In the wake of the mob violence at the US Capitol last week, Amarnath Amarasingam published a 17-part Twitter thread addressing the deplatforming debate, especially “some of the earlier work that was done in this area back when ISIS was buck wild on social media,” that at time of writing had racked-up over 25,000+ interactions. Included in the thread, which has since usefully been transformed into a blog post, was a February 2020 RUSI Journal article of mine addressing the challenges for social media of routing the extreme right.
This post synopsises and updates that article, the original impetus for which was to answer a question I’ve been queried about repeatedly over the last couple of years: Why, if major social media platforms could successfully rout ISIS, can’t they do the same with the extreme right? Plainly, some considerable extreme right deplatforming activity is ongoing by a host of major—and some minor—internet companies, but with the intensity and duration of this as yet unknown and the following factors therefore worth continuing to bear in mind.
The core point I want to make is that while there are definitely lessons to be learned about deplatforming of the extreme right from experiences around and research on ISIS’s deplatforming, there are also some important distinguishing features between not just the extreme right and ISIS, but the particular norms applying to each and the contexts in which their deplatforming was/is taking place.
First, it’s not really legitimate to compare the extreme right to ISIS. Why? Because the former is a fast-changing ‘scene’ or—being very generous—an ideology rather than a group and, while individuals involved in that—especially online—scene have carried out terrorist attacks, very few groups have official terrorism designations as relatively few attackers could be confirmed as members or even supporters of formal groups. On the other hand, ISIS’s terrorist violence in conjunction with its ‘groupness’ meant it could be subject to formal government designation as a terrorist group by countries worldwide. And these kinds of formal designations by democratic governments make it much easier for social media companies to act against terrorist groups’ members’ and supporters’ activity on their platforms.
While it’s true, on the other hand, that ISIS has been heavily de-platformed by major social media companies, this is less true for violent jihadism more generally. Demands to disrupt the extreme right are much more akin to the latter than the former, however, and so are likely to have similarly uneven results.
Another complicating factor is that ISIS just didn’t and doesn’t have the kind of support the extreme right has today. Numerous heads of state, political parties, major media outlets, and large voter constituencies globally are supportive of the extreme right. This shift in norms and values towards the right leaves social media companies open to charges of bias from conservatives when they de-platform extreme right users or even just delete specific extreme right content. This is almost exactly the opposite of what occurred in respect of the same companies’ dealings with ISIS, when those same powerful actors pressured them to take decisive action to remove ISIS content from their platforms.
These charges of censorship of the right bring social media companies, most of the largest of which are American, into conflict with the spirit, if not the letter of the US First Amendment. The US Supreme Court ruled, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which overturned the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member, that the US government may not ban “the mere abstract teaching … of the moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force and violence.” The decision in Brandenburg established that to be punishable, inflammatory speech must be likely to incite “imminent lawless action, which is at least one of the reasons why much of the recent deplatforming, including of US President Trump’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, is predicated on incitement of imminent violence.
Yet another important factor is that ISIS, having been banished from most major platforms, did not have many other high-profile, high-traffic sites to rely on. An exception is the Dubai-based Telegram messaging application, where ISIS and their supporters are still active, the extreme right has also been utilising for some time, and to which additional millions of extreme right users have appeared to migrate in recent days.
For First Amendment and other reasons, however, Telegram—which has engaged in disruption of ISIS and has recently stepped-up moderation of extreme right content too—is not extreme-right users’ only-available online destination, having been deplatformed by ‘big tech.’ Extreme right users are much better placed than ISIS supporters to a.) get assistance from fellow travellers or unscrupulous providers within the online economy and/or b.) establish and maintain their own social media platforms. This is particularly true of extreme-right activists in the US, who can invoke strong First Amendment protections.
Finally, financial motives also play a role. Due to their terrorism designation, the tight control of their media ‘product,’ and other reasons, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made from ISIS’s online activity. In contrast, Internet companies—both mainstream and fringe—and extreme right influencers have been profiting hugely from the online extreme right, which is heavily monetised. While recent events may have caused some—even many?—of these to reconsider the association of their brands with violence activity, others will continue to profit.
To end, CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh published an analysis piece on 12 January 2021, enquiring ‘Will deplatforming make Trump & the far-right vanish, move—or radicalize further?’ to which I contributed comments. The above factors, separately and together, have very much affected social media companies’ attitudes to deplatforming the extreme right versus their response to ISIS. And are likely—together with others—to continue to affect our answers to the latter question going forward.
Maura Conway is Moriarty Professor of Government and International Studies in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University; Visiting Professor of Cyber Threats at CYTREC, Swansea University; and Coordinator of VOX-Pol. Follow her on Twitter: @galwaygrrl.