Twitter and the ‘Great Replacement’: New ISD Report shines light on #white genocide hashtag

A protestor promoting the idea of ‘white genocide’ at a rally in Washington on the anniversary of the deadly Charlottesville protest. Michael Reynolds/EPA

In a new report published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) we sought to better understand how the ‘Great Replacement’ theory metastasised in recent years, growing and spreading rapidly across the globe. The concept, which was central to a document published by the perpetrator of the Christchurch terrorist attack, focuses on the perceived displacement of white Europeans (i.e., in ethnic and cultural terms) through migration.

The theory was originally coined by French polemicist Renaud Camus in an eponymous 2012 book. Since then it has become central to the ideology of Identitarian and other white nativist movements globally. Of course the ideas which underpin the Great Replacement theory are not new. Related concepts have circulated in extreme-right circles for years, such as the ‘White Genocide theory,’ which similarly focuses on a perceived replacement of white people, but with the additional component that the whole conspiracy is believed to be organised by Jewish people. In the case of the Great Replacement theory, our research demonstrated a steady increase in discussion around the theory in recent years.

Our research also pointed towards a number of different factors, which help amplify and disseminate these ideological talking points to new audiences. Effective digital campaigning by extremist groups is certainly one part of this, in part taking advantage of the social media companies’ slow movement in facing up to the threat posed by the extreme right.

To better understand these phenomena this blog examines the way the hashtag #whitegenocide has been used on Twitter. To do this just over 2,620,000 tweets made between January 1st 2012 and July 05th 2019,  were examined using Crimson Hexagon, a social listening tool.

The volume of discussion around this aforementioned hashtag reveals that periods of intense discussion around the theory appear to surround particular events. This differs from the discussion of Great Replacement, which we have documented in our report. It suggests that discussion of the White Genocide concept is dependent on particular trigger events, whilst discussion of the Great Replacement theory is gradually spreading to wider audiences.

An analysis of these spikes in Twitter activity demonstrates the sorts of events, which can increase online discussion around extremist discourses.

The largest spike, which occurred in our data-set occurred between 20th – 25th March 2015, with a total of 34,265 tweets. This spike coincided with the ‘March Against White Genocide’ event on March 21, and attracted a large amount of individuals promoting the conspiracy. Interestingly, however, there was also a large amount of counter-speech against the concept, which in part appears to have been sparked by journalist and CEO of ‘This Week in Blackness’ Elon James White. He posted in dismay about the content in a subsequently deleted Tweet, which was paired with the white genocide hashtag. This encouraged his audience to discuss the topic in a fashion, which disputed or expressed dismay at the extent of support for the theory online. In some instances, this content was combative towards adherents to the white genocide theory.  In response to this a large number of supporters of the theory were galvanised. They responded in kind, whether by disseminating extreme-right propaganda, or promoting the theory.

To ascertain the extent to which this peak in activity was caused by Elon James White’s followers, and the extent to which it was caused by adherents to the White Genocide theory, I used a hate mapping tool developed by ISD and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM). This tool uses natural language processing combined with machine learning to automatically classify conversation into categories defined by a team of researchers.

The tool was used to examine a random sample of 10,000 tweets drawn from this spike, using a classifier designed to detect language which indicated a lack of support for the white genocide theory. The findings of this process suggested that over 30% of the content in this spike was counter-speech which disputed the concept. However, a qualitative assessment of this counter-speech suggests that it may have exacerbated issues by provoking arguments with white supremacist communities. Nevertheless, this demonstrates the impact that high profile figures speaking out against issues can have in denying extremist groups dominance over a particular discussion.

The second greatest spike in discussion around this theory occurred between 25th – 28th December 2016, with a total of 31,971 tweets. This specific spike in activity related to a campaign to boycott State Farm insurance company after a Christmas advertisement featured an interracial couple, using the hashtag #BoycottStateFarm. An attempt was made to check archived content from 4chan and reddit to see if this campaign was in some way coordinated, but no evidence could be found. This suggests that this was the result of spontaneous activity by loose networks of white genocide advocates. It also demonstrates the opportunistic way in which extreme right communities often campaign.

A final spike which is worth analysing occurred between August 22nd and August 26th, which saw a spike of 21,765 tweets. Although not the largest peak in activity in our dataset, this event correlated with the fifth largest spike in discussion of the white genocide theory in over seven years. It accounted for 5% of the total mentions of #whitegenocide on Twitter over 2018. In this instance, this activity correlated with a tweet made by President Trump, which referenced violence towards white farmers in South Africa, a trope which is commonly discussed by white genocide advocates. Using the same natural language processing algorithms deployed to examine the spike in activity around the ‘march against white genocide’ suggested that over 60% of tweets in this peak of activity directly supported the white genocide conspiracy theory.

Crucially, this demonstrates the significant impact which politicians can have in amplifying and normalising extremist ideology and discourses though implicit references. Our analysis of the Great Replacement theory similarly documented how Great Replacement has penetrated the rhetoric of far-right and populist politicians across Europe in recent years, being explicitly and implicitly mentioned by a number of politicians such as H. C. Strache of the FPO, Dries Van Langenhove of Vlaams Belang, and Matteo Salvini.

This sort of analysis demonstrates that these comments do not exist in a vacuum. They act as a dog-whistle, which empowers advocates for white supremacist conspiracy theorists, and encourages them to disseminate extremist messaging more broadly. It is crucial that politicians are held accountable for their role in stoking the fires of extremism through their rhetoric.

Mr Jacob Davey is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and a Research Manager at Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). His profile can be found here.

© Jacob Davey. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).