Can Facebook really “push” to violence

A study published in The New York Times, tells about the relationship between hate on social networks and real crimes. Columnist at The Atlantic and expert on the activities of terrorist organizations Simon cotty believes that this relationship is not obvious.

Photo: UNHCR / S. Rich

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Simon Cotty

In August 2018, The New York Times published an article “New research shows that Facebook is pushing for attacks against the refugees.” The article describes research by Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwarz from the University of Warwick who analyzed 3 335 attacks on refugees in Germany occurred in two years. Scientists came to the conclusion that in cities where more people used Facebook, the attack on the refugees occurred more often. Columnist at The Atlantic and expert on the activities of terrorist organizations Simon cotty questioned this thesis.

Whether the hatred and rhetoric encourage people to act

Representatives of Facebook have already appeared three times before the U.S. Congress over the past year, including a speech by Sheryl Sandberg who answered uncomfortable questions about the spread of misinformation and the threat to democracy in the United States.

But the problems of interaction with society the company does not end with these issues. Facebook is also accused of inciting political unrest and even violence around the world: from the creation of the conditions for the arms in Libya to participate in fomenting anti-immigrant hatred on the streets of Germany.

The case against the world’s largest social platform is gaining momentum. But is that necessary? According to a recent article in The New York Times, evidence of this is already available and the link between Facebook and violence in society is real.

The article is devoted to the problem of attacks on immigrants in Germany, begins with this story: “When you ask a local why the trainee fireman Dirk Denkhaus, who seemed no danger and was not a political activist, broke into the attic of the house where lived the Syrian refugees, and tried to set fire to it, they are highlighting familiar problems.” The report lists these problems: economic decline, frustration and boredom.

The authors then add: “But they often think another factor not usually mentioned when discussing the rise of aggression to the refugees in Germany: is Facebook. We’ve all seen the posts on social media depicting refugees as a threat. Racist sarcasm at the local pages in sharp contrast with the public space Altena (a city in North-Western Germany), where locals have formed a warm relationship with the displaced families”.

The authors refer to the suspicion of the locals that Denkhaus “isolated itself in the online world of fear and anger that led to violence.”

However, it is striking that in the article The New York Times this report is described as “a landmark study” confirming that Facebook “makes the society more prone to racial violence.” Is it really proven? How convincing is the relationship between online hate and violence?

The study authors Karsten müller and Carlo Schwarz put forward two empirical claims. First, a moderate and quite reasonable, is that “echo chamber (the situation in which certain ideas and beliefs are amplified by the transmission of the message or its repetition within a closed system (batch, supporters, subculture) – “Pravmir”) in social networks may strengthen sentiment against refugees.”

The second statement that causes an acute contradiction lies in the fact that the echo chamber not only reinforce sentiment against the refugees, but also may contribute to crimes against immigrants.

How to write Mueller and Schwartz, the echo chamber “may push some potential criminals to commit violent acts”. They conclude that “social networks are not only fertile ground for the spread of hate, and motivate us to real action.”

According to Mueller and Schwartz, the “hostile attitude towards refugees in Facebook precedes violent crimes against them in the regions with high use of social media.” The main proof is the fact that in municipalities where Internet users are active on the page “Alternative for Germany”, the largest far right party in the country, crimes motivated by hatred against immigrants disproportionately frequent.

As the authors themselves admit, the evidence of this theory unconvincing. The relationship between ideas and rhetoric, on the one hand, and actual behaviour and actions, on the other, remain frustratingly opaque and not amenable to empirical testing. Whether the hatred and rhetoric encourage people to act or they just refer to them after his act to streamline? This issue is still disputed among scholars.

Photo: Ilias Bartolini / Flickr

But the crime really hate

As to violent crimes against immigrants in Germany, most of the crimes against the refugees can lead to outbursts of hatred on the Internet than hate in social media leads to violence in the real world. If messages of hate more in those regions where a disproportionately more frequent attacks on refugees, it can be good, as people begin to discuss these cases, especially if they’re worried about immigration or bad attitude towards refugees.

The brutality of the terrorists it inspires action, we see this in the case of the Islamic state (a terrorist organization banned in Russia). Every time there was an attack that was similar to the share of supporters of the IG, we have seen an enormous growth in social networks among their fans, regardless of whether in reality the terrorists are inspired by this organization.

It’s part of a deeper social dynamics, which was described by the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim: crime causes an angry reaction in the community, bringing together people so they could advocate for or against the offender.

In the days when I lived Durkheim, people did it in their homes or on the streets. Now they are doing the same thing, but with Facebook and other social networks, where, under the guise of anonymity, they can drain the most vicious bile you can imagine.

Karsten müller, one of the authors of a study on the impact of Facebook on offense, told me that “this study does not allow us to answer, how many crimes of hate can be explained by events occurring in social networks” and its results “depend on many reservations”.

Mueller stressed that “any causal interpretation of our results depends on the failures in the Facebook and Internet.” “We found that during such outages, the correlation between crimes of hate, on the one hand, and the use of regional resources in social networks, on the other hand, is practically zero.

This implies that at least part of the data we collect is evidence of causation”.

Or, as writes the Times, “whenever in areas with high access to Facebook access to the Internet decreased, the attack on the refugees was also reduced.”

Photo: Squat Le Monde / Flickr

Thus, reducing the rhetoric of hate on the Internet can stop some crimes in the real world.

Do we really believe that people do not have the right to vote

It cannot be denied that Facebook and other social platforms can contribute to violence, allowing people to spread beliefs and rhetoric that legitimize it. Activists can use social media to coordinate and mobilize during the attack. But it is still not clear that Facebook itself can create a motive for violent actions.

A similar debate can be found in scientists who study the problem of terrorism. They’re arguing whether the terrorist propaganda online to radicalize those who are vulnerable to it. The consensus is that a sustainable impact can strengthen extremist beliefs of people, but it is unlikely that it in itself can cause radicalization, not to mention the “nudging” people to commit violent acts.

And note the determinism of the term “push”.

Do we really believe that the people have no voice in this matter and they have no desire to be “pushed”? And even if we assume that they are “pushed”, how does this mechanism work? This is one quick “push” or a cumulative series of mini”Toscani”?

And finally, why the majority of those who consume and spread hatred on the Internet, refrain from implementing their hysterical claims? If online statements about hatred was so pushing for real action, we would see many more crimes of hate than it is now, given the massive proliferation of such statements in social networks.

This increases the likelihood that many people with hatred of others and refrain from its implementation in the real world because the virtual world allows them to Express their outrage, and misanthropic mood.

These questions should be at the centre of debate about the role of social media in the modern world, but they are often replaced by those who believe that hate speech is not only act, but also the root cause of the actions is much more serious.


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