Megan Squire selected as Anti-Defamation League Belfer Fellow

The fellowship will gather previously unstudied data to advance understanding of de-platforming and demonetizing online hate and extremism

Professor of Computer Science Megan Squire was selected by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Technology and Society as one of three Belfer Fellows and will study the effects of de-platforming far-right extremists.

Professor of Computer Science Megan Squire
Professor of Computer Science Megan Squire

Squire’s research will break new ground, analyzing data from an array of big-tech and niche social media platforms to better understand what happens after individuals or groups are removed from social media sites. Her analysis and visualization of quantitative data will show the impacts of various types and levels of de-platforming and demonetization on extremists. That data will inform discussions and decisions around the topic of de-platforming — the subject of passionate debate but where only anecdotal evidence currently exists.

“This will be a long and intense process to gather facts, figures and data where there aren’t any,” Squire said. “The goal is to answer the questions of what happens after de-platforming, how that extends to higher- and lower-profile individuals, and how the effects differ across platforms.”

Squire’s area of research studies how online communities function by collecting and analyzing large amounts of data. She is an expert in the study of online extremism and far-right extremist groups, and routinely shares her knowledge with law enforcement and national news outlets, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and NBC News.

This is the fourth year of the ADL’s fellowship program, which promotes awareness of cyberhate and digital citizenship to advance greater social good. The other two fellows and projects are Laura Edelson of New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, who will analyze political advertising on Facebook to measure misinformation and hate speech aimed at the U.S. Spanish-speaking and Asian American communities; and Constance Steinkuehler, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who will examine how online games normalize toxicity and extremism among adolescents and young adults.

“I am proud our fellowship continues to attract leaders in their respective fields who are dedicated to fighting cyberhate with new ideas and technologies,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO and national director. “We are looking forward to partnering with these fellows on their new research projects and working toward our collective goals by presenting novel solutions to influence and inform steps forward in the online space.”

While Squire and a team of experts gather their own data, they will also have access to the ADL’s data. The organization will use results of this and other studies to help quantify and qualify online hate in social media, gaming platforms, and other online communities in efforts to make those spaces less toxic.

De-platforming is a controversial but unstudied area. High-profile incidents, such as Twitter banning former President Donald Trump, have received much attention. When hate groups or domestic terror leaders are removed from prominent social media sites, there’s a tendency to assume those individuals and their followers are moving to darker corners of the web where they can’t be as easily monitored, Squire said. She often hears that concern from law enforcement but added that some alternative online platforms make it easier to collect data and track those groups.

“We don’t really know. We have what I like to call ‘anec-data’,” Squire said. “It will be interesting to see what the data really show.”

Among many cases, communities and groups, she plans to detail the de-platforming of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer after the 2017 Unite the Right rally and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The site’s founder has since reemerged online, and Squire will use data from multiple sources to show daily effects of that de-platforming and examine the level of following and support he currently has.

“This is a very ambitious project and it’s going to be tough, but it’s great to have a

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big project to focus on,” Squire said. “A lot of people study domestic terrorism and hate groups, but there aren’t many with the technical expertise to write code and software to analyze massive amounts of data. That’s what I do, and there’s room for more of us.”

Squire is the author of two books on data cleaning and data mining, and over 40 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. In 2017, she was named the Elon University Distinguished Scholar. She is a senior fellow for data analytics at the Southern Poverty Law Center and previously was a senior fellow and head of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right’s Technical Research Unit.