Richard Rogers: Okay so the sec­ond pre­sen­ta­tion this morn­ing I’m going to do. And it is enti­tled Platforming, Deplatforming & Replatforming. And what I want to show you is a project that I did with—some peo­ple are actu­al­ly here today in this room. We did this project at the University of Bologna at the Institute for Advanced Studies. And what it is about con­cerns the idea of deplat­form­ing. Extremists around the world are increas­ing­ly being thrown off of social media. And so I want to talk about—the big ques­tion that I’m going to try to answer is, is this effec­tive? Is it good? Is it good for the plat­forms? For—who does it ben­e­fit? Is it good for the plat­forms, is it good for the extrem­ists, is it good for the Internet, is it good for soci­ety at large? So these are very large ques­tions, and I’m going to try to address them and give some sort of par­tial answers. 

So this talk has three parts to it. One con­cerns the turn to the right online more gen­er­al­ly. This is what I call plat­form­ing, and it’s the idea of how extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties are made. Then sub­se­quent­ly once they have become extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties, a lot of them recent­ly were deplat­formed, and I want to talk a lit­tle bit about that. And then I want to talk about their migra­tion paths. Where they went to, and then how to map an alter­na­tive social media ecol­o­gy. And I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about that as well in terms of replat­form­ing.

Platforming: granting access to a venue or platform, such as a social media site, and thereby providing the capacity to express opinion and build a fan base.

But first I want to intro­duce you to Soph. Soph is a 15 year-old extrem­ist Internet celebri­ty. She had a YouTube chan­nel which had near­ly a mil­lion sub­scribers, so she was real­ly pop­u­lar. And she also had Twitter account as well that she did­n’t use as much. She was basi­cal­ly a YouTuber. And I want to show you a video, I hope I can play it, that actu­al­ly got her deplat­formed. I should warn you that Soph uses quite dis­con­cert­ing lan­guage. This is her mer­chan­dise to start off with.

[Rogers plays the first approx­i­mate­ly two min­utes of Soph’s video Pride and Prejudice”]

Okay. That’s enough. Oops. Let’s make sure we close that window. 

So, she was thrown off of YouTube. And this is the post on the right-hand side when she announced that. And when you go to YouTube now and click on the Pride and Prejudice link for the video this is what you get. 

Screenshot of a black box on the YouTube site with text that the video has been removed for violating YouTube's hate speech policy.

And this is what you’re increas­ing­ly get­ting on YouTube for this kind of content.

So that was a case— I mean, this is Facebook’s terms. YouTube has dif­fer­ent ones. But these extrem­ists are being deplat­formed because they are this sort of new cat­e­go­ry that Facebook put for­ward, and this is the notion of the dan­ger­ous indi­vid­ual.” And the dan­ger­ous indi­vid­ual is one who has a bunch of things, but one is that they are lead­ing cam­paigns of sort of orga­nized hate. So this is large­ly the ratio­nale that’s giv­en by the platforms. 

So when in May 2019 there were a sort of series of deplat­form­ings on Facebook in par­tic­u­lar but also on oth­er social media plat­forms, what one read both on the extrem­ists’ pages on Facebook—which, the announce­ment came about a half an hour before they were actu­al­ly actu­al­ly thrown off. So they all sort of announced where they were going to. 

And so they announced that they were moving—a lot of them in par­tic­u­lar were mov­ing to Telegram. And it’s an inter­est­ing piece of soft­ware, Telegram. It was found­ed by the same devel­op­ers who cre­at­ed Vkontakte, the Russian social media plat­form. And they were threat­ened by the Russian state and went into into hid­ing and so they were also using this par­tic­u­lar soft­ware mes­sag­ing as a means by which to show that they can do secure mes­sag­ing. So they got an inter­est­ing reputation. 

Telegram is a very inter­est­ing object of study. It is for what some of my col­leagues here have called both for masked as well as public-facing users. So it’s sort of the oppo­site of Facebook. Facebook is a sort of social media plat­form first, and a sort of mes­sag­ing with mes­sen­ger sec­ond. This is the oth­er way around. It’s a mes­sag­ing plat­form first and a sort of social net­work secondly. 

On Telegram you can build a fol­low­ing. So you can have pub­lic chan­nels and these pub­lic chan­nels can have very large num­bers of sub­scribers. So this is how the extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties were sort of in some ways plan­ning on using Telegram.

