
Since 2012, the follower count for major white nationalist movement accounts has increased by roughly 22,000—a spike of about 600 percent. The American Nazi Party’s Twitter account saw its follower count rise by more than 400 percent in the same time period.
“The increase was driven in part by organized social media activism, organic growth in the adoption of social media by people interested in white nationalism,” Berger wrote, who co-authored the book “ISIS: The State of Terror.” (He also noted that some of it was due to trolls.)
But the study also says that Twitter’s efforts to curb ISIS supporters is connected to the rise of white nationalist accounts.
“The clear advantage enjoyed by white nationalists was attributable in part to the effects of aggressive suspensions of accounts associated with ISIS networks,” Berger reported. “While the extreme violence of ISIS has understandably elevated concerns about the threat the organization presents, other extremist groups are able to watch its success and learn from its tactics, both on social media and offline.”
As a result, “white nationalists and Nazis outperformed ISIS in average friend and follower counts by a substantial margin.” And even after Twitter implemented extra tools to report abuse, “no more than 288 [white nationalist] accounts of the 4,000 examined were suspended between the time of the initial collection in April and August 23, 2016.”
In August, after Twitter instituted additional procedures for reporting abuse, the white nationalist demographics dataset was checked for an updated suspension figure. No more than 288 accounts of the 4,000 examined were suspended between the time of the initial collection in April and August 23, 2016.
All of this begs the question: Given how much it’s gone after ISIS sympathizers, why isn’t Twitter doing more to curb the rise of white nationalist groups? Its policies prohibit the promotion of violence or terrorism, but a short visit to white nationalist Twitterland very quickly shows that it’s full of Adolf Hitler supporters and calls to “secure the white race.” And as Berger points out, online behavior (though not necessarily on Twitter) can move offline—Dylann Roof, who massacred nine black churchgoers in 2015, posted his manifesto online for the world to see.
“There is a distinct problem with threats of violence and harassment from white nationalists online, and so far, Twitter has been slow to deal with it,” Berger told Gizmodo in an email.
“Some of these accounts clearly violate the terms of service regarding violence, others live in a gray area, and some, while offensive, clearly don’t violate the terms,” he added, noting that these gray areas make Twitter’s job arguably more difficult. ISIS, he explains, has a “hyperviolent” social media presence—one that easily trips up many platforms’ terms of service. White nationalists behavior, however, isn’t always as clearly labeled, which leaves more room for Twitter to simply shrug its shoulders.
The company wouldn’t comment directly on the report’s findings, and instead pointed us to its policy on hateful conduct.