Facebook Driving Anti-Refugee Attacks, Study Finds

Amid ongoing debate around the boundaries of policing online speech, new data has drawn a clear line between social media and real-life violence.

As years go, Facebook isn't in the middle of its best one.

Whether it's an unsuccessful campaign to win back Australian trust in the midst of the fake news era, meddling in the US federal election, or suffering the biggest one-day wipeout in U.S. stock market history, the social media platform is regularly in the firing line.

Now, a landmark study has found a statistically significant correlation between increased Facebook use and hate crimes against refugees.

Researchers at the University of Warwick studied all 3,335 anti-refugee attacks in Germany over a two-year period.

A refugee uses her mobile phone at a temporary refugee shelters at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany. Image: Getty

Using Facebook data to investigate the link between anti-refugee sentiment on the social network and hate crime, the study analysed local communities by relevant variables, including wealth, demographics, number of refugees , newspaper sales and number of protests.

The results demonstrated that towns with an above-average use of Facebook experienced more violent acts against refugees. Further, whenever internet access was down in an area, as is a fairly common occurrence, the rate of attacks dropped significantly.

"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's authors wrote.

"We show that right-wing anti-refugee sentiment on Facebook predicts violent crimes against refugees in otherwise similar municipalities with higher social media usage."

Researchers used Germany as the case study following the recent emergence of the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has gained a major social media following in the country.

With currently more online followers than any other German political party, the AfD's main appeal to its supporters is it's opposition to Angela Merkel's welcoming policy toward migrants.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before U.S. Congress in April (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Authors Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz said their study's results were particularly relevant given the recent debates about how to and whether we should regulate hate speech online.

In May, Facebook revealed it's far better at policing content on its site containing graphic violence, gratuitous nudity and even terrorist propaganda than it is at weeding out hate speech as per its guidelines.

While the social network attributed the struggle to the difficulty of developing automated programs to understand the context and language nuances that serve as identifiers of hate speech, not all believe Facebook is taking the necessary steps to mitigate the spread of such rhetoric on its site.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg sparked international debate after a podcast interview with Recode's Kara Swisher during which he said the company would not remove content posted by Holocaust deniers.

Though Facebook has not commented on the study, in a statement to the New York Times a spokeswoman said, “Our approach on what is allowed on Facebook has evolved over time and continues to change as we learn from experts in the field.”