This week, Twitter made a significant update to the site. The reply icon has been changed from a left-turn arrow to a chat bubble, and profile pictures have transformed from a square shape to a circle. These minor aesthetic changes are small compared to the anti-troll updates that the company added in March, but there’s one issue the site is still struggling with: Nazis.
twitter users: you should round up these Nazis— MC@kawakami's lap (@commiesona) June 15, 2017
twitter: ok, here you go pic.twitter.com/aLFnENTmSC
The fact that Twitter is teeming with Nazis is so obvious that it's become a running gag. In addition to small-time white supremacists, Nazi sympathizing bots, and anonymous avatars, there are also more notable individuals and groups, including David Duke and the American Nazi Party.
In September 2016, the Program on Extremism at George Washington University (GWU) published a study describing the use of Twitter by white nationalists compared to ISIS supporters and reported that “[m]ajor American white nationalist movements on Twitter added about 22,000 followers since 2012, an increase of about 600%” and that “Nazis had a median follower count almost eight times greater than ISIS supporters, and a mean count more than 22 times greater.”
The researchers also reported that “white nationalist accounts suffered relatively little suspension pressure.“ During their study period, the team found that only three white nationalist accounts and four Nazi accounts were suspended, “and a handful of additional accounts were seen to be suspended in the days that followed.“ By comparison, 1,100 ISIS accounts were suspended during the same period.
“White nationalist accounts suffered relatively little suspension pressure.”
At one point last year, the site took a step to rectify the problem through a targeted purge that included Richard Spencer, Pax Dickinson, and Radix Journal. Spencer, who had actually been suspended for “creating multiple accounts with overlapping use,” has since gotten his account back and become a verified user.
With every new update to the platform, however, users continue to draw attention to the fact that more fundamental changes to Twitter aren’t being made. For instance, in March, the site replaced the generic egg avatar with a generic human, causing Gizmodo to write, “Twitter Addresses Nazi Egg Problem by Making Nazis Look Like Something Else.”
Meanwhile, some users complain they are more likely to have their accounts limited for using naughty language (Twitter’s attempt at curbing abuse on the site) than being banned for spouting Nazi rhetoric. Here’s one user who has been waiting four months to hear a response from the company after reporting a Nazi that threatened to kill them.
Last November, CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for a promoted ad from an account associated with New Order, a neo-Nazi white supremacist group. Though the account was suspended and the ad removed, Twitter continues to allow white supremacist organizations to promote ads, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group.
While you’ll see plenty of people complain to @jack, Dorsey’s Twitter handle, they’re not likely to get a response. What you may see is that @jack retweeted the most recent podcast of verified Twitter user Sam Harris, a New Atheist writer who some have accused of being an Islamophobe.
Learned a lot from this one https://t.co/QM1eKfaxsu— jack (@jack) June 11, 2017
The GWU study notes that although Nazi accounts are more prevalent, the groups have historically not been as good at Twitter as ISIS. In addition to the repetitive nature of white nationalist propaganda, the trolling culture of Twitter’s white nationalists doesn’t seem to be as “warm” and “community-focused” as ISIS. The study also points to the sparsely attended rallies of Twitter Nazis before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and notes that “white nationalists have not found an effective way to advance to a post-awakening phase, in which new adherents would be directed toward some kind of material support for the movement. While such efforts exist, they are markedly ineffective.”
The study points to Donald Trump's campaign as a galvanizing force for white nationalism on Twitter, however. Trump was elected president after the publication of this study, meaning the white nationalist presence on Twitter may be more robust now.
Will Twitter do something about the Nazis on its platform with the next release? When asked for comment, Twitter sent a list of recent changes that have been made to the site to reduce harassment, including filtering options for notifications and automatically collapsing potentially abusive or "low-quality" tweets in threads.