Blair Cottrell and Milo Yiannopoulos (Images: AAP, AP)

Ever wonder where far-right identities such as Katie Hopkins, Milo Yiannopoulos and Blair Cottrell wind up when Facebook and Twitter ban them? What will happen to those QAnon believers who have been forced to “decamp” from Facebook?

While people might celebrate the bans or “de-platforming” of various commentators as a way of preventing the spread of extreme views on either the left, right or just plain loopy sides of politics, the reality is that there are digital sites that will allow extreme voices to publish their views with minimal or no forum moderation.

The sites include Gab, an equivalent for those who have been punted from Twitter or Facebook, and Parler, which is an alternative to Twitter.

Then there’s Telegram, the messaging service that has seen use by far-right extremists rocket over 12 months during which bans were imposed on far right accounts. 

Researchers Aleksandra Urman from the University of Bern and Stefan Katz from the Bern University of Applied Sciences looked closely at the way in which far-right extremists have drifted to Telegram and re-established their networks in a recent study published in the academic journal Information, Communication & Society.

They found that far-right extremists tend to organise themselves and connect with each other in a similar way irrespective of what platform they find their ideological bedfellow on.

They also found that large numbers of far-right channels joined the Telegram messaging service in April 2019 after bans were imposed on right-wing extremist accounts by Facebook.

Banned extremists quickly resumed transmission of their propaganda.

“Importantly, the structure of the far-right core of the analysed network did not gradually evolve but remained similar since April 2019,” the researchers said. “Besides, far-right actors became dominant in the observed network almost immediately as they joined the platform.”

A further point made was that while bans from the mainstream social media networks might reduce the size of the audience to which the views of extreme far-right groups were exposed, the smaller audience on these more niche platforms might wind up being more susceptible to radicalisation.

US President Donald Trump does not escape scrutiny, with the researchers finding that Trump-related forums or channels play a significant role in influencing the various far-right groupings present on Telegram.

“Though we do not know whether any of them are officially associated with Trump or the White House, their prominence in the network, along with the absence of any far-right political parties, lends additional evidence to the argument that Trump and his presidency have aided normalising the far-right rhetoric,” the researchers observed.

They suggest further work must be done to determine whether banning users from the mainstream social media channels is the most effective way to minimise the influence of extreme-right commentators and to prevent the radicalisation of their followers.

Peter Fray

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