Banning Controversial Influencers Reduces Toxicity on Social Media Platforms, Says Study


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A common refrain about social media is that a major part of it toxic. It is often said to be a result of people following in the footsteps of social media influencers. A new study claims that banning or removing ‘extremists’ from social media can reduce the spread of anti-social ideas and conspiracy theories. In recent years, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have deplatformed many influencers to curb the spread of offensive speech. Deplatforming refers to the permanent ban of controversial public figures with large followings on social media sites.

The study examined what happened when individuals with large followings no longer have a platform to promote their extreme views. It evaluated the effectiveness of deplatforming as a moderation strategy on Twitter.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction. The researchers presented a case study of three high-profile influencers who were deplatformed by Twitter. These individuals were radio host Alex Jones (September 2018), rightwing writer Milo Yiannopoulos (July 2016), and alt-right comedian Owen Benjamin (April 2018). Banning them, Twitter had said they violated its abusive behaviour policy.

Researchers worked with over 49 million tweets and found that deplatforming “significantly reduced the number of conversations” about all three individuals on the micro-blogging site. On analysing the activities of their followers across Twitter, the researchers also found that the overall activity and toxicity levels of supporters declined after deplatforming. The study found posts referencing each influencer declined by almost 92 percent post the Twitter action. The number of existing users and new users specifically tweeting about each influencer also shrank significantly, by 90 percent.

“Removing someone from a platform is an extreme step that should not be taken lightly,” the study’s lead author Shagun Jhaver, an assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Science at Rutgers-New Brunswick, told Rutgers Today, the in-house publication of the university. However, social media platforms have rules to ensure appropriate behaviour. “When a site member breaks those rules repeatedly, the platform needs to take action,” he added.

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