#AfDRausAusTwitter and #AfDTwitterBanNow – these two hashtags are circulating on Twitter and were used so often at the weekend that they ended up in the trends. Inspired by the blocking of Donald Trump’s Twitter account, there were calls in Germany to delete the accounts of right-wing populist and right-wing extremist members of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, have made political actors like Trump and the AfD great. Trump recently reached over 88 million followers with his tweets. The AfD also benefited enormously from Twitter and Co., especially in the early years of the party, says communication scientist Jonas Kaiser of DW: “At the beginning, when the party was not yet well represented, social media were very helpful to people to mobilize. ” This was especially the case during the refugee crisis in 2015.
The AfD is now firmly established in Germany’s political system. In the Bundestag, the AfD is even the largest opposition party. Again and again, however, representatives of the party attract attention on social media, for example when they polarize and discredit political opponents and journalists.
Donald Trump’s user account was blocked after the riots in the Washington Capitol last week on the grounds that Twitter should not be used to “incite violence”.
Many experts like Jonas Kaiser rate Trump’s expulsion from social media as “right and important”. The danger to democracy from the permanent spread of the allegation of an allegedly stolen election is too great.
Act of censorship?
At the same time, blocking an elected president from an important communication channel is a problematic step. Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed skepticism about the permanent blocking of Trump’s Twitter access “The fundamental right to freedom of expression is of fundamental importance,” said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
Interventions can only be made in accordance with the law and should not depend on the discretion of the operators of social media platforms. “From this point of view, the Chancellor sees it as problematic that the US President’s accounts have now been permanently blocked,” said Seibert.
The Russian oppositionist Alexej Navalny is similarly critical – on Twitter. He describes the blocking as an “act of censorship”, fed by emotional and politically motivated reasons. Navalny further criticizes that it is not transparent who makes such decisions on Twitter and on what basis and why other actors such as Russian President Vladimir Putin are not excluded as well.
The Twitter campaign seems to have at least indirectly affected other conservative Twitter users. Some have lost thousands of followers over the weekend. It is unclear whether this is due to the fact that many conservatives are now saying goodbye to Twitter or whether the loss of followers is related to non-transparent Twitter regulations.
Independently of this, studies and specific examples show that the so-called “deplatforming” basically works – at least for clearly right-wing extremist users. Deplatforming means the technical process of blocking access to social media profiles and making content inaccessible to other users. This is the result of a study by the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society (IDZ) in Jena from December last year. According to this, deplatforming significantly restricts the mobilization power of central right-wing extremist actors in Germany and “deprives them of a central resource that their stagings are aimed at: attention.”
The AfD was deliberately not examined in the study, says co-author Maik Fielitz of DW. Because it is still unlikely that the party as a whole will be deleted from the established social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. “The AfD is also the Facebook party with the largest following, which knows exactly how important this platform is for them,” says Fielitz. Accordingly, they act cautiously and adapt their language.
AfD members use Facebook and Twitter intensively
It’s different in the USA. Communication scientist Jonas Kaiser refers in this context to the example of the American extremist and conspiracy ideologist Alex Jones. Before it was blocked on Youtube, it had 2.3 million subscribers. He then switched to the video portal Bitchute, where, according to Kaiser, it now reaches around 110,000 people. So much less than before. According to Kaiser, it is often assumed that extremists will take their supporters to another platform. In fact, only a few took this step. In the USA, several alternative networks for right-wing extremist and right-wing actors have now emerged.
Alternatives for extremists
These alternative, smaller platforms are often chosen as alternative locations. Since Trump was banned from Twitter, live video streaming services such as “Dlive” have seen significant growth. Some of the extremists who broke into the Capitol also streamed footage of it on Dlive. Services like Dlive are often much less regulated than Twitter or Facebook. They are committed to saying everything can be said there without restriction. As a result, the content on these platforms is much more radical than that of the established providers. This could ultimately contribute to the further radicalization of those users who turn their backs on the more well-known and more transparent networks such as Twitter and find their way to the more radical alternatives. After all: Even Dlive has blocked the Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes.
Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes (center) at a “Stop the Steal” demonstration
Nevertheless, if Twitter and Facebook increasingly block accounts, further digital parallel worlds threaten to emerge. Social networks are already working on the principle of filter bubbles: In order to keep users in the network for as long as possible, the algorithm selects content that is tailored to suit them and creates a filter bubble that does not penetrate anything that contradicts the user’s convictions.
At least politically contrary actors are at least still active in the same networks. So, at least in theory, there is the possibility that they meet and exchange ideas.
Maik Fielitz from the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society does not necessarily rate the separate spheres on the Internet as something negative. Social networks lived from intensification anyway; there would be no real exchange. “There have been various sub-publics online for a long time,” says Fielitz. “There will still be enough places where there will be an exchange.” Classic media such as newspapers and radio also played a role. According to Fielitz, they would have to reflect a diverse discourse so that social media could become more of what it was originally intended for: a place of networking in private.