The role of social networking in shaping hatred

  • Sarah Rohlfing

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Hate on the Internet, and particularly the role of Social Networking Sites (SNSs) in shaping online hate, the topic of investigation in this thesis, has been neglected in psychological and hate crime literature. Chapter 1 introduces the concept of online hatred (i.e. expressions of hateful content on the Internet), points out the gaps in current online hate research and emphasises the importance of studying this concept in an applied psychological context. Chapter 2 describes two studies, which together develop an explicit prejudice measure towards Roma and Travellers, as a) there was no specific one for these groups and b) they were the target groups in the study discussed within Chapter 3. The first study tested the general statement suitability of an existing prejudice measure (i.e. Levinson & Sandford’s 1944 Anti-Semitism scale) to measure non-group specific prejudice. Sixteen statements were identified as suitable to measure non-group specific prejudice. The second study tested the specific appropriateness of the 16 non-group specific statements for describing stereotypes associated with Roma and Travellers. Here, 10 out of the 16 statements were rated as appropriately describing stereotypes associated Roma and Travellers. Chapter 3 describes a study that aimed to investigate the persuasive effects (i.e. changes in levels of prejudice) of online discussions on small ‘like-minded’ groups of participants. Groups of participants with similar levels of prejudice (i.e. low, intermediate, high) towards Roma and Travellers (the target groups) discussed the eviction of a particular British Roma and Traveller site via instant messaging online. During the discussions, a confederate expressed views which aimed at either increasing or reducing prejudice towards Roma and Travellers. Results revealed that only participants with intermediate levels of prejudice towards Roma and Travellers were influenced by the discussions (i.e. participants became more prejudiced). Yet, participants with intermediate levels of prejudice resisted online influence which aimed at reducing their levels of prejudice. Overall, the results indicate that participants with intermediate levels of prejudice (i.e. weak attitudes) gave in to online influence, whereas those with low or high levels of prejudice (i.e. strong attitudes) resisted it. Chapter 4 explores how polarised and non-polarised YouTube users responded to racist online content. In particular, 71,000 user comments made in response to a video clip, depicting a woman on a London tram who racially abused ethnic minority passengers, were analysed using thematic analysis. The analysis revealed that the exposure to hateful online content does not lead to an automatic endorsement of hatred. More specifically, some YouTubers responded by trying to account for the woman’s behaviour, as well as with hateful comments in response to viewing the hateful video clip. It also revealed that many YouTubers attempted to position themselves and other users according to their stance on racism. In addition, most responses focused on a more complex issue, namely the contestation of Britishness in relation to immigration. Chapter 5 discusses a survey, exploring the permissibility of online hatred among Social Networking Site (SNS) users. The survey specifically explored SNS users’ perceptions towards what constitutes online hate, the association between online and offline hate and the role of online anonymity on expressing online hatred. Results were somewhat contradictory and thus not entirely clear. In particular, whilst most participants did not connect online with offline hatred, they blamed the victims of online hatred for their abuse but not the creators of hateful content. Further, they did not agree with legislation governing hate speech (i.e. pointing towards the permissibility of online hatred). Participants also rated hateful content to be criminal and admitted that online anonymity would aid their own anti-normative behaviour (i.e. implying online hatred is not permissible). Chapter 6 summarises the main findings from this thesis and discusses their implications, methodological considerations, and suggestions for future research.
Date of AwardJan 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorAldert Vrij (Supervisor), Stefanie Sonnenberg (Supervisor) & Sam Mann (Supervisor)

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