A higher-than-usual social media usage at the local level can lead to a spike in violent crimes in the area, a new study has found.
Researchers at the University of Warwick, UK, found that German towns with a high level of engagement on Facebook had a higher rate of anti-refugee incidents.
"Social media can act as a propagation mechanism between online hate speech and real-life violent crime," the study authors, Karsten Mueller and Carlo Schwarz, wrote.
However, some have emitted doubts about the study's robustness given that it was not peer-reviewed as well as about the veracity of the data used.
Alternative for Germany
Schwarz explained to Euronews that the two researchers measured anti-refugee sentiment online by looking at the Facebook page of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
At the time the newly-established right-wing, anti-immigration party was boosted by the influx of refugees that arrived in Germany since the start of the migrant and refugee crisis.
According to official statistics, 890,000 asylums seekers arrived in the country in 2015, at the height of the crisis. Numbers have since dwindled with 186,644 asylum seekers recorded last year.
AfD is now Germany’s third-strongest faction in the parliament and also, incidentally, the most ‘liked’ German political party on Facebook.
The study measured general Facebook usage through a German Facebook fan page for Nutella because, they argued, users from all across the country engage with it. Municipalities that regularly engaged with it the most were then said to have a “higher Facebook usage.”
“The only thing we’re aiming to do with the Nutella measure is to get a sense or more or less genuine Facebook usage in Germany,” Schwarz told Euronews by phone after doubts were cast online about the robustness of the method.
Some of the criticism levelled at the study is the fact that it was not peer-reviewed — a process through which academic papers face the scrutiny of experts in the same field before they are published.
But most of it is about whether it is correct to say that Facebook engagement can lead to real-life violence based solely on data extracted from one Facebook fan page.
For Schwarz, "it is fair" to say so.
“If there was some municipality-level data on Facebook usage in Germany, we would have simply used these ones.
“There will never be a perfect Facebook usage measure. We argue that the Nutella page is a valid proxy for the local Facebook activity” due to high engagement levels and the fact that it is “uncorrelated” with any far-right activity, he added.
3,335 anti-refugee incidents
Schwarz and Karsten then broke the data down to municipalities and compared them to national hate crime statistics.
From January 2015 through to early 2017, 3,335 incidents against refugees were recorded across Germany, two-thirds of which were property damage to refugee home, followed by assault (534), anti-refugee demonstrations (339) and arson (225).
“When anti-refugee comments or posts rise on the Facebook page of the AfD as a measure for the overall anti-refugee comments on social media, we see a disproportionate rise in the number of anti-refugee incidents in all municipalities that have a high Facebook usage,” Schwarz told Euronews.
In the study, they added that the effect “is especially pronounced for violent incidents against refugees, such as arson and assault.”
The research, Schwarz argued, also controlled the number of right-wing or AfD voters.
“We are comparing municipalities with more or less the same number of right-wing activity but with a different number (level) of social media activity.
“What we show is that more right-wing people (in an municipality) does not lead to more right-wing hate crime at a time of anti-refugee sentiment on social media,” he said.
'Fertile soil' for hateful speech
For Schwarz, the most important findings were those about internet and Facebook outages, which according to the co-authors, “fully mediate the effect of social media salience on hate crime."
“In normal weeks, the number of anti-refugee attacks disproportionally increases for areas with high Facebook usage.
“In weeks of Facebook outages, areas with high Facebook usage behave very similarly to areas with low Facebook usage,” Schwarz explained.
The trend was similar in weeks when a major news event dominated the conversation online.
The researchers made clear that Facebook is not causing the violence and that there are multiple factors behind such acts.
But their findings, they said, "suggest that social media has not only become a fertile soil for the spread of hateful ideas but also motivates real-life action".