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Online hate thrives globally through interconnected clusters, study shows

Researchers at George Washington University (GW) have developed a mapping model that is the first of its kind to track how hate clusters thrive online.

The study revealed that self-organized clusters interconnect to form resilient networks that are spread out across multiple social media platforms, countries, and languages,

Social media has made it fast and easy for like minded people to connect. Recently, groups that share a common interest in spreading hate and extremist ideas have been linked to a sudden rise in crimes on a global scale. 

Led by Dr. Neil Johnson, the GW team set out to gain a better understanding of how online hate evolves and whether or not these types of movements can be stopped.

“Hate destroys lives, not only as we’ve seen in El Paso, Orlando and New Zealand, but psychologically through online bullying and rhetoric,” said Dr. Johnson. “We set out to get to the bottom of online hate by looking at why it is so resilient and how it can be better tackled. Instead of love being in the air, we found hate is in the ether.”

To investigate the evolution of hate online, the team mapped out how the groups interconnect and attract new members. Based on Facebook and VKontakte, the researchers tracked the development of a hate cluster and then looked outward to find a second branch that was strongly connected to the first. 

The experts discovered that hate crosses boundaries of specific internet platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp. The clusters were also associated with certain geographic locations, such as the United States, South Africa, and parts of Europe. The most commonly used languages were English and Russian.

Clusters were found to adapt their strategies in order to re-group on other platforms or to re-enter a platform after being banned. For example, the groups often use different languages to avoid detection. This allows the cluster to quickly re-organize thousands of supporters on a platform that they have already been banned from. 

“The analogy is no matter how much weed killer you place in a yard, the problem will come back, potentially more aggressively. In the online world, all yards in the neighborhood are interconnected in a highly complex way – almost like wormholes. This is why individual social media platforms like Facebook need new analysis such as ours to figure out new approaches to push them ahead of the curve,” said Dr. Johnson.

The team has developed intervention strategies that social media platforms could implement immediately, such as reducing the power and number of large clusters by banning the smaller clusters that feed into them.

Dr. Johnson and his team are developing software to help assist social media platforms and law enforcement in the battle against hate online. 

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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Image Credit: chainarong06/Shutterstock

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