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Warwick research links online hate speech to real life violence

A recent paper published by researchers at Warwick has found a correlation between social media hate-speech and the prevalence of violent hate-crime.

Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz, postgraduate students at Warwick Business School and the University’s Economics Department respectively, published their research entitled Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime, in December last year.

The paper is based mainly on analysis of a Facebook page celebrating Germany’s controversial far-right party Alternative For Deutchland (AfD), which became the third largest party in the German Bundestag after last year’s federal elections.

Müller and Schwarz’s analysis suggests that posts on the group that criticise refugees lead to increased violence against refugees in Germany. The researchers also found that from the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, his Tweets have been able to incite violence against groups he insults.

It also found that Trump tweets which specifically insulted one group did not lead to increases in violence against any other groups.

Data on the prevalence of anti-refugee hate-crime in Germany shows 3334 incidents from 1 January 2015 until 13 February 2017, ranging from anti-refugee graffiti and arson of refugee homes to assaults against refugees. The paper also estimated that: “In the absence of anti-refugee posts on the AfD Facebook page 437 (13%) fewer anti-refugee incidents would have taken place.”

The paper found that posts directed against other groups, such as Muslims or Jews, did not lead to increases in violence against refugees, and neither did posts containing anti-refugee sentiment on other Facebook pages.

This conclusion was further supported by the discovery that internet outages in Germany showed a negative correlation between online hate-speech and actual violence in the affected localities.

The research comes as there are calls in the United Kingdom to better regulate sentiments on social media. In August, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ordered that prosecutors clamp down on online hate speech, treating it equally to crimes committed offline. Alison Saunders, director of public prosecution, explained to the Guardian: “Left unchallenged, even low-level offending can subsequently fuel the kind of dangerous hostility that has been plastered across our media in recent days.

“That is why countering it is a priority for the CPS. Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on their wall or tweeted into their living room, the impact of hateful abuse on a victim can be equally devastating.”

In June 2017, the German Bundestag passed The Network Enforcement Act threatening a €50 million fine for social media sites that fail to remove “obviously unlawful” content within 24 hours, while less clearly-offensive posts have to be removed within seven days. The European Union has also called on social media companies to remove illegal hate-speech.

Müller and Schwarz conclude their paper by noting that: “Such legislation comes at a high price: since the lines between what constitutes free speech and hate speech are blurred, it opens the door for blanket censorship. Our work does, however, suggest that policymakers ignore online hate crime at their peril.”

You can read the paper here.


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