Op-Ed: De-platforming works, but it won’t cure extremism

There is a chronic infection of

Op-Ed: De-platforming works, but it won’t cure extremism

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There is a chronic infection of extremism in the U.S., but “de-platforming” isn’t a miracle tonic

The ‘free speech’ social media platform, Parler, a hit with Trump supporters and an alternative to Twitter, stops working after losing support from Amazon, Apple and Google. (Source: Reuters / Thiago Prudêncio / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

Renewed efforts to reign in online disinformation and extremism after the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol have prompted impassioned supporters of former President Donald Trump to ditch major social media giants in favor of smaller platforms offering scant, if any, content moderation. It presents new and novel challenges in the fight against extremism online.

In the immediate sense, de-platforming irrefutably works. It is often an effective tool that social media and tech companies can use to reduce the reach of extremist movements and hinder their ability to organize violent and hateful activities on a large scale. Recent acts of de-platforming weakened the loose coalition of Trump supporters and extremists held together by viral disinformation and falsehoods about the integrity of the 2020 election. It significantly reduced the volume of election disinformation on Twitter and frazzled extremists who may have otherwise organized around President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Dozens of alternative tech platforms have waited ready for years to welcome de-platformed individuals and movements, betting that larger sites’ moderation against inflammatory content and disinformation was only a matter of time. Most are built with features that closely resemble the larger platforms that they anticipate will take de-platforming actions. Since the latest wave of bans, I have followed droves of digital nomads as they test-drive these obscure sites and debate among themselves whether they would be suitable new homes.

Although many far-right communities are now scattered, they will eventually settle on their next gathering spot. Parler was that destination until Amazon Web Services cut it off from its cloud hosting services after the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Although currently unclear whether Parler will ever return, a central site will inevitably fill its former place. And during this game of platform musical chairs, some smaller extremist groups may choose to hide out of public view for the indefinite future.

On many of these platforms, hardcore extremists have the home-field advantage. White supremacists and conspiracy theorists were among the first users to embrace so-called “alt-tech,” meaning that they are among the most fluent and established users in those communities. Some platforms, like Gab, have even appealed to those movements directly. Now hundreds of thousands of users, perhaps unknowingly, are joining platforms pre-seeded with forces that will seek to radicalize them further.

Already, white supremacists have targeted despondent and de-platformed QAnon believers struggling to rationalize why the outlandish prophecies of their movement have failed. A channel on Telegram styled to attract former Parler users has taken on increasingly radical tones. One of the largest Proud Boys affiliated Telegram groups has begun advocating for the neo-fascist Third Position political philosophy, explicitly urging coalition building with antisemites and white supremacists.

Most major social media companies’ de-platforming actions have been reactive to national tragedy and negative media attention, and those actions should not be mistaken for change. Platforms have failed to act proactively and comprehensively against the disinformation and extremism they have enabled, and the consequences of that failure are likely to follow the country for decades.

At this point, the time for prevention has passed. Tackling issues before they achieve viral spread will remain vital, but we will also need to contemplate a pathway to recovery, even if partial. Any real fix will require a multifaceted approach, combining transparent tech platform action, thoughtful policy changes, and accountability against malicious actors. Disinformation and extremism have inflicted a sickness in the United States that de-platforming alone simply will not heal and that no one approach can cure.

Jared Holt is Visiting Research Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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