Runner-up in the CAGE Essay CompetitionTuesday 5 Mar 2019
Summary of Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz's 2018 CAGE working paper: "Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime" by Umesh Moramudali
Over the last few years, as the number of social media users rise, influence of social media on society has significantly increased. This increase has inevitably resulted in good as well as bad. In the recent past, number of governments across the globe claimed that social media has had significant influence on hate crimes due to hate speech on social media platforms. On that backdrop, Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz in 2018 carried out a research titled “Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime” to examine the impact of social media on hate crime in Germany using Facebook data.
The study looks at hate crime against refugees and argues that hate speech in social media aimed at refugees resulted in anti-refugee crimes. Research uses the dynamics pertaining to the Facebook presence of a recently emerged right-wing party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) which strongly advocates anti-immigrant ideologies, to estimate the impact of Facebook usage on crimes against refugees. Research findings suggest that the prevalence of hate crimes against refugees is high in the areas with high social media usage. The paper argues that social media has acted as a propagation mechanism to increase hate crimes against refugees in Germany. However, impact of social media on hate crime has reduced when the anti-refugee sentiment is distracted by internet outages and major news distractions such as Brexit.
The research closely analyzes the data of the AfD’s Facebook page, which is considered a reflection of online hatred towards immigrants, to identify the patterns of hate speech aimed at refugees. Although there are minor issues of using Facebook data of this page to represent social media hate speech towards refugees, it stands as a good indicator. The Facebook page of AfD has more than 300,000 likes making it the most popular Facebook page of a political party in Germany. The research uses over 176,000 posts, more than 290,000 comments, and 500,000 likes by over 93,000 individual users, to conduct the analysis.
Study finds that anti-refugee hate crimes were increased disproportionally in areas with higher Facebook usage during periods of high anti-refugee sentiment online. This indicates that certain Facebook posts and discussions had led to assault of refuges as well as arson. It is also observed that there is a significant reduction of violent acts against refugees in the presence of internet outages as well as salient news events.
Researchers constructed a new data set using data, regarding a number of variables during the time span of 111 weeks from 1st January 2015 to 13th February 2017 in 4,466 German municipalities. These variables include Municipality level data on anti-refugee hate crimes, Facebook data on posts, likes, and comments from the AfD and Nutella pages, internet and Facebook outages on municipality level, socio-economic and election data at municipality level, historical data on neo-Nazi murders at city level and anti-semitism and anti-refugee salience on right wing media outlets and number of others.
The study observes the anti-refugee sentiment promoted on Facebook based on the number of posts on the AfD Facebook page in any given week that contain the word “Fl¨uchtling” (refugee). Although this could result in including posts and comments that would express positive sentiment towards refugees, careful examination of comments and posts in AfD page suggests that largre majority of the followers are in favor of the anti-refugee sentiment advocated by the AfD. In order to identify anti-refugee dynamics, 93,806 facebook user ids which are active on AfD page was used and based on the locations of the identifiable user ids, it is calculated that there are at least one AfD Facebook user for 3,565 people in observed municipalities.
In analyzing the trend of Facebook posts and impacts of such, the study creates a scale to identify the general Facebook usage in Germany based on the ‘Nutella Germany’ Facebook page which is the second most populist page in Germany. While the AfD and Nutella measures capture slightly distinct concepts, the online appendix shows that they are highly correlated, thereby used as a method to distinguish trends created by the AfD page from the general trends and usage.
According to the estimates, weeks with more anti-refugee posts tend to have more anti-refugee incidents. Correlation between anti-refugee posts and anti-refugee incidents is fairly substantial.
Estimates suggest that the effect of anti-refugee posts in AfD page, on average is 0.038 attacks per 10,000 asylum seekers. Most importantly, effect is higher in areas with larger number of right-wing social media supporters. As results show, estimated effect of a typical number of AfD refugee posts in Dresden where right-wing social media presence is high, are 0.043 attacks per 10,000 asylum seekers, while it is 0.029 for Frankfurt where the right-wing social media presence is low. In general, within Germany, a municipality with many Facebook users has approximately 0.024 more refugee attacks (per 10,000 refugees) than a municipality with few users in a typical week. Interestingly, research also shows that attack on minorities such as Muslims and Jews are correlated with the Facebook posts which advocate hatred towards such minorities.
Regulation? How and why?
In light of the non-negligible effect of social media on anti-refugee and anti-minority sentiments, there is a debate about controlling social media. While social media has allowed individuals to connect with each other despite the distance, making communications easier, it has also posed a substantial threat to peace and harmony. In certain countries, hate speech on social media has significantly contributed towards ethnic clashes and some government even banned social media temporarily to control communal violence. Last year, Sri Lankan government decided to ban social media to control clashes between Sinhalese majority and Muslim minority. Subsequently, Facebook was compelled to hire specialists of local languages and start filtering content consisting of hate speech.
Analysts claimed that in Myanmar, significant rise of the communal violence against Rohingya Muslims are highly correlated with the hate speech promoted by Facebook pages and groups of hardliners. Reuters revealed that Facebook has failed to recruit sufficient number of employees who are fluent with the local language, thereby failed to filter content consisting of hate speech. Some analysts claimed that in Myanmar, Facebook is the only website used by a substantial number of people, therefore, their actions are largely influenced by content they see on Facebook. He however criticized Facebook for not taking sufficient measures to reduce hate speech on the social media platform.
Regulation is a double edged sword
In light of these incidents, a number of countries have started to look into measures to reduce hate speech on social media. Some countries have introduced legislation that allows law enforcement authorities to arrest those who post hate speech content on social media while some countries introduced legislation making social media platforms accountable.
In Germany, the Network Enforcement Act was introduced in 2017 under which social media platforms were asked to allow users to complaint about hate speech content and are held accountable to publish reports regarding the way in which those complaints are handled. Failure to carry out this task will result in being fined with penalties of up to 50 Million Euros.
However, Bangladesh had a different approach. The government introduced a New Digital Security Act which imposed restrictions on the content posted on social media as well as mainstream media. Amnesty International vehemently condemned this new law claiming that it is an attack on freedom of expression and vague provisions of the act allows the government to use it against journalists and social media users.
Against this backdrop, this research shows the extent to which social media can influence on hate crime. Research findings and recent experience of various countries highlight the importance of filtering hate speech content in Social Media, particularly when there is evidence to show that a majority of people in social media act in an irresponsible manner. A study by MIT shows that fake news travel faster than the truth, most of which are political news while nearly 60% of the articles shared on social media are merely based on headlines, increasing probabilities of being misled.
In that context, it is vital to hold social media legally accountable to filter the content as a measure to curtail the impact of social media on hate crime as opposed to restricting individual’s right to freedom of expression.
Amnesty International (2018). Bangladesh: New Digital Security Act is an attack on freedom of expression. [online] Available at: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/bangladesh-new-digital-security-act-attack-freedom-expression [Accessed 24 Jan. 2019].
Kleinman, Z. (2018). Fake news 'travels faster', study finds. [online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-43344256 [Accessed 24 Jan. 2019].
Müller, K. and Schwarz, C. (2018). Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime. [ebook] Coventry: Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, pp.1-70. Available at: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/research/centres/cage/manage/publications/373-2018_schwarz.pdf [Accessed 18 Jan. 2019].
Stecklow, S. (2018). Why Facebook is losing the war on hate speech in Myanmar. [online] Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-facebook-hate [Accessed 25 Jan. 2019].