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Study links Facebook use to violence against refugees in Germany

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A new study by researchers at the University of Warwick is linking the use of Facebook to incidents of violence against refugees.

Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick found that German towns that had higher incidences of violent attacks targeting refugees also had a corresponding higher rate of Facebook use among the town’s population.

{mosads}In their comprehensive 3,335 data point study, they noticed that this correlation persisted even when the towns being assessed were controlled for other factors like wealth, demographics, prior support for far-right ideologies, newspaper sales, refugee populations and hate crime history.

Müller and Schwarz found that a single standard deviation above the average amount of Facebook usage in a town meant an almost 50 percent increase in violence against refugees.

Notably, when a long-term internet outage occurred that forced users off Facebook, violence against refugees dropped.

The study also differentiated between general internet use and the use of Facebook specifically, finding no links between violence and higher amounts spent on the internet alone.

Müller and Schwarz noted that even though their study suggests that Facebook could play a role in driving violence, there were ultimately larger underlying factors. They said the social media platform was only an accelerator, amplifying the most harmful views of a town’s members.

“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,” they wrote.

“Rather, our argument is that social media can act as a propagating mechanism for the flare-up of hateful sentiments,” they added.

The New York Times, which first reported on the study, spoke with people in Altena, Germany, one of the towns in the study. Residents often said that its findings didn’t surprise them.

The Times attributed the increase to Facebook’s algorithms, which prioritize high engagement content without regard to the substance unless it explicitly violates Facebook’s user policy.

Over time, the report noted, speech that doesn’t violate Facebook’s user policy can still add up to creating a sentiment that paints refugees in a negative light, leading some in a town to believe that violence against them is acceptable.

The study’s findings parallel reports that Facebook is helping fuel violence based on ethnicity in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.

In each country, Facebook has become ground zero for hate speech and harmful hoaxes directed at ethnic minorities. United Nations reports and investigators have argued that because of this, Facebook has helped perpetuate violence in the countries.  

Facebook did not comment to the Times and did not return a request for comment from The Hill.

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