White supremacists on Twitter in the U.S. have larger followings than militant Islamists, according to a new report by a researcher.
The study, which was released this month, is one of 11 papers to come out of the Program on Extremism about extremist groups and social media. J.M. Berger, a fellow in the program and author of the study, said that there has been a focus in research about how ISIS uses social media, but other extremist groups that are continuing to gain attention through social media have gone largely ignored.
Twitter has been suspending ISIS accounts since 2014, but the study found that white nationalist accounts are outperforming ISIS accounts on Twitter by using similar tactics, Berger said.
“All the tools ISIS uses are available to other extremist groups,” Berger said. “And some of these other extremist groups, including white nationalists, are much more deeply embedded in the societies where they reside.”
The number of white nationalist movements on Twitter added about 22,000 followers since 2012, which is an increase of about 600 percent, according to the report. The increase was driven by organized social media activism and the rise of organized trolling communities.
Berger said that white nationalists’ accounts are increasingly active and can be harder for Twitter moderators to deal with because the accounts are integrated into American society, as compared to ISIS account.
“It will be much more politically controversial to suspend accounts of other extremists when those extremists are much more part of society,” he said. “What we have seen is that there is a massive online community now that is very engaged with white nationalism and saw some glimpse of that in this study.”
Berger said that he researched extremism for more than 10 years and started studying social media for a 2012 paper he wrote about white nationalism.
The study he published this month was similar to the one he helped on four years ago that analyzed the growth of white nationalist groups on the internet, Berger said. He started working on this paper at the beginning of this year and collected the data in April.
Berger added that he developed an application with other researchers that helps him to pull data about a set of known white nationalist Twitter users. For this research, he selected the same group of accounts that he did in 2012 for comparison.
“They were selected because they represented significant offline centers in white nationalism,” Berger said. “We saw about 600 percent growth of followers of the seed accounts from 2012 and that’s really only a fraction of online presence of white nationalists.”
Hashtags related to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, like #makeamericagreatagain and #trump2016, were “extremely prominent” among the nationalist users’ social media content, Berger said.
“Trump has energized a lot of these movements,” Berger said. “Trump and the Brexit have created a space where white nationalists or other anti-social, anti-immigrant, religious based groups have bigger platforms and topics to talk about online.”
The study was funded by the Program on Extremism, which started last year and resides in the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism, said in an email that the program commissioned Berger’s study because it provided a unique perspective on how different extremist ideologies’ subscribers are using social media.
“We commission papers on topics that we believe will help advance the public and policymakers understanding of complex issues,” Hughes said.
Hughes added that researchers in the program continue to monitor both the criminal cases of individuals arrested for terrorism charges and also ISIS’s use of social media to recruit. Since the program launched in June 2015, they have added more researchers and fellows on a diverse range of issues, he said.
“I would expect for the number of publications to increase, but we’re much more concerned with quality research than mere production numbers,” Hughes said.