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The Deplatforming Debate: What We Can Learn from Research on ISIS and the Alt Right

Following the decision of multiple social media platforms to remove or restrict Donald Trump’s accounts, the debate over the efficacy and ethics of deplatforming debate is renewed. As we consider current headlines, it is worthwhile to review the earlier work on the subject of how to deal with violent extremism on social media during the emergence of ISIS. What we have learned over the last six years might be useful today.

  • One of the earliest studies that discussed the impact of suspensions of ISIS accounts was The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter, by Jonathon Morgan and J.M. Berger. They found that suspensions did have an impact on replies and retweets and overall dissemination. After suspensions, the die-hard supporters dedicated themselves to creating new accounts, but others winnowed away. Berger and Morgan observed that “it appears the pace of account creation has lagged behind the pace of suspensions.”
  • A piece I return to often is by Brian Fishman, who works on counterrorism and dangerous organizations at Facebook: Crossroads: Counter-terrorism and the Internet. Fishman offers this mic-drop paragraph, which I try to remember in my own work:
  • Elizabeth Pearson, a Lecturer at Swansea University affiliated with CYTREC, published Online as the New Frontline: Affect, Gender, and ISIS-Take-Down on Social Media, in 2016. She argued “for a reconsideration of how we assess the impact of suspension or take-down methods on other sites, recommending a shift toward the recognition of the power of affect, emotion, and online community, as well as quantifiable influence, such as numbers of followers and network” in order to understand the effects on the people in the networks. 
  • For individuals who receive an enormous amount of meaning and purpose from being a movement leader in the online space, having that disappear overnight could have unpredictable impact. One such case I’ve written about before- the case of Aaron Driver, a young Canadian who joined a loose network of ISIL supporters from around the world and found great meaning in his role in that network. 

Many of the conclusions from the research listed above are relevant to understanding the far-right. Extremists get an immense amount of social and psychological benefit from being connected to like-minded people. Disrupting these networks is ultimately a good thing, but we need to think about how it impacts these individuals and how they may respond. Unintended consequences are indeed consequences.