Is Facebook fueling racist violence?
New research has linked Facebook to violence against refugees in Germany.
The study found that spikes in anti-refugee posts were predictive of violent crimes against those groups.
The research, conducted by the University of Warwick’s Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwartz, theorized that if country-wide waves of “right wing anti-refugee sentiment” resulted in subsequent waves of actual crime, these waves would travel the way any others do, through TV, word of mouth, radio and social media.
To test their theory, the researchers used activity on some major Facebook pages in Germany to measure social media use in general and specific to right-wing groups.
For right-wing activity they particularly looked at the page of the “Alternative for Germany” party, the most popular anti-immigration political faction in the country and one that does not attempt to control the conduct on its threads.
With hundreds of thousands of posts and comments broken down by area, the researchers were able to see patterns of social media use and isolate anti-refugee sentiment within that.
“Using these measures, we find that anti-refugee hate crimes increase disproportionally in areas with higher Facebook usage during periods of high anti-refugee sentiment online,” the researchers said.
“This effect is especially pronounced for violent incidents against refugees, such as arson and assault. Taken at face value, this suggests a role for social media in the transmission of Germany-wide anti-refugee sentiment,” they said.
The research estimates that social media activity may have increased attacks by as much as 13 per cent.
But the researchers stop short of saying social media actually causes violence.
“We do not claim that social media itself causes crimes against refugees out of thin air. In fact, hate crimes are likely to have many fundamental drivers; local differences in xenophobic ideology or a higher salience of immigrants are only two obvious examples,” the researchers said.
“Rather, our argument is that social media can act as a propagating mechanism for the flare-up of hateful sentiments. Taken together, the evidence we present suggests that quasi-random shifts in the local population’s exposure to such sentiments on social media can magnify their effect on refugee attacks,” they said.
The research also canvased some possible alternative explanations.
The researchers discussed the possibility that attacks are more likely in areas where there is heavier social media use. But their study looked at changes in violence levels within an area, not across the whole of Germany.
They found the pattern of anti-immigrant posts preceding anti-immigrant violence is seen whether it takes place in a smaller town with low levels of social media engagement, or in larger cities where Facebook use is much more frequent.
Also, they found that spikes in activity expressing negative feelings toward other frequently targeted groups, for instance Jews, were not associated with increases in refugee-related violence, so it isn’t just that people lash out when they are feeling especially hateful.
Lastly, the researchers showed that other coverage of refugee-related issues, like that by major news outlets, drives local engagement in the form of protests, but does not seem to predict violent acts.
They argued that Facebook isn’t just causing violence to happen. The places where it happens are often historically right-wing places that have had higher incidence of violence and hate crimes in the past.
“But it seems inescapable that Facebook is nevertheless an important way that refugee-related hatred and vitriol in particular is spread, as evidenced by the lack of increases in violence when the social network is unavailable,” the researchers said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist