Real-world events such as assassinations and political protests can trigger an increase in online hate speech directed against unrelated groups. The finding could help online moderators predict when hateful content is more likely to be published and what they should look for, the researchers say.

Previous research has linked offline incidents to subsequent spikes in hate speech and violent hate crimes, but these studies have largely focused on medium platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook (now Meta), which have policies to identify and remove this type of content.

To better understand the triggers, and the relationship between mainstream platforms and less moderated individuals, Yonatan Lupu, a professor at George Washington University in Washington DC, and his colleagues used machine-learning tools to examine conversations between 1,150 users of online hate communities published between June 2019. and December 2020. Some of these communities were on Facebook, Instagram and VKontakte. Others were on less moderate platforms Gab, Telegram and 4chan.

The study was published in PLoS One, It found that offline events such as elections, assassinations and protests can trigger large spikes in online hate speech activity.

There was, but not always, a direct correlation between an event and the type of hateful content it triggered. The assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in early 2020 led to an increase in Islamophobic and antisemitic content in recent days.

It triggered the biggest spike in hate speech in protests against the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Race-related hate speech increased by 250% after these events, but there was also a more general wave of hate online.

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“One of the interesting things about this particular event is the growth [in race-related hate speech] It lasted,” said Lupu. “Even by the end of 2022, the frequency with which people use racial hate speech in these communities has not returned to what it was before the killing of George Floyd.

“Another interesting thing is that it also seems to activate various other forms of hate speech online, where the connection to what’s happening offline is not clear.”

For example, hate speech targeting gender identity and sexual orientation – a topic with little comfortable association with murder and protest – increased by 75%. Content related to nationalism and ethnicity, such as gender-related and anti-Semitic hate speech, also increased.

The research could not prove causation, but its findings suggest a more complex relationship between triggering events and online hate speech than previously assumed.

One factor may be the scale of media coverage associated with the events in question. “Both the volume and variety of online responses to offline events depend, in part, on the prominence of those events in other media,” Lupu said.

He suspects, however, that this is not the only factor. “We can’t say for sure, but I think there’s something about the way hate is built now in English-speaking societies, like racism is at the core of it. When racism is active — if it’s strongly active — then it spreads in all directions.”

Catriona Scholes, director of insights at anti-extremism tech company Moonshot, said they had seen a similar pattern associated with anti-Semitic hate speech.

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For example, protests against a planned drag Storytime event in Columbus, Ohio, in December prompted a surge in anti-LGBTQ+ hate — as well as increased threats and hostility toward the Jewish community.

“There is potential to use this type of data to shift from being reactive to being proactive in protecting individuals and communities,” Scholes said.

Lupu said content moderation teams on mainstream platforms should monitor fringe platforms for emerging trends. “What happens on 4Chan doesn’t stay on 4Chan. If they’re talking about something on 4Chan, it will reach Facebook. It also suggests that content moderation teams should think about what’s happening in the news, and what it might trigger, to prepare their response. to try to do.

A particularly important question for future research is to investigate whether other types of offline events are likely to follow broader and more indiscriminate cascades of online hate, he said.


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