Right-wing Extremism Is Fomented on Social Media: What Should We Do?

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Alexandra Wilson.

On January 6th, 2021, a mob of right-wing extremists stormed the US Capitol (pictured above) in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election results [1]. The attack was premeditated, with right-wing extremist groups openly planning on social media platforms for weeks prior to the riot [2]. However, even before rioters began discussing the attack in public forums, there were clues as to what was to come. Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies normalized right-wing extremism, which has been festering online since his inauguration in 2016 [3]. The lack of monitoring by large social media companies served to facilitate the spread of right-wing extremism and recruitment into militia groups such as the Proud Boys [4]. This encouraged people to become entrenched in their beliefs and increasingly radicalized, making events such as those that occurred on January 6th increasingly likely as time progressed. According to an article written by Jonathan Greenblatt in Time, “Overall hate crimes have skyrocketed in recent years to the highest in over a decade, and bias-motivated murders reached a record high in 2019…. From marching out in the open at the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville in 2017 to calling for the overthrow of the government at the ‘Stop the Steal’ rallies, their rage has been fed by the divisive language and conspiratorial rhetoric of President Trump” and amplified by social media platforms [5].


"...far-right extremists began to migrate to apps such as Gab and Parler, social media apps that purport to protect free speech, making them havens for right-wing extremist perspectives [10]. Parler witnessed such a dramatic rise in downloads after the social media crackdown that it became the number one app in the App Store [11]."

In the aftermath of the siege of the Capitol, major social media companies quickly sought to remove right-wing extremism from their platforms. On January 8th, 2021, Trump was indefinitely suspended from Twitter [6][7]. Platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram additionally decided to ban the former president [8]. 70, 000 accounts that were associated with QAnon were also taken down by Twitter and 600 militarized social movements were removed from Facebook [9]. The alt-right has effectively found themselves de-platformed from mainstream social media. As a result, far-right extremists began to migrate to apps such as Gab and Parler, social media apps that purport to protect free speech, making them havens for right-wing extremist perspectives [10]. Parler witnessed such a dramatic rise in downloads after the social media crackdown that it became the number one app in the App Store [11]. The dramatic rise came to a swift end when Amazon AWS cloud declared that it would stop hosting Parler and Google and the App Store removed the app from their web stores, making the app inaccessible [12].


"Banned users can quickly create new accounts and new hashtags can fool the artificial intelligence algorithms used by social media companies to eliminate potentially hateful content [21]."

Additionally, Gab became so overwhelmed with new users that it took minutes for a single page to load [13]. With these new apps either inaccessible or overly inconvenient, right-wing extremists migrated again, this time to the encrypted web where messages and information are end-to-end encrypted, making messages impossible to trace by outside parties [14]. All of this has made it increasingly difficult for law enforcement to monitor these groups [15]. Right-wing extremist groups are now attempting to organize and build a following on encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram where “you have to know exactly what you’re looking for… to join [16].” These networks “can [additionally] be inundated by messages and internal codes and language… so when people get there, they suddenly become part of this inner circle… where anything goes [17].” As a result, those who join begin to feel increasingly validated in their views, causing rhetoric to become more extreme [18]. Eliminating Signal and Telegram from mainstream App Stores might seem the obvious solution, but, unlike Gab and Parler, encrypted messaging applications are important tools in certain contexts. For example, journalists and humanitarian workers often use apps like Signal and Telegram when working in high-risk locations where their communications might be monitored [19].


Consequently, there are two broad policy options for government and social media companies. First is to continue enforcing bans on social media and accept that smaller groups will fester beneath the surface. This solution will face challenges, in-part because social media bans are hard to maintain [20]. Banned users can quickly create new accounts and new hashtags can fool the artificial intelligence algorithms used by social media companies to eliminate potentially hateful content [21]. According to Audrey Courty, a PhD candidate specializing digital extremism, “QAnon believers have tried to operate unnoticed on Twitter by using the number 17 to reference ‘Q’ (the 17th letter of the alphabet), or by writing ‘CueAnon’ instead of ‘QAnon [22].’” Thus, while deplatforming has the potential to decrease the reach of these extremist groups, its effectiveness is heavily reliant on social media companies investing in the efficacy of their own bans [23].


