The report — titled “Who Matters Online: Measuring influence, Evaluating Content and Countering Violent Extremism in Online Social Networks” — originally sought to examine the way that extremists use social media to interact among themselves, in this instance focusing on white nationalists’ use of Twitter. But throughout their investigation, the study’s authors, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation associate fellow J.M. Berger and Bill Strathearn, inadvertently discovered something interesting.
They began with 12 “seed” Twitter accounts for their unambiguous status as white nationalists. The authors then created a dataset of 3,542 Twitter users who interacted with those 12 seed accounts, of which 44 percent self-identified as white nationalists. After analyzing the interactions between the 3,542 users and the 12 seed accounts, the authors identified the 200 top-scoring accounts, of which 83 percent self-identified as white nationalists (for the top 400, the self-ID rate was 74 percent).
The real surprise came almost accidentally, when studying the content of the tweets members of the dataset sent out, with a substantial amount of it linked to the conservative movement in the United States and the Republican Party. Among the most popular hashtags used by those featured in the dataset included “#tcot,” or top conservatives on Twitter; “#teaparty,” and “#gop.” The study also looked at the links these users sent out, categorized into mainstream, content-neutral, alternative, and extremist categories. More than half of the alternative links these users sent out were also to conservative websites, such as World Net Daily and Brietbart.com.
The authors of the study determined that the usage seemed to be “driven more by white nationalists feeling an affinity for conservatism than by conservatives feeling an affinity for white nationalism.” They were also quick to note that the data were pulled during a period of time surrounding the Republican National Convention, potentially providing a boost in references to the GOP. However, a comparison group — composed of left-wing anarchists — did not yield similar results linking them to progressive ideals or the Democratic Party.
This seemingly unidirectional engagement, however, has a potential upside. Due to their influence, the GOP could help reduce the affect that violent extremists have on the national stage, the report says:
Since the data suggests white nationalists are actively seeking dialogue with conservatives, CVE [countering violent extremism] activists should enlist the help of mainstream conservatives, who may be considerably more successful than NGOs at engaging extremists with positive messaging. Further research may also suggest avenues for engagement between other kinds of extremists and other mainstream political and religious movements.
The report comes out on the heels of a Southern Poverty Law Center report identifying a spike in far-right anti-government groups, with their number having reached an “all-time high” in 2012. As the Republican Party is desperately seeking to rebrand itself from being seen as a “scary” party of primarily white people, it would do well to listen to the ICSR’s recommendations and not those of people who would defend slavery.