About a year ago, I was having coffee with a friend, discussing the ever-expanding definition of “harassment” on social media. I raised a question that I still think is pretty interesting: what if someone created a program to track how many “harassing” or “hateful” accounts someone was following on Twitter? If an account follows too many such accounts, it could be labeled as a second-order hate account. Accounts that follow too many of those kind of accounts could be third-order offenders, and so on and so forth. It’s an Orwellian idea that seemed entirely possible, even probable.
A company called Little Bird, which specializes in social media data analysis, has done almost exactly that. From their website:
It turns out that Donald Trump mostly retweets white supremacists saying nice things about him. At least so far this week’s that’s how it’s gone. This isn’t one person, of the last 21 accounts retweeted by @RealDonaldTrump so far this week, our automated analysis of their accounts finds that:
- 28% of them follow at least one of the top 50 White Nationalist accounts on Twitter (6 of 21)
- 62% of them follow at least 3 people who’ve used hashtag #WhiteGenocide lately (13 of 21)
In an attempt to call Trump even more racist than everyone else is calling him, Little Bird is painting people with an absurdly gigantic brush. You’re you follow one white nationalist account, you’re a white supremacist by the company’s standards. If you follow three people who have used the #WhiteGenocide hashtag, you’re a white supremacist.
How exactly this makes sense isn’t clear. The accounts that supposed white supremacists would have to follow are only themselves white nationalists. White nationalism is kind of a lower-intensity white supremacism.
A bigger problem with such overheated name-calling is the fact that ideology obviously doesn’t trickle down from followed to follower. Remember how a retweet isn’t an endorsement? That pretty much goes without saying, and it should be equally obvious that following a Twitter account also isn’t an endorsement or a sign that you agree with everything or even anything that they say. Little Bird didn’t even have the statistical honesty to say what percentage of all accounts followed by these Trump supporters fit their criteria. I follow around 500 people, and I probably do more than most to keep my timeline uncluttered.
In addition to following a couple white nationalists, I follow social justice warriors, conservatives, progressives, libertarians, socialists, and even three Catholic communists.
I wonder how many Joseph Stalin apologists are followed by the SPLC types that make these kinds of accusations. I follow at least one.