Instagram (still) has a big problem with Nazis and white supremacists


Despite taking significant steps to remove hateful content, hundreds of posts promoting dangerous white supremacist ideologies are still readily available on Instagram where they could radicalize unsuspecting users, new research shows.

The Anti Defamation League’s Center on Extremism searched for terms on Instagram related to white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements, quickly uncovering hundreds of accounts sharing extremist propaganda.

The posts included references to “accelerationism,” an extremist ideology cited in the manifestos of mass shooters whose goal is to quicken the destruction of Western governments by fomenting chaos and tension.

Starting with the keyword “Atomwaffen,” ADL researchers were able to find and view five Instagram posts containing content linked to Atomwaffen Division, an accelerationist group created in 2016.

Members of the group were arrested in 2020 and sentenced for threatening activists and journalists. It disbanded that same year but may be active again and spreading propaganda on social media, according to the ADL research.

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Only one of the five posts had been removed by Wednesday afternoon, according to the ADL.

Meta Platforms, which owns Instagram and Facebook, said it was reviewing the content to see if it violates its policies. The Atomwaffen Division, which is designated as a terrorist organization, has been banned from Instagram since 2018, but Instagram remains vigilant because extremist groups are constantly looking for new ways to evade detection, the company said.

By searching for accounts that follow those five, researchers quickly discovered 50 more accounts sharing white supremacist content, including posts with neo-Nazi symbolism such as swastikas or SS bolts. Tracking followers of those accounts, they found more than 200 accounts, which promoted other white supremacist themes.

Researchers say there are signs of coordination, with many of the accounts following or being followed by one another.

Among the posts are a video of individuals wearing skull face masks giving the Nazi salute, footage of a speech with audio from Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for the Nazi Party, and images of a gay pride flag being burned. An account with 10,000 followers links to a Twitter account and a merchandise site.

“Today, there is no distinction between our online and offline lives. We’ve seen over and over again the ways hateful content online leads to deadly violence in our communities,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of ADL, said in prepared remarks for a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday shared with USA TODAY. “Poway. El Paso. Pittsburgh. These targeted mass shootings were motivated by extremist conspiracy theories online.”

Instagram does not always block hashtags related to banned organizations because it limits counter speech or legitimate speech, according to Meta Platforms. For example, the hashtag “atomwaffen,” which means nuclear weapons in English, is used by people in Germany to advocate against nuclear weapons. But Instagram does block hashtags that are connected to a high percentage of content that violates its rules.

“We’ve made progress in keeping this type of hate off of our platforms – banning over 270 white supremacist organizations, removing over 2.3 million pieces of content tied to organized hate globally from our platforms in the third quarter of 2021 and reducing the prevalence of hate speech to 0.02% of content viewed on Instagram,” company spokesperson Liza Crenshaw said in a statement.

Marc-André Argentino, a researcher at the International Center for Counter Terrorism in Montreal, who studies how extremists leverage technology to spread their messages, wasn’t surprised that posts like these still exist on Instagram.

The challenge for technology platforms is to implement rules that effectively filter out hateful content that violates their terms of service, without inadvertently banning other content that is acceptable, Argentino said.

Instagram (still) has a big problem with Nazis and white supremacists

“There’s not going to be a human that’s going to look at every Atomwaffen account,” Argentino said. “If you ban, say, the term ‘AWD,’ well, someone trying to sell an All Wheel Drive car is going to get dinged.”

But Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, was more skeptical. She said a massive company like Meta Platforms should be investing in large-scale human content moderation to stamp out harmful content like the posts ADL so easily found.

“If the ADL can send a couple researchers out to dig on Instagram and find a bunch of Nazi accounts, there’s no excuse for Instagram,” Beirich said. “When you make billions of dollars a year and you commit yourself to getting this stuff off your platform, but a researcher can find it with some searches, there’s something wrong with your system.”

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