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Fanning the flames of hate - new research on links between social media and hate crime

The use of social media can help propagate already existing tensions and perhaps even push some potential perpetrators over the edge to carry out violent acts. This is according to new research of social media and violence against refugees in Germany.

The paper presented by Warwick researcher Carlo Schwarz and Karsten Müller from Princeton University at the Royal Economic Society annual conference, hosted this year by Warwick University Department of Economics, finds that there is a high correlation between anti-refugee sentiments on social media and real-life actions.

The authors look at anti-refugee rhetoric on the Facebook page of the far-right party “Alternative for Germany”, the make-up of its users and their location, and compared this to 3,300 anti-refugee incidents in Germany. They find that in weeks with spikes in anti-refugee sentiment on Facebook, attacks on refugees are disproportionately more likely in areas with high social media usage.

But how can we be sure that social media plays a key role? To test this, the researchers look at 300 major internet or Facebook disruptions that temporarily cut off users from social media. They find that such outages reduce the link between hate crimes and social media exposure. According to the researchers, local hate crimes typically move hand in hand with anti-refugee sentiments, particularly in municipalities with high social media usage. However, this link essentially disappears in weeks of severe internet or Facebook disruptions. This is even though these outages do not seem to affect hate crimes through other channels.

While they argue that social media does not cause hate crime by itself and is only one of a myriad of factors that may affect anti-refugee incidents, the findings do suggest that there is a clear link between social media and hate crime.

Carlo Schwarz is a PhD student at the Department of Economics, University of Warwick and the ESRC Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). His website is www.carloschwarz.eu.

Karsten Müller is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University’s Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy and Finance. His website is www.karstenmueller.eu.

 

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