Even in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s a shocking study. The researchers studied every refugee attack in Germany over two years (3,335) and considered factors such as wealth, political views, and the number of hate crimes and refugees.
For every town and city, they found the same thing: higher-than-average Facebook use corresponded with more attacks on refugees. Specifically, where Facebook usage per capita was one standard deviation above the national average, attacks against refugees jumped by 50 percent.
The researchers say Facebook had a causal effect on violence against refugees. In other words, exposure to more anti-refugee sentiment on the platform made it more likely that people would commit acts of violence against refugees, as opposed to the correlation being due to some other factor, like social media being more prominent in areas where there were more refugees.
The Times reports that experts not involved in the study called the findings “credible” and “rigorous.”
The effect was attributed solely to Facebook, not the internet in general. During internet outages or distracting events, like major soccer tournaments, attacks against refugees actually went down.
Higher-than-average Facebook use corresponded with more attacks on refugees
Facebook declined to comment to the Times about the study, but did say, “Our approach on what is allowed on Facebook has evolved over time and continues to change as we learn from experts in the field.”
The researchers say they “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.”
But Facebook does create bubbles where a small number of hateful posters can make it seem like everyone is angry about immigrants, even in towns where most people are supportive of refugees. That can push people over the line to commit acts of violence.
As the Times put it, Facebook “isolates us from moderating voices or authority figures, siphons us into like-minded groups and, through its algorithm, promotes content that engages our base emotions.”
In that bubble, people can get a steady stream of racist content, and have their xenophobia reinforced by “likes” and supportive comments. Eventually, it might seem like of course taking action against immigrants is the right thing to do — even if your physical neighbors would be mortified by your actions.
This research comes on the tail of a University of Wisconsin–Madison study, reported by Pacific Standard, that found that Facebook users are less informed about politics than people who don’t use Facebook.
The reason for that? Possibly because Facebook users skim “political content rather than devoting much cognitive processing to it,” which may discourage them “from seeking news elsewhere, or from paying attention to the news in general.”
Political ignorance and xenophobia already existed before Facebook, of course. But it’s getting harder and harder to argue that Facebook isn’t making the problem worse.