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Study shows how Facebook helps incite anti-refugee attacks in Germany

German towns which had high Facebook use also experienced more far-right violence.

A member of the far right Hagida movement pointing his finger and shouting at counter protestors during the demonstration in Hannover, Germany June 17, 2018.  (Photo Credit: David Speier/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A member of the far right Hagida movement pointing his finger and shouting at counter protestors during the demonstration in Hannover, Germany June 17, 2018. (Photo Credit: David Speier/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When the Cambridge Analytica story broke in March, most of the attention was focused on how the firm used Facebook data to “microtarget” U.S. voters in swing states during the 2016 presidential election.

Soon, there were also reports that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to exploit socioeconomic tensions and ethnic divisions in places like Nigeria and Kenya ahead of their elections.

Now though, a new study has suggested that the damage Facebook’s influence can have more extensive than previously thought — even without the help of firms like Cambridge Analytica.

The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Warwick, examined more than 3,300 anti-refugee attacks in Germany over the last two years. It consistently found that in areas with higher use of Facebook, there were more attacks on refugees. If Facebook usage per-person in an area was more than one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by 50 percent. This correlation held regardless of the town’s size, economic standing or political leanings.

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“We show that right-wing anti-refugee sentiment on Facebook predicts violent crimes against refugees in otherwise similar municipalities with higher social media usage,” the study’s abstract reads. “Our results suggest that social media can act as a propagation mechanism between online hate speech and real-life violent crime.”

The study is careful to emphasize that it doesn’t believe that social media itself is a driver of crime. Rather, it argues that Facebook serves as gasoline for ingrained prejudices, prejudices which are only likely to increase as Facebook’s algorithm encourages you to like or check-out more anti-refugee pages once you’ve initially “liked” one. According to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by researchers, the result is that 13 percent of anti-refugee attacks in Germany can be linked directly to anti-refugee posts on Facebook.

“Our findings are particularly timely in light of recent policy debates about whether and how to “regulate” hate speech on social media,” the study says. “Our work… suggest[s] that policymakers ignore online hate crime at their peril.”

The study is made all-the-more worrying by the fact that researchers used the Facebook page of the “Alternative fur Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany or AfD) as their jumping-off point to examine the correlation between Facebook and hate crimes. AfD is a far-right, anti-immigrant party which is currently the main opposition force to Angela Merkel in the German Bundestag (Parliament). The fact that their official Facebook page is used to examine the ties between social media and hate crimes should be a cause for concern.

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Germany has experienced a worrying uptick in far-right violence, most recently seen this past weekend, when at least one police officer was injured in clashes in Berlin between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis, who were commemorating the death of the Nazi Rudolf Hess. In July, Germany’s domestic intelligence service warned that membership of the far-right “Reichsbuerger” group had surged. Germany’s military is also under the spotlight for harboring right-wing extremism.

Berlin however, has taken some drastic steps in a bid to clamp down on hate speech. A law that came into effect earlier this year requires Facebook to erase posts that fall foul of Germany’s hate speech laws (which are extremely rigid, for understandable historical reasons) or risk fines in the millions. Between January and June, Facebook deleted 362 posts which fell foul of the hate speech law.