It also enables what I like to call pri­vate social­i­ty.” So you can be social in pri­vate. So this is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent from the idea that was put for­ward by some schol­ars about how peo­ple use Facebook and how public-facing users use it, this idea of social pri­va­cy. So you can have pri­vate social­i­ty there. 

So what we did in this par­tic­u­lar case, we con­sid­ered whether we want­ed to do a kind of datafied dig­i­tal ethnog­ra­phy, or a kind of dig­i­tal meth­ods project. We decid­ed that we could scrape Telegram. It’s inter­est­ing, when begin­ning to study the alter­na­tive social media plat­forms, these plat­forms are quite open for researchers. And so when we fol­low the extrem­ists there, we move into a space which is not as locked down.” So that was sort of interesting. 

So we so we built the Telegram scraper into a piece of soft­ware, which will also be part of one of the tuto­ri­als today, into 4CAT in order to study deplat­form­ing. So what is it? So once once these extrem­ists Internet celebri­ties have moved over into Telegram, they were deplat­formed in one and they were replat­formed in Telegram, so to speak. But I first want to talk about deplat­form­ing before going into replatforming. 

Deplatforming: denying access to a venue or platform, such as a social media site, and thereby holding 'dangerous individuals' accountable and denying the capacity to express opinion.

So deplat­form­ing is this idea of deny­ing access to par­tic­u­lar users, espe­cial­ly extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties these days but also oth­ers, in order to hold these dan­ger­ous indi­vid­u­als account­able. It’s also often­times met with this idea that you’re also deny­ing their capac­i­ty to express opin­ion. So this is a part of the debate about deplat­form­ing. And the ques­tion is the extent to which peo­ple con­sid­er it to work, or not work. 

And these are the points that are often­times made of why deplat­form­ing does­n’t work. So, it sup­pos­ed­ly draws atten­tion to mate­ri­als that are sup­pressed. So it makes them more inter­est­ing, because it strength­ens the con­vic­tion of the fol­low­ers. It cre­ates an aura around for­bid­den peo­ple and ideas. And most famous­ly I think is that we are con­cerned that social media com­pa­nies will become sort of arbiters of speech. That they will be the ones who decide. 

Whereas on the oth­er side of the debate, which is very inter­est­ing, it is often­times argued and there’s some research on this, that deplat­form­ing actu­al­ly detox­es a par­tic­u­lar space, whether it’s a subreddit—which I’ll get to the sec­ond. Other peo­ple argue that it detox­es the plat­form because the users do not migrate internally—they’re gone. It also thins audi­ences. So the audi­ences for these extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties become dras­ti­cal­ly reduced. And then it dri­ves these folks to spaces with less oxygen-giving capac­i­ty. So, few­er fol­low­ers, few­er activ­i­ty, etc. 

So we decid­ed to actu­al­ly look into these argu­ments quite quite specif­i­cal­ly and try to oper­a­tional­ize them, and turn them into actu­al ques­tions. And so what we did is a num­ber of things to try to answer these questions. 

So does deplat­form­ing actu­al­ly thin audi­ences? Are extrem­ists actu­al­ly dri­ven to spaces with less oxygen-giving capac­i­ty, or is there oxygen-giving capac­i­ty in these spaces like Gab, etc.? Do they become more offen­sive? So, in their own echo cham­bers, do they become even more extrem­ist or do they mel­low? Do the deplat­form­ing platforms—so Facebook, etc.—do they become less rel­e­vant to extrem­ists? Or are they still impor­tant? And then, are the alter­na­tive ones ben­e­fit­ing from deplat­form­ing? So does Gab grow and become more impor­tant, or Telegram, etc. And then final­ly this sort of inter­est­ing ques­tion that we came to is, when these celebri­ties are leav­ing social media, where do they go to? I mean they go to Telegram but they also go to the Web. They go back to the Web. And the ques­tion is, is the Web being revived by this deplatforming? 

So what we did is a project where we looked at the audi­ence counts. So, how are these extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties doing in terms of their audi­ence before and after the deplat­form­ing? We looked at the oxygen-giving capac­i­ty through activ­i­ty mea­sures on Telegram. So how fre­quent­ly were they post­ing, etc., were they get­ting a lot of views? We looked at whether their lan­guage was becom­ing more extrem­ist. We did this by using sort of a hate data­base, a lan­guage data­base or a lex­i­con, called hate​base​.org. And final­ly, we looked into how they dis­cuss the plat­forms that threw them off, as well as the alter­nate plat­forms dis­cur­sive­ly, and we did that through using word trees and key­word in con­text, etc., and I’ll show you that briefly. 

So does deplat­form­ing thin audi­ences? The answer to this is yes, and quite mas­sive­ly. So we saw a steep reduc­tion in audi­ence num­bers over­all for about fif­teen extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties. So before, they had quite large audi­ences, espe­cial­ly on YouTube but also on Twitter and Instagram, when they moved to the alternative—Gab, Telegram, BitChute, Minds, etc.—their audi­ence counts real­ly dropped off. 

But even though they may have dropped off, did these new audi­ences pro­vide them with oxy­gen? In oth­er words, did the extrem­ists still con­tin­ue to post with great fre­quen­cy, and were they viewed also with high counts. What’s inter­est­ing is that the extrem­ist celebri­ties con­tin­ued to post, very very fre­quent­ly. So they were act­ing as if they still had a lot—not only a lot to say, but a lot of view counts. And what’s inter­est­ing is that it seemed as if they were getting…well at least they weren’t decreas­ing in their activ­i­ty. And so per­haps you could say that they still had quite a lot of oxy­gen in these new spaces.

What we found, how­ev­er, when look­ing into whether they became more extrem­ist in their lan­guage use was we found that they became a bit more mel­low. So whilst they con­tin­ued to mes­sage quite a lot, or post quite a lot, and their view counts were increasing—although they did decrease a lit­tle bit towards the end of this peri­od that we looked into from May to October 2019, the use of their lan­guage was quite inter­est­ing. So it became more mel­low. And this is also some­thing that is of inter­est to us. 

And then what about the plat­forms that they were deplat­formed from? So Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, etc. Do they become less rel­e­vant to the extrem­ists? And there­fore is deplat­form­ing good for the plat­forms that throw them off? What we found that was very inter­est­ing to us was that Facebook and Instagram sud­den­ly were not linked to very often, or they weren’t men­tioned. So it seems as if Facebook and Instagram became far less rel­e­vant to these celebri­ties than they were before. However, Twitter and YouTube remained extreme­ly rel­e­vant even though they were thrown off from there. So deplat­form­ing might be good for Instagram and Facebook, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly so much for for Twitter and YouTube. They still are high­ly relevant. 

So why is it that extrem­ists still are very inter­est­ed in YouTube and Twitter, and not in Facebook and Instagram any longer, we looked into that as well, dis­cur­sive­ly. So, we down­loaded all of the posts by the extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties on Telegram, and then we queried these for the names of the plat­forms, both main­stream plat­forms as well as alter­na­tive platforms. 

And when we looked at how they dis­cuss Facebook, it’s all about dis­gust. So it’s all about how Facebook is no longer rel­e­vant to the extremists. 

And when we looked at Twitter, how­ev­er, whilst they’re unhap­py that they were deplat­formed from Twitter they still urge their oth­er users to tweet about them on Twitter and to con­tin­ue to use Twitter. So Twitter remains rel­e­vant where­as Facebook does not. 

YouTube also remains rel­e­vant to them. And it also con­tin­ues to be a space where they want to appear. They want to be cohost­ed or they want to appear on there. Or oth­er­wise they’re still send­ing traf­fic to YouTube by dis­cussing oth­ers who are still on YouTube. 

And the ques­tion of the alter­na­tives. So which of the alter­na­tives, or are the alter­na­tives ben­e­fit­ing? Are they grow­ing? Are they becom­ing more sig­nif­i­cant because the celebri­ties have moved there and been deplat­formed? And how are these extrem­ist celebri­ties talk­ing about these platforms? 

Well what’s inter­est­ing is most all of them—so BitChute, Gab, Minds, Parler, all of them—are being used instru­men­tal­ly. So they’re just try­ing to point their users to them. 

