Words as weapons

A new study from Germany adds more evidence that violent online speech leads to violent attacks in the streets. The Economist:

A paper by Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick finds a strong association between right-wing, anti-refugee sentiment on German social-media sites and violent crimes against refugees.

For every four anti-refugee posts on Facebook, there was one additional anti-refugee incident. According to the Economist, “This relationship appears to be driven by violent crimes such as arson and assault, and cannot be explained by local social-media usage or demography.”

Correlation is not causation, I know. But we’re well aware of the power of propaganda and its association with violence. So it’s hardly surprising that the same connection is apparent in other forms of hateful speech. For example, if you plot the number of anti-trans articles in the UK press and the number of anti-trans hate crimes reported to the police in the same period, the curves are strikingly similar.

This, by Joshua Foust back in 2019, is very relevant today.

While I do think we still don’t understand the precise mechanism by which someone shifts from believing abhorrent ideas to acting on them, there is copious research demonstrating that abhorrent beliefs do lead to increases in ethnic violence. If a belief system is encouraging of violence and dehumanization then it has to be considered alongside the violent actors who say it inspires them.

Foust begins by writing about Anders Breivik, whose manifesto famously referenced Daily Mail writer Melanie Phillips multiple times, but expands his article more widely:

I think we need to take a few moments to understand how, as the debate over hate speech is manipulated in profoundly bad faith by right wing public intellectuals, the proliferation of hate speech is having a measurably bad effect on us as a society. And, realizing that, I’ll also discuss why placing faith in internet companies to fix the problem absolves everyone else of the need to act… we have to take responsibility for the sort of language we will tolerate, whether online or in more traditional media.



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