Additionally, social media bans do nothing to de-radicalize or reduce the risk of violence by current members [24]. By forcing these right-wing groups onto platforms such as Signal and Telegram, the ban has effectively created an echo-chamber in which members will never encounter opposing opinions that may have a modestly moderating influence [25]. Furthermore, certain right-wing militia groups are empowered by bans from mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram [26]. These bans are seen as evidence that their voice is simply too powerful to be exposed to the general public and, thus, they had to be silenced by these large corporations or the government [27]. Other ‘self-sealing’ groups, such as QAnon, see this ban as evidence of their conspiracy theory that the ‘deep state’ is plotting against Trump [28]. Simply because hateful perspectives are hidden from the public eye does not mean they do not exist or are any less dangerous than before.


The second policy option is to revert back to the norm and allow these extreme perspectives back onto mainstream platforms, where they can continue in the public eye. While this option may facilitate a healthier flow of reasonable ideas and allow law enforcement to track potential threats, it would also enable these radical groups the opportunity to gain a greater following. Additionally, despite attempts by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to prevent hate speech, nothing but a complete ban on extreme right-wing users would reduce the harassment of minority groups online. Clearly, both policy solutions have significant flaws. Thus, governments, social media companies, and experts on right-wing extremism must work together in order to find better long-term solutions to fight the spread of right-wing extremism online.

  1. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S. “Is More Violence Coming?” The Daily, January 13, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/podcasts/the-daily/capitol-attack-social-media-parler-twitter-facebook.html?a uth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

  2. McEvoy, J. “Capitol Attack was Planned Openly Online for Weeks - Police Still Weren’t Ready,” Forbes, January 7, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jemimamcevoy/2021/01/07/capitol-attack-was-planned-openly-online-for-weeks-polic e-still-werent-ready/?sh=6cc7bafc76e2; Timberg, C., Harwell, D., Nakhlawi, R., & Smith, H. “‘Nothing can stop what’s coming’: Far-right forums that fomented Capitol Riots voice glee in aftermath,” The Washington Post, January 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/01/07/trump-online-siege/

  3. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021; Greenblatt, J. “White Supremacism Is a Domestic Terror Threat That Will Outlast Trump,” Time, January 7, 2021, https://time.com/5927685/white-supremacism-threat-outlast-trump/

  4. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021; Greenblatt, J., January 7, 2021

  5. Greenblatt, J., January 7, 2021

  6. Graham, T. “Social media giants have finally confronted Trump’s lies. But why wait until there was a riot in the Capitol?” The Conversation, January 7, 2021, https://theconversation.com/social-media-giants-have-finally-confronted-trumps-lies-but-why-wait-until-there-was-a -riot-in-the-capitol-152820; Edelman, G. “Big Tech Can’t Ban Its Way Out of This,” Wired, January, 16, 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/big-tech-cant-ban-its-way-out-of-this/

  7. Brooks, D. “Now that he’s been banned we can say it: Donald Trump was a genius at Twitter,” The Guardian, January 12, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/12/banned-donald-trump-genius-twitter

  8. Graham, T., January 7, 2021

  9. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  10. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  11. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021; Nicas, J., & Alba, D. “Amazon, Apple and Google Cut Off Parler, an App That Drew Trump Supports,” The New York Times, January 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/technology/apple-google-parler.html?searchResultPosition=26

  12. Perrigo, B. “Big Tech’s Crackdown on Donald Trump and Parler Won’t Fix the Real Problem with Social Media,” Time, January 12, 2021, https://time.com/5928982/deplatforming-trump-parler/; Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021; Fischer, S., & Gold, A. “All the platforms that have banned or restricted Trump so far,” Axios, January 11, 2021, https://www.axios.com/platforms-social-media-ban-restrict-trump-d9e44f3c-8366-4ba9-a8a1-7f3114f920f1.html; Carlson, B. “Why social media platforms banning Trump won’t stop - or even slow down - his cause,” The Conversation, January 14, 2021, https://theconversation.com/why-social-media-platforms-banning-trump-wont-stop-or-even-slow-down-his-cause-1 52970

  13. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  14. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  15. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  16. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021; Frenkel, S. “Fringe Groups Splinter Online After Facebook and Twitter Bans,” The New York Times, January 11, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/technology/fringe-groups-splinter-online-after-facebook-and-twitter-bans.html

  17. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  18. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  19. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  20. Courty, A. “QAnon believers will likely outlast and outsmart Twitter’s bans,” The Conversation, July 23, 2020, https://theconversation.com/qanon-believers-will-likely-outlast-and-outsmart-twitters-bans-143192

  21. Courty, A., July 23, 2020

  22. Courty, A., July 23, 2020

  23. Perrigo, B., January 12, 2021

  24. Perrigo, B., January 12, 2021

  25. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  26. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  27. Babaro, M., & Frenkel, S., January 13, 2021

  28. Courty, A., July 23, 2020