Whereas Telegram… So this is an exam­ple. So just go to BitChute because because YouTube is cen­sor­ing our mate­r­i­al.” And that’s also where Soph’s video that I just showed you is locat­ed now. It’s on BitChute. But all of the men­tions of these alter­na­tive plat­forms are are basi­cal­ly instru­men­tal. Same with Gab. So it’s just, I’m on there. You can go and fol­low me there,” etc. 

Whereas Telegram is kind of dif­fer­ent. They feel as if Telegram pro­vides them with a kind of soft land­ing spot. A place where they also com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er, etc. So Telegram has a spe­cial place for these extremists. 

So we then endeav­ored to try to make the kind of first” map of the alter­na­tive social media ecol­o­gy after deplat­form­ing. And so we did this basi­cal­ly man­u­al­ly. So we took about twen­ty extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties and looked for which platforms—mainstream platforms—they’re still on, and which ones that they’ve migrat­ed to and then cre­at­ed— So this is the alter­na­tive social media ecol­o­gy at least accord­ing to the sort of fif­teen or twen­ty extrem­ists Internet celebri­ties that were deplat­formed in May 2019. And what’s inter­est­ing about it is— And oth­er extrem­ists that weren’t deplat­formed, that’s why you see some of these main­stream ones there. So, you may have been deplat­formed from Twitter but not from YouTube, etc. So this is why the main­stream ones are there.

So YouTube is still quite cen­tral. So is Twitter. But you see like Facebook and Instagram are quite mar­gin­al. You also see that Telegram, BitChute, Minds, Gab, they’re quite cen­tral. But also you see per­son­al web sites as also being quite cen­tral. So this led us to the sort of strange thought of iron­i­cal­ly… So if social media killed the Web, when they deplat­formed extrem­ist Internet celebri­ties and these celebri­ties sort of go else­where, they’re now going back to the Web, in some sense reviv­ing it. 

I just want to con­clude with Milo. He’s quite a famous sort of alt-right char­ac­ter. And he has a lot to say about var­i­ous plat­forms after he’s been deplat­formed from from Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. So he is not hap­py in this new space, in this new alter­na­tive social media ecol­o­gy. He can’t put food on the table.” He talks about Gab as relent­less­ly, exhaust­ing­ly hos­tile and jam packed full of teen racists.” He talks about Parler as zero inter­ac­tion, no one is there.” He talks about Telegram as a waste­land.” He says that he might have to leave social media altogether. 

So this is to some sort of quite hard evi­dence that deplat­form­ing in some sense works” or is effec­tive. We looked at it of course more empir­i­cal­ly. But the larg­er ques­tion of whether it’s good for— So it might be good for cer­tain plat­forms. So it appears to be good for Instagram and Facebook, not nec­es­sar­i­ly so good for YouTube and Twitter. It’s not that good for the alter­na­tive social media plat­forms, with the one excep­tion of Telegram, at least accord­ing to our empir­i­cal work. 

Bill Maher: We live in an age where people want to cancel other people and disappear them.

But does its ben­e­fit soci­ety at large? This is some­thing that we did­n’t get into. We dis­cussed so-called can­cel cul­ture” and the extent to which this can­cel­ing of extrem­ist celebri­ties by social media com­pa­nies like the can­cel­ing of a tele­vi­sion pro­gram, whether such can­cel cul­ture is good for soci­ety or not, we left that larg­er ques­tion open. 

So social media plat­forms have made these extrem­ist” celebri­ties in some ways, and now they’re unmak­ing them. And it seems to be—as I men­tioned before, it seems to be effec­tive for cer­tain of these main­stream social media plat­forms, and not for oth­ers. And what we find inter­est­ing in the replat­form­ing and their move to the alter­na­tive social media ecol­o­gy and also their move to the Web is the ques­tion of whether they’re mel­low­ing. And we found that their lan­guage became less extreme. Maybe as Milo said it’s because the spaces that they went into them­selves, those spaces were more extreme, even. So that was one inter­est­ing ques­tion of whether the mel­low­ing, the gen­er­al mel­low­ing of these extrem­ists in these spaces could be said to be an indi­ca­tion that it’s sort of good for the Internet, good for the detox­i­fi­ca­tion of the Internet. However, they are mov­ing a lot of their vile con­tent to the Web and cre­at­ing a sort sub­scrip­tion plat­form… They’re also begin­ning to use the Web again as a kind of tox­ic space, so in that sense it might not be so great for the Internet. That’s it. Thanks very much.