This study examines and compares the use of Twitter by white nationalists, Nazi sympathizers, and ISIS supporters respectively, providing some preliminary comparisons of how each movement uses the platform.
Major findings include:
1. Major American white nationalist movements on Twitter added about 22,000 followers since 2012, an increase of about 600%. The increase was driven in part by organized social media activism, organic growth in the adoption of social media by people intereste d in white nationalism, and, to some extent, the rise of organized trolling communities seeking to flood social media platforms with negative content, regardless of participants’ actual beliefs.
2. The most popular theme among white nationalists on Twitter was the concept of “white genocide,” the notion that the “white race” is directly endangered by the increasing diversity of society. Social media activists tweeted hundreds of times per day using repetitive hashtags and slogans associated with this trope.
3. Followers of white nationalists on Twitter were heavily invested in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. White nationalist users referenced Trump more than almost any other topic, and Trump-related hashtags outperformed every white nationalist hashtag except for #whitegenocide within the sets of users examined.
4. White nationalism is highly factionalized, and includes a number of competing movements. On Twitter, accounts focused on Nazi sympathies were more prevalent than any other white nationalist movement, and pro-Nazi propaganda was tweeted more often than any other content.
5. Within the broader community of white nationalists, organized recruitment, proselytization, and social media activism were primarily carried out by a highly interconnected network of users drawing on common themes. Activity with a Nazi slant was more organic and less organized. Recruitment focused on the theme of white genocide and used terminology dra wn from popular entertainment.
6. The white nationalist datasets examined outperformed ISIS in most current metrics and many historical metrics. White nationalists and Nazis had substantially higher follower counts than ISIS supporters, and tweeted more often. ISIS supporters had better discipline regarding consistent use of the movem ent’s hashtags, but trailed in virtually every other respect. The clear advantage enjoyed by white nationalists was attributable in part to the effects of aggressive suspensions of accounts associated with ISIS networks.
7. Small groups of users tweeting in concert at high volumes can amplify their effect, causing hashtags and content to trend in numbers significant enough to prompt mainstream media coverage. White nationalist sympathizers used this strategy in October 2015 with calls to boycott Star Wars: The Force Awakens as “anti-white.” Media coverage can lead to increased curiosity about extremist groups, feeding their social media success.
8. In general, these findings suggest that the battle against ISIS on social media is only the first of many challenges to mainstream, normative values, some of which are ongoing, but most of which lie ahead.
While the extreme violence of ISIS has understandably elevated concerns about the threat the organization presents, other extr emist groups are able to watch its success and learn from its tactics, both on social media and offline. Studies of ISIS activity, while useful, examine only a fraction of the violent extremist landscape. White nationalist terrorism has increasingly been tied to online activity, as seen in cases such as Dylann Roof, a white nationalist who is charged with killing nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina in June 2015, and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who promoted an anti-Muslim manifesto on Twitter and Facebook.
White nationalist communities online are less cohesive than ISIS networks, and less concentrated on Twitter. Additional research is needed to capture the full scope of the violent extremist online landscape. Ideally, this should be done across multiple social platforms, countries, languages and ideologies, with tailored metrics and analytical approaches. Nevertheless, this study provides an important starting point.