Will permanently banning extremist influencers detoxify social media?

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Conspiracy theories, abusive and toxic behavior, and generally offensive posts continue to run rampant across social media platforms, despite developers supposedly doing everything they can to ban such content. Now, researchers from Rutgers University argue that there is a way to “detoxify” social media: Ban right-wing extremist influencers permanently.

Study authors investigated what occurs when individual “extremist influencers” with large social media followings can no longer spread their message due to a ban on platforms like Twitter. In short, the team says such bans result in a notable decline in what they consider offensive ideas and toxicity.

“Removing someone from a platform is an extreme step that should not be taken lightly,” says lead study author Shagun Jhaver, an assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Science at Rutgers-New Brunswick, in a university release.

“However, platforms have rules for appropriate behavior, and when a site member breaks those rules repeatedly, the platform needs to take action. The toxicity created by influencers and their supporters who promote offensive speech can also silence and harm vulnerable user groups, making it crucial for platforms to attend to such influencers’ activities.”

Did 3 bans clean up Twitter?

The research team focused on three influencers in particular for this study. Importantly, all three have been banned from Twitter. The first is Alex Jones, the controversial conspiracy theorist sued for defamation for his outlandish claims. The second is Milo Yiannopoulos, a British political commentator who has gained attention in recent years for ridiculing Islam, feminism, and social justice campaigns. The third is former comedian and current alt-right activist Owen Benjamin, known for promoting anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT views.

The Rutgers team included over 49 million tweets in this analysis. The tweets either referenced the individuals themselves or mentioned their offensive ideas. Study authors also looked at posts by their supporters appearing six months before or after the influencer’s removal from Twitter.

Following the bans, the study finds tweets referencing the three influencers dropped by 92 percent. Similarly, the amount of existing and new Twitter users specifically discussing the influencers also fell by roughly 90 percent. Twitter supporters of the three men also posted less in general and even when they did it was less toxic. On average, supporters started posting 12.59 percent less often and their toxicity declined by 5.84 percent following the bans.

Without a leader, social media calms down

All in all, study authors theorize these findings make a strong argument that banning the “lead” extremist spouting conspiracies and offensive ideas has a trickle down effect on their followers and supporters that ultimately leads to a less toxic social media landscape for everyone.

“Many people continue to raise concerns about the financial benefits from advertising dollars tied to content that spreads misinformation or conducts harassment,” Prof. Jhaver concludes. “This is an opportunity for platforms to clarify their commitment to its users and de-platform when appropriate. Judiciously using this strategy will allow platforms to address the problem of online radicalization, a worthy goal to pursue even if it leads to short-term loss in advertising dollars.”

The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction.

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