Study warns social media bans drive users to more extreme platforms

Users who violate a social media platform's rules may get a warning, a temporary suspension, or, depending on the issue, a permanent ban from the platform. These bans are made in an effort to reduce the amount of problematic content on the platforms, but a new study warns that banning these users doesn't ultimately fix the problem...and is likely to drive them to even greater levels of extremism and toxicity.

The new study comes from Binghamton University and it involved an international team of researchers. The study focused on social media platform users who were banned from mainstream sites like Twitter and Reddit, then gravitated to alternatives that allowed them to post their offensive content.

These alternative social media platforms include ones like Parler and Gab, both of which are known as hotbeds for extremist content and high levels of toxicity. The researchers carefully selected users who were banned from popular social media and made the switch to alternatives; the link was based on things like avatars, usernames, and careful reviews of the users' content.

Of note, the researchers found that when users were banned from mainstream platforms and moved to alternatives with less moderation, their toxicity levels and posting activity increased. Though these alternative sites reduce the reach of the banned user's content, that doesn't necessarily reduce the user's potential harm.

One of the researchers behind the project, Jeremy Blackburn, explained:

The hardcore group, maybe the group that we're most concerned about, are the ones that probably stick with someone if they move elsewhere online. If by reducing that reach, you increase the intensity that the people who stay around are exposed to, it's like a quality versus quantity type of question. Is it worse to have more people seeing this stuff? Or is it worse to have more extreme stuff being produced for fewer people?

The researchers suggest that outright banning these users may be useful for the individual platforms that no longer have to deal with them, but could have wider consequences for society. Blackburn goes on to call for "more creative ideas" for dealing with these users, ones that ideally push them toward a more positive direction rather than toward extremism.