Experts Talk About Social Media Crackdown on Trump, White Supremacists

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Twitter suspended former President Donald Trump. | Screenshot via Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
By Toby Tabachnick | Contributing Writer
The man who stormed the Tree of Life synagogue building on Oct. 27, 2018, murdering 11 congregants in the midst of Shabbat prayer, was an active user of the social media site Gab. His Gab bio said, “jews are the children of satan,” and his banner image was an unambiguous reference to a white supremacist meme. His final post, just prior to the massacre, read: “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

In the months following the Pittsburgh shooting, many pundits and the ADL urged social media companies to better police racist, violent and anti-Semitic accounts and clarify terms of service to make hateful content harder to find online — and to prevent such content from being monetized. The profligation of extremist activism online worried experts about radicalization, as researchers made connections between violent words and violent actions.

“There are 24/7 rallies online,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the ADL said one year after the Pittsburgh shooting. “With just a few clicks, you can literally find what was previously unspeakable. Social media has become a breeding ground for bigotry.”


Following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, which left five people dead, the social media giants took serious steps against accounts they deemed potentially dangerous. Twitter suspended more than 70,000 accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose followers believe Donald Trump is secretly saving the world from a cabal of Satanic pedophiles and cannibals, and who traffic in anti-Semitic tropes. Adherents of QAnon were numerous among the mob that stormed the Capitol.

Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” Twitter announced. Other platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, also suspended Trump’s accounts, as well as the accounts of some of his associates.

In the wake of the suspensions, many far-right voices moved to the platform Parler until Apple, Google and Amazon removed Parler from their platforms too.

Shutting down social media accounts and sites, though, does not necessarily halt the spread of violent rhetoric, anti-Semitism or other hateful ideologies, according to some law enforcement experts.

“When you limit these types of accounts, what happens is the folks who are using these various platforms to communicate will simply jump to another platform,” said Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “We see that all the time in law enforcement.” She analogized tracking extremists to a game of “whack-a-mole.”

Kathleen Blee, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh who has researched white supremacy and is a member of one the three congregations attacked during the shooting at the Tree of Life building, agreed there are “downsides” to moving people off of sites where people understand that they are being monitored, which can have some moderating effect.

“It’s moving people into these end-to-end encrypted — and really the cesspool of the internet —sites that are just vehicles for the most horrific white supremacist, violent, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant views,” Blee said. “So, that’s a problem, obviously. And it’s hard to monitor what individuals are doing on them — it’s not hard to monitor them in the aggregate, but it is hard to pin anything to an individual user.”

As of last week, use of apps favored by extremists had skyrocketed, Blee said. Users on Signal had increased 677% and Telegram was up 146%.

“That’s a problem,” Blee said. “These places are slippery. And Telegram and Signal are very much open to hosting these kinds of very violent white supremacist conversations.”

On the other hand, Blee said, when more open sites close down, there is usually some attrition.

“For one thing, some people will not want to gravitate from the level of what was being expressed on Facebook or even Parler, to the next step toward violence,” she said. “And you are also going to lose some people because, as you get into some of these, they become more and more difficult to access and require more technological knowledge.”

Another downside to moving users off mainstream platforms is that it reifies some of their false beliefs. “For these racially motivated violent extremists, there is this inherent belief that there is a Zionist government that is trying to control everybody and that the Jews are behind a lot of that,” Brokos said.

In fact, that ideology may have motivated the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.

“What seems to have happened with him very much fits the pattern we see in other kinds of racially motivated violence,” said Blee. “First, there’s a sense of some enormous existential threat out there. If you think of the 1980s and ’90s, when the white supremacists became significant in this country, the existential threat was banking and farm foreclosures — it was the beginning of the militia movement and really the resurgence of anti-Semitism in a very public way. That was the existential threat: Jews held a stranglehold over the economy and were ruining the lives of white farmers was kind of the message there.”

These days, the existential threat is more commonly framed as white genocide or “the Great Replacement Theory — that whites will become the minority and lose power,” Blee said.

The next precursor to racially motivated violence is identifying a person or group responsible, she continued.

“In the Pittsburgh shooting, the threat was white genocide and the target was George Soros — so there you have an amplification by politicians of the same message that’s being spread on Gab and by other white supremacists online.”

To white supremacists, “George Soros” signifies “Jews,” Blee said, “and they all understand that. George Soros is to white supremacists what Rothschild was a couple decades ago. Probably most of these people couldn’t tell you who George Soros is — just an image that stands in for Jews writ large, Jewish control.”

After identifying the threat and the target, the third stage is a “sense of urgency,” Blee said.

“That’s the final trigger. ‘You can’t just wait around and mobilize yourself for the threat, you have to act now’ — that’s the message …. It’s pernicious in any form. When it’s happening on the internet all over the place, when it’s amplified in public, when there is an echoing of what’s happening on places like Gab and what’s showing on TV, that’s particularly dangerous.”

Shutting down Trump’s use of social media “as a megaphone” in the days after the Jan. 6 riots and before the inauguration was particularly important, Blee said: “I think in the short run, that outweighs everything — he was clearly providing an accelerant to these conversations and actions.”

The Anti-Defamation League also condoned Trump’s ban from social media, calling it an “excellent step.”

“President Trump incited the violent riots at the Capitol using social media and he paid the price,” said Shira Goodman, regional director of ADL Philadelphia. “The big platforms must enforce their terms of service and demonstrate moral leadership. Individuals who seek to spread fraudulent and completely debunked claims to undermine our democracy and encourage mobs to overturn an election and storm the Capitol have no right to do so on social platforms.

“And social platforms not only have no obligation ethically or legally to host and amplify those voices,” she added. “They have a moral and ethical and, in some cases, a legal obligation to stop such incitement to violence. While ADL believes that everyone should have the right to express themselves, incitement to violence is not a protected right.”

Toby Tabachnick is the editor of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an Exponent-affiliated publication.

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