A funny thing happened on the way to the data farm.
Last year, I started applying Big Data to extremist networks online, with an eye toward measuring influence and engagement among Twitter users following well-known white nationalists. The tools I used to parse the information proved to be powerful, and they offer new ways to test approaches to countering extremism online (see below). But it was the content I found in the network of Twitter users that turned out to be unexpectedly revealing.
The number 1 hashtag used by people following white nationalists online was #tcot -- "top conservatives on Twitter." Number 3 was #teaparty, and number 5 was #gop. The content of links tweeted by the users also skewed sharply toward mainstream conservative and Republican content.
The group of followers included people who didn't overtly tweet about white nationalism or white supremacy, but when the group was narrowed to openly extremist users, the percentages for those three hashtags didn't go down, they increased.
A complete accounting of methods and results can be found in a paper I produced with software engineer Bill Strathearn, published today by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization. Data for the paper was collected around the time of the U.S. election last November, which may have skewed the results, but as of last week, the most influential users from the group we studied were still heavily engaged with partisan Republican politics, based on an examination of the 50 most recent tweets from each of the 100 most influential users still active on Twitter.
The top hashtag remained #tcot. Coming in at number 3 was #cpac2013, and #gop was number 4. The tag #nra vaulted from 102nd place in last year's data to number 6, no doubt due to recent discussions on gun control, while #teaparty dropped to number 10.
I didn't set out to do a paper with a political dimension, and I wasn't happy when I saw this data. Until now, I've been fortunate enough to work on extremism without getting snarled in contentious and potentially alienating political arguments. But there was no way to ignore the data, and it would have been wrong to try.
The issue of race in Republican politics has been roiling for some time, between the 2012 election -- which President Obama won with only 39 percent of the white vote, sparking controversial comments from some mainstream conservatives, such as Bill O'Reilly -- and racial extremists who saw an opportunity to push their agenda in the arena of mainstream politics. The issue came up again in force at a recent CPAC event on race relations, where one attendee suggested black slaves should have been grateful for the "shelter and food" provided to them by their oppressors.
The Twitter study shows that white nationalists feel an affinity for and seek engagement with mainstream conservatives, and the finding correlates to lots of other readily available evidence. So what do we do with it?
Based on the data, my chief recommendation is that conservatives need to be at the forefront of aggressively countering racist extremist narratives.
The majority of mainstream conservatives likely find overtures from white nationalists to be distasteful or offensive. But these contacts provide an opportunity to push back, and conservatives are far more likely to have a constructive impact on white nationalists than government-sponsored homilies or messaging by well-intentioned, left-leaning NGOs.
This should be a no-brainer for mainstream conservatives. There's no downside to pushing back against neo-Nazis. It has positive potential for efforts to counter extremism, and it's also potentially good for the Republican Party, which desperately needs to demonstrate that it's tackling its internal race problem if it wants to remain relevant in an increasingly diverse country.
The problem is that the data also show that conservatives are hypocritical when it comes to addressing the relationship between the ideological center and its fringes. A significant number of prominent conservatives insist that mainstream Muslims bear meaningful responsibility for Islamist extremism. But those very same conservatives reject the idea that they themselves should be held responsible for the actions of terrorists like Anders Breivik, or the views of domestic extremists, such as neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and the Aryan Nations.
They can't have it both ways.
Hypocrisy isn't the sole province of conservatism, of course, and many conservatives are able to process these issues without falling into that trap. Some left-wingers won't hesitate to attack right-wingers for fostering white nationalism, while defending Muslims against the very same kind of logic (and blithely ignoring the eco-terrorists and anarchists with whom they share certain values). Some Muslims will be happy to see the tables turned on their critics, even if it means relying on the same sloppy logic used to tar them in the first place.
Then there are the centrists, who take the easy road and simply declare that mainstream political and religious movements are not really relevant to extremism, an attitude that has obvious appeal to many. This might be a noble impulse, or it might be cowardly, but either way, the data show that it's wrong. Extremism and mainstream politics and religion are linked, and it's hard to talk about one while excluding all consideration of the other.
When we do talk about the overlap, it's rarely constructive. If the subject comes up at all, it's almost always in the context of attack and defense -- X group attacks Y group as sharing responsibility for a particular extremist act or movement, then Y group angrily disavows the connection. Everyone gets overheated, each accuses the other of partisan motives, and almost no one tries to address the question thoughtfully. On the rare occasions that people do take a stab at a more careful consideration of the issue, it's almost always in the context of the other team's problems and not their own.
This is, at best, a zero-sum game. It further marginalizes people with radical, extremist, or even just nonconformist views, while never actually addressing the question of how the mainstream interacts with the fringes, a question that appears increasingly relevant to making progress on the problem of extremism.
It's akin to analyzing tornadoes without studying wind, and it's a crippling blind spot in our approach to the problem of extremism. It happens because people on all sides are more interested in attack-dog politics than in cleaning up their own backyards -- or as someone once said, pointing out the speck of sawdust in another's eye while ignoring the wooden plank in one's own.
That's no way to run a political party, a religion, or a country. It's time for a change.