As children most of us learned some version of the phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." That old saw may help some of us shake off unkind words in some circumstances, but new research underlines just the opposite--hateful words on social media can lead to actual hate crimes.
Writing in the Journal of the European Economic Association, co-authors Karsten Muller, at Princeton University, and Carlo Schwarz, at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, detail links between anti-immigrant and anti-refugee posts on Facebook and violent crimes against those targets, based on events in Germany between January, 2015 and February, 2017.
You can read the details behind their findings in the open-access paper, "Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime."
As detailed in the paper, the authors found a significant, nearly linear correlation between the incidence of hate speech on Facebook and actual hate crimes. This was especially clear for municipalities with above average numbers of Facebook followers of Germany's leading anti-immigrant, anti-refugee political party, Alternative f ur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD. (For a striking graph, see page 17 of the paper).
The authors write, ". . . we find that--during periods of high salience of refugees on right-wing social media--anti-refugee hate crimes increase . . . This correlation is especially pronounced for violent incidents such as assault."
Muller and Schwarz did something very clever in order to go beyond mere correlation and get closer to testing for a causal relationship between hate-filled content on social media and hate crimes. They took advantage of hundreds of local or regional internet outages that took place during the years of the study, outages which temporarily blocked a given area's exposure to hate speech on Facebook.
It turned out that local internet outages acted much like turning down a dimmer switch or letting up on the gas pedal of your car--the internet outages cut down the number of hate crimes in the affected areas. The relationship was made even clearer by the fact that even during periods when anti-immigrant and anti-refugee attitudes and hate crimes were surging throughout the country, those crimes did not increase in regions temporarily without internet access.
"Quantitatively, a typical internet disruption fully mediates [breaks] the link between social media and hate crime," the researchers write.
Still, they caution that the "natural experiment" provided by localized internet outages wasn't quite enough to prove causation. Their interpretation is that the flow of hate speech through media such as Facebook encourages and enables hate crimes and clearly makes them more likely, but is just one of several causes. ". . . we do not claim that social media itself causes crimes against refugees out of thin air. Rather, our argument is that social media can act as a propagating mechanism for hateful sentiments that likely have many fundamental sources."
Similarly, one could argue that stomping on the gas pedal doesn't in itself cause your car to speed up, it just adds fuel to an already-running engine.
The researchers also found that the enabling link between hate speech and violent assaults was particularly strong for attacks by groups of perpetrators. We may have seen just such a link between President Trump's repeated support for or refusal to condemn armed, right-wing and often violent groups and the 13 white nationalists now under indictment for plotting to kidnap and try Governor Whitmer of Michigan. In the light of this new research, i t would be more than naive to believe that Trump's words don't encourage such violent groups to act, as testified to by such groups' own comments.
In short, it looks as though hateful words can and do "propagate" or fuel actual attacks with "sticks and stones," or worse, especially when those words are amplified and echoed on social media and heard again and again by aggrieved individuals brought together by the same media.
And in that light, a standing ovation to town-hall moderator Savannah Guthrie for pointing out to Trump, face-to-face, "You're the president. You're not, like, someone's crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever."