Expelling extremists from social networks is effective, but it has a risk: radicalization

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Among the many lessons left storming the US Capitol, in January 2021, after the elections that evicted Donald Trump from the White House, perhaps one of the most valuable is the enormous power of social networks. Especially when extremism lay hands on them with the purpose of growing, amplifying their voice and articulating themselves. That teaching, broadcast live to the whole world, was followed by the resolution of the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube platforms to veto radical accounts, like QAnonand even Trump saw his get suspended.

Due to its context and above all who it reached, the measure was considered almost as a message to sailors and an attempt to save one’s own image; But she wasn’t entirely new to the industry. In 2020, for example, Reddit had already shut down the r/the_Donald subreddit, fueled by supporters of the former Republican president, for its anti-Semitic and misogynistic content and hate speech. The big question is: Is this kind of expulsion really useful? Do they cut the problem?

Well, with almost everything in politics and sociology: it depends.

The answer, go ahead, is anything but simple. One month ago Recode asked the same question and its conclusion, in general terms, is that the presence and influence of extremist groups has been limited, which does not mean that they have disappeared from the scene. Plain and simple, they have dispersed, migrated to alternative, smaller platforms, such as Telegram or parler or Gab —the latter with a much more limited nature—, in which they find less rigid rules and in which they seek less data monitoring.

A well calibrated phenomenon

The phenomenon It has also been analyzed by the Atlantic Councilwhich has detected the transfer of the paramilitary group Oath Keepers to MeWe, with a much less strict focus on content moderation. Outstanding voices are also that of the leader of the Proud Boysfar-right organization, or the founder of Stop the steal, conspiracy movement. Some migrated after the Capitol events; others already had a presence and ended up fully landing after their expulsion from conventional platforms. Perhaps the best example of this change, however, is the Truth Social network, created by Trump himself after he left Twitter.

Carles Tamayo, the twentysomething who dismantles scams and sects on YouTube and has even infiltrated El Palmar de Troya

Does that mean that since the beginning of 2020 the big platforms have managed to sweep away the extremism and radical and conspiracy discourses linked to the assault on the Capitol? Despite the vetoes, remember remember that there are still samples, especially in groups and private accounts. The best example, he details, is that a couple of months ago Tech Transparency Project warned that the Facebook algorithm continued to promote content from the Three Percenters paramilitary collective. The Department of Justice itself has filed charges against some of its members.

“The new findings underscore how Facebook, now under the Meta parent company, remains a powerful vector for domestic extremism, even after the attack on Capitol Hill that sought to overturn the 2020 election —censored early 2022 Tech Transparency Project—. For militia groups, Facebook remains the an incomparable platform to spread their anti-government message, communicate with members and reach new recruits.

Since rethinking its policy, in 2020, Facebook would have given its approval to 75,500 suspensions, between profiles and groups related to militarized groups. In the case of Twitter, in January 2021, the network reported the deletion 70,000 accounts associated with QAnon.

The vicious circle of extremism: the more you talk to people who think like you, the more you become radicalized

Regardless of how complicated control may be, stay out of the big networks has a key impact. Although the speeches continue to sound on Parler, Gab or other “niche” networks, in terms of visibility your reach is not comparable to the one offered by Facebook, with 2.91 billion users or YouTube, with 2,562. Reaching fewer people makes it more difficult for them to spread their message, attract new members and get their content on the agenda.

“Yes, they still operate on alternative platforms… but in the first layer of evaluation that we might do, it’s the main platforms that matter the most,” explains to Recode Rebekah Tromble, director of the George Washington University Institute for Data and Policy.

They lose their ‘power of amplification’. This shows that YouTube’s added value for content creators lies not only in its infrastructure, but rather in its 2 billion monthly active users,” agree Adrian Rauchfleisch and Jonas Kaiser in an analysis in which they study the phenomenonand in which they conclude: in practice, keeping extremists away from the platforms is equivalent to condemning them “to the margins”.

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another study published by the Association for Computing Machinery reflects that the phenomenon is well appreciated in the case of influencers, voices that reduce their reach when they are removed from the main social “boxes”. Alex Jonesfor example, a well-known far-right broadcaster, saw in 2018 how Twitter suspended his account after considering that some of his tweets were against the network’s policy. Something similar happened to the debater Milo Yiannopoulos already Owen Benjamin. The analysis published by ACM concludes that during the six months following each of those bans, their references on the platforms that expelled them had plummeted 92%.

And not only that. After the expulsions, the followers of each of the influencers seemed to soften their speeches, with less “toxic” tweets and a lesser reflection of their ideologies. Another analysis of 2020 conducted on Reddit with Trump supporters and the “incels” community came to a similar and just as interesting conclusion: the subreddit was deleted, the forum deflated, with fewer users and posts on the new platforms they moved to.

Trump created a pro-free speech social network.  It hasn't even been a week and it's already censoring

Consequence? Loss of strength and ability to influence the debate. According the data collected by Zignal Labs for Recode, after major networks banned most QAnon groups, mentions related to keywords associated with the movement dropped. Specifically, they fell by 30% on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit in 2021. The trend may be related to the passage of time itself, but the decline is considerable: citations to “Q Army”, for example, fell by 66% . That does not mean that both users and the media are still talking about QAnon in general, even more frequently than at the beginning of 2020.

Is it all positive? Not quite. It can be lost in volume, in impact capacity, but not in radicalism. In other words: although the voices sound less forceful, sometimes they may sound more aggressive. That is at least the idea that the studies leave on the table, which conclude that when they are expelled from the big networks and go to smaller forums, the speeches risk being polarized. Analysis of r/The_Donald and r/Incels on Reddit slips the idea.

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“The moderation measures significantly reduced posting activity on the new platform, reducing the number of posts, active users, and newcomers. Despite that, users in one of the communities studied (r/The_Donald) showed increases in signs associated with toxicity and radicalization”, they point out, by way of warning.

The doubt remains bouncing and requires, the authors acknowledge, a deeper analysis. “More research is needed in this field, both to understand how other political communities are affected, how alternative platforms are able to buffer displacement, and ultimately whether or not it contributes to more extreme discourse.” ditch.

Image | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Among the many lessons left storming the US Capitol, in January 2021, after the elections that evicted Donald Trump from…

Among the many lessons left storming the US Capitol, in January 2021, after the elections that evicted Donald Trump from…

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