Online ‘likes’ for toxic social media posts prompt more − and more hateful − messages

The rampant increase of hate messages on social media is a scourge in today’s technology-infused society. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia and even personal attacks on people who have the audacity to disagree with someone else’s political opinion – these and other forms of online hate present an ugly side of humanity.

The derision on social media appears in vile and profane terms for all to see. Obviously, the sole purpose of posting online hate is to harass and harm one’s victims, right?

Not necessarily, according to recent studies about hate messaging in social media. Although seeing hate comments is unquestionably upsetting, new research suggests there’s a different reason people post hate: to get attention and garner social approval from like-minded social media users. It’s a social activity. It’s exhilarating to be the nastiest or snarkiest and to get lots of thumbs-ups or hearts. Anecdotal evidence makes a good case for the social basis of online hate, and new empirical research backs it up.

In over 30 years of research about online interaction, I’ve documented how people make friends and form relationships online. It now appears that the same dynamics that can make some online relationships intensely positive can also fuel friendly feelings among those who join together online in expressing enmity toward identity groups and individual targets. It’s a “hate party,” more or less.

Online hate is a social phenomenon

When you look at online hate messages, you start to notice clues that suggest, more often than not, that hatemongers are posting messages to each other, not to those their messages implicate and denigrate.

For instance, white supremacists and neo-Nazis often include codes and symbols that have shared meaning for the in-group but are opaque to outsiders, including the very people that their messages vilify. Including “88” in one’s message, hashtag or handle is one such code; the Anti-Defamation League’s lexicon of hate symbols explains that the 8th letter of the alphabet is H. And 88, therefore, is HH, or Heil Hitler.

Another clue that hate is for haters is the way it has shifted somewhat from mainstream social media to fringe sites that have gotten so hateful and disturbing that it’s hard to imagine any member of a targeted group wanting to peruse those spaces. The fringe sites say they promote unfettered free speech online. But in doing so, they attract users who write posts that are widely unacceptable and wouldn’t last a minute on mainstream sites with community standards and content moderation.

The kinds of messages that would quickly be flagged as hate speech in any offline setting come to dominate the threads and discussions in some of these spaces. Users curate meme repositories – for instance, the anti-Jewish, anti-LGBTQ and “new (n-word)” collections – that are hideous to most people but funny to those who partake in these secluded virtual backrooms. They’re not…

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