Assessing the influence and reach of digital activity amongst far-right actors: A comparative evaluation of mainstream and ‘free speech’ social media platforms

Hillary Woodworth McNerney, Billy Spann, Esther L. Mead, Joseph Kready, Thomas Marcoux, Nitin Agarwal


Mainstream social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, became more rigorous at the end of 2020 in implementing content moderation measures in efforts to combat false information related to the Covid-19 virus and election security in the United States of America. Some users viewed these measures as hostile towards various ideologies, prompting them to adopt alternative platforms for viewing and disseminating content (Abril 2021; Daly and Fischer, 2021). In 2020, the US Department of Homeland Security identified white supremacist extremists (WSE) as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland” (DHS, 2020, p. 17). WSE disseminate their messages to a broader public by stoking grievances about race, immigration, multiculturalism and police-related policy issues, while also coordinating with networks of similar groups to carry their messages further (DHS, 2020). Current research lacks an understanding of the role these alternative platforms play in shaping, disseminating and amplifying extremist messages. This study utilized socio-computational methods to compare and contrast user behavior on the mainstream platforms, YouTube and Twitter, with the alternative social media platform Parler, during the two months before and after the 2021 January 6th U.S. Capitol attack. Toxicity assessment, topic stream analysis, social network analysis, and social cyber forensic analysis helped identify key far-right actors and illuminated cyber coordination and mobilization within these social networks. The findings reveal some surprising insights including that both toxicity and posting activity were far greater on mainstream platforms and that Parler displayed an extremely high rate of cross-media and cross-platform posting.


Alt-right; radicalization; social identity; connective action; topic modeling; toxicity; social network analysis; Parler; YouTube; Twitter

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Copyright (c) 2022 Hillary Woodworth McNerney, Billy Spann, Esther L. Mead, Joseph Kready, Thomas Marcoux, Nitin Agarwal

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ISSN 2398-0532

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