In Germany, online hate speech has real-world consequences: A new study finds that anti-refugee rhetoric on Facebook is correlated with physical attacks

In August 2015 Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister, wrote an open letter to Facebook demanding better enforcement of the country’s laws against slander, defamation and hate speech. “The internet is not a lawless space where racist abuse and illegal posts can be allowed to flourish,” he told the social-networking giant. But despite Mr Maas’s efforts, hate speech has continued to proliferate on German social media. Much of it has been directed at the country’s 1.2m migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, most of whom are Muslim.

New research suggests that this digital hatred is now spilling over into the real world. 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. Using data from the Facebook page of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and statistics on anti-refugee incidents collected by local advocacy groups, the authors find that for every four additional Facebook posts critical of refugees, there was one additional anti-refugee incident. 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.

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