(RNN) – Facebook can be uniquely influential in stoking extremist ideology, a study examining the link between anti-refugee sentiment and use of the social media platform in Germany suggests.
The study, done by researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK, found that "right-wing anti-refugee sentiment on Facebook predicts violent crimes against refugees in otherwise similar municipalities with higher social media usage."
The study, "Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime," was released in May and reported on in The New York Times on Tuesday.
Researchers Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwarz examined 3,335 anti-refugee incidents – all such episodes in Germany from 2015 to early 2017.
What they found was simple: Controlling for a number of factors, "anti-refugee hate crimes increase disproportionately in areas with higher Facebook usage during periods of high anti-refugee sentiment online."
Crucially, they were able to isolate the effect. They found that the pattern - higher social media use correlating with higher frequency of hate crimes during more intense periods of anti-refugee sentiment - held across the country, even within populations associated with a neutral page, in this case Germany's second most-popular on Facebook: Nutella's.
"Intuitively, it is less obvious why Nutella Facebook usage should be correlated with anti-refugee incidents, except through higher exposure to refugee salience on social media," the authors wrote. "Put differently, Nutella usage provides us with variation in exposure to anti-refugee sentiment on social media that is unlikely to be driven by higher observable 'demand' for online hate speech or a higher observable tendency to commit anti-refugee crime."
In communities where Facebook use was one standard deviation greater than the national average, The Times reported, anti-refugee incidents increased almost 50 percent.
The Times report examined a number of anecdotal instances in which a person, slowly and subtly, in effect became radicalized against refugees.
One man in western Germany, for instance, "appeared to lose sight of the line separating trolling from sincere hate" the more he used Facebook. Eventually, the man tried to set a refugee group house on fire.
"Our results suggest that social media can act as a propagation mechanism between online hate speech and real-life violent crime," the study's authors wrote.
Facebook, the study suggests, can lead individuals to perceive more and more social reinforcement for more and more extreme views.
"You can get this impression that there is widespread community support for violence," Dr. Betsy Paluck of Princeton University told The Times. "And that changes your idea of whether, if you acted, you wouldn't be acting alone."
The social network did not directly address the study's implications, only telling The Times in an email that, "Our approach on what is allowed on Facebook has evolved over time and continues to change as we learn from experts in the field."
"Our findings suggest that social media has not only become a fertile soil for the spread of hateful ideas but also motivates real life action," the study concludes.
It adds: "Volatile, short-lived bursts in sentiment within a given location have substantial effects on people's behavior, and social media may play a role in their propagation."