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UNLV study looks at how online hate speech escalates to hate crimes

Posted at 12:05 AM, Oct 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-09 03:11:41-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — How does the echo chamber of online chats groups transform hate speech into hate crimes?

A UNLV professor and a team of researchers wanted to find out. So, they got to work analyzing posts on white supremacist blogs,

The hate fueling several recent shooting rampages all appear to have originated online in white supremacist chat groups.

"There is a certain freedom to express one’s worst sentiments."

And UNLV Sociology Professor Simon Gottschalk has seen the very worst.

"A lot of extremely racist comments. A lot of extremely anti-Semitic comments. A lot of extremely sadistic fantasies against all kinds of people," Gottschalk said.

With a team of student researchers, Gottschalk analyzed more than 4,400 discussion threads from eight blogs hosted on three prominent white supremacist websites.

They wanted to understand what moves people from expressing their private thoughts to like-minded individuals online to violent actions off line.

The team narrowed down the main grievances, like fear of white genocide, and the most dominant emotions expressed. Among them were anger, fear and happiness.

"What is interesting is when those emotions are combined. So, for example, anger and happiness then can combine and give rise to emotions such as the desire for vengeance," he said.

Professor Gottschalk said these sites amplify and accelerate negative emotions providing a form of social reinforcement.

"Such as validation, a feeling of empowerment. A feeling of being accepted and being praised for voicing extremely hostile emotions they would otherwise censor,” said Gottschalk.

Hastening the leap to physical violence, which has spurred efforts to shut down these sites despite free speech concerns.

"Until we understand how that works and how to better stop it,” Gottschalk said. “We have to stop that kind of communication because we don't understand. It's too fast. It's too quick. And the consequences are too much out of our control. "