The trend may be due to the ascendance of nationalist politicians or to economic events, such as the Great Recession, which fueled some unemployed workers’ resentment of immigrants. But people also often point fingers at social media, which came to prominence around the same time that xenophobia was on the rise.
While the similar timing doesn’t prove that social media caused xenophobia, “it kind of makes you wonder,” says Georgy Egorov, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg.
To figure out if the two trends were connected, Egorov and his collaborators focused on Russia, looking in particular at any connection between increases in hate crimes and the spread of a Facebook-like platform called VKontakte (VK).
The researchers found that higher VK usage was linked to an increase in hate crimes—but only in cities that already had strong support for nationalist policies. Social media likely helped xenophobic people connect and plan attacks together, Egorov says. More than that, exposure to VK appeared to make people more xenophobic. Interestingly, however, it didn’t appear to reduce the social stigma of expressing hateful attitudes publicly.
Egorov can’t say whether the hate-crime trends uncovered in the study apply to other platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. But the research does suggest that social media’s effects on society can go far beyond online debates.
“It also has real-life consequences,” he says.
A Russian Facebook
It’s difficult to determine whether social media causes xenophobia. Imagine that researchers compare cities with high and low Facebook use and find that those with high use have more hate crimes. It’s possible that the causality runs in the opposite direction: strong xenophobia encourages more frequent social-media use. Or maybe a third factor, such as a poor economy, increases both xenophobia and time spent on Facebook.
To get a clearer picture, Egorov’s team took advantage of the fact that VK use in Russia had spread somewhat randomly. Pavel Durov developed the platform while he was a student at St. Petersburg State University and released it in 2006. At first, usage was mostly limited to other students at the school and their acquaintances. So the network tended to grow primarily in students’ home cities.
To map this growth, Egorov collaborated with Leonardo Bursztyn at the University of Chicago, as well as Ruben Enikolopov and Maria Petrova at the Barcelona Institute of Political Economy and Governance. The researchers calculated the number of VK users in 625 cities across Russia in 2011, several years after the app’s release.
They also obtained data on hate crimes from the nonprofit SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. And the team assessed existing levels of nationalism in each city based on the fraction of people who voted for a nationalist party called Rodina in 2003.
The researchers looked for a link between VK use and hate crimes between 2007 and 2015, controlling for factors such as city population size, average income, education, and ethnic fractionalization, defined as the likelihood of two random people being of different ethnicities.
They found that it depends on levels of preexisting nationalism. In cities with the highest support for Rodina, a 10 percent increase in VK usage was linked to as much as a 26 percent rise in hate-crime victims.
That makes sense, Egorov says, because if social media spreads hate, the hatred must stem from an existing source. “You can only get infected if there is somebody to get infected from,” he says.
Furthermore, VK use also seemed to have a stronger effect on the number of hate crimes committed by groups than those committed by a single attacker. The result is consistent with the idea that social media aids coordination, Egorov says. In the past, many xenophobic people may have shied away from taking any actions by themselves. When those users found others with similar opinions on VK, those connections might have emboldened them to commit violence together.
“Suddenly, I’m able not only to do something myself, but to do something with other people,” Egorov says. “It’s safer in numbers.”
But single-perpetrator crimes in cities with Rodina support did rise as well. So social media must have affected xenophobia in ways other than just assisting coordination.
One possibility was that VK exposed people to more hateful views. As a result, some users’ xenophobia got more intense and eventually passed the threshold for willingness to commit a crime.
The second possibility was that people didn’t necessarily become more xenophobic, but they felt their views were more socially acceptable once they had found like-minded peers. Such a community wouldn’t condemn them—and might even admire them—for physically harming someone from another ethnic group.
To disentangle these explanations, the researchers designed a survey that assessed xenophobia in two ways. First, they looked at how many people openly admitted to xenophobic attitudes. Second, they looked for participants’ levels of “hidden” or undeclared xenophobia.
The team recruited more than 4,000 people from 125 cities in Russia to take the survey online in 2018. Participants in each city were divided into two groups and were presented with a list of statements. For people in the first group, all of the statements were fairly innocuous, such as “Each week I usually read at least one newspaper or magazine” or “I know the name of the Chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation.” Those in the second group saw the same list with one additional statement: “I feel annoyance or dislike toward some ethnicities.”
Each person was then asked how many statements they agreed with, but they didn’t have to specify which ones. The researchers calculated the level of hidden xenophobia in a city based on the difference between the two groups.
To determine how many people openly admitted to xenophobia, the survey then asked the first group directly whether they disliked or felt annoyed by people of other ethnicities.
The researchers find that increased VK use in a city indeed led to higher levels of xenophobia, meaning some people who were not xenophobic before became such. But it did not lead to more people admitting to being xenophobes; in other words, VK did not make xenophobia more socially acceptable in public.
Driven to Polarization
Egorov explains that these findings do not point to a general rise in xenophobia, but rather to a rise in polarization.
The difference is as follows. If social media makes everyone more xenophobic, then someone who disliked migrants would start to hate them, and someone who supported migrants would start to dislike them.
But if social media polarizes people, the effect would be slightly different. A person who disliked migrants would hate them, while a person who supported migrants would become more passionate about defending them.
If the first scenario was correct, one would expect to see VK use increase the number of people who openly admitted to hateful attitudes. But that wasn’t the case.
The finding that social media doesn’t make everyone more xenophobic is relatively good news, Egorov says. “We decry polarization,” he says, “but, probably, we decry hate even more.”
Still, he finds it troubling that social media appears to lock people into echo chambers.
He wonders if companies could design social-media platforms that encourage conversation between groups. For example, perhaps the algorithm that determines the content of a user’s news feed could prioritize messages from people with different demographics or profile traits.
“That’s potentially worth exploring,” Egorov says. “Is there a network which would truly foster communication?”