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Study: White Supremacists Use Twitter with ‘Relative Impunity’

A white supremacist member of the Aryan Guard in Calgary, Alberta. (Photo: Robert Thivierge/Flickr Creative Commons)

A white supremacist member of the Aryan Guard in Calgary, Alberta. (Photo: Robert Thivierge/Flickr Creative Commons)

White nationalists, Nazis and other racists are using Twitter to spread their hateful messages with “relative impunity,” according to a newly-released study.

Reuters reports the study, conducted by the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, in Washington, DC, found that white nationalists and other racists often have far more Twitter followers than the Islamist extremists who receive so much media attention in the United States. The study’s researchers examined 18 prominent white nationalist accounts, including the American Nazi Party, and found the number of users following those accounts rose from about 3,500 in 2012 to more than 25,000 today.

Meanwhile, a crackdown on accounts deemed supportive of Islamist extremism — especially those related to Islamic State — has resulted in declining online influence for such groups, according to study author J.M. Berger. “White nationalists and Nazis outperformed ISIS in average friend and follower counts by a substantial margin,” the new report said. “Nazis had a median follower count almost eight times greater than ISIS supporters, and a mean count more than 22 times greater.”

“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. “The clear advantage enjoyed by white nationalists was attributable in part to the effects of aggressive suspensions of accounts associated with ISIS networks. 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.”

While the crackdown on Islamist extremism resulted in the suspension of some 360,000 Twitter accounts for promoting terrorism, Berger noted that “white nationalists and Nazis operate with relative impunity.” When asked about the new study, Twitter referred Reuters to its terms of service, which prohibit promotion of terrorism, threats of violence or abuse and “hateful conduct,” including threatening or attacking users for their race or ethnicity.

The issue of racism on Twitter and other social media sites gained renewed attention recently after actress and comedian Leslie Jones briefly left Twitter in the face of racist messages. “I feel like I’m in a personal hell,” Jones said in July. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s just too much. It shouldn’t be like this. So hurt right now.”

“Our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others,” Twitter said in response to Jones’ departure. “Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.”

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