Study links hard-right social media with incidents of civil unrest

A new Yale-led study finds evidence that social media activity on hard-right platforms contributes to political unrest offline.
Rioters clash with U.S. Capitol police on Jan. 6, 2021

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

An increase in social media activity on “hard-right” platforms — those that purport to represent viewpoints not welcome on “mainstream” platforms — contributes to rightwing civil unrest in the United States, according to a new study led by Yale sociologist Daniel Karell.

In an analysis of data from hard-right social media activity and incidents of civil unrest that occurred “offline” nationally between January 2020 and January 2021, the researchers found that a 10% increase in hard-right social media activity predicts a .04% increase in the number of hard-right civil unrest events during the following month.

Daniell Karell
Daniel Karell (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

The magnitude of the effect we found is modest but two characteristics of social media and civil unrest caution against dismissing it,” said Karell, assistant professor of sociology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the study’s lead author. “First, hard-right social media platforms are easy to join, increasingly popular, and attracting more than a billion dollars in investment, meaning activity on them could grow rapidly. Second, as demonstrated by the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, a single incident of hard-right civil unrest can be very consequential.”

A secondary analysis showed evidence that activity on hard-right social media shifts users’ perceptions of social norms in a way that aligns with their previously held views, especially when users see their own speech being echoed in the rhetoric of hard-right “elites” on social media — prominent pundits, celebrities, and politicians whose content is amplified by the platforms. This change in understanding of social norms makes users more likely to engage in contentious activity once considered taboo.

The study, published in the journal American Sociological Review, was coauthored by Andrew Linke of the University of Utah, Edward Holland of the University of Arkansas, and Edward Hendrickson, who served as Karell’s research assistant at Yale.

The researchers define “hard-right social media” similarly to platforms and websites commonly known as “alt-tech.” Like alt-tech platforms, hard-right social media platforms claim to support viewpoints unwelcome on mainstream platforms or within the corporations that operate them. But they differ from other alt-tech platforms in two ways. First, while they often describe themselves as open forums dedicated to free speech, they are all but exclusively used by political conservatives, the researchers explained. Second, they have a strong focus on financial gain and profit, whereas a lot of alt-tech — at least in its early generation — eschewed profit-making.

They describe social media platforms that have these two features as “hard-right” rather than “extreme right”, “far-right”, or “right-wing” because most of the content posted on them aligns with mainstream conservative views. Instead, “hard-right” is meant to emphasize that the majority of platforms’ content is socially and politically conservative but also obstinately opposed to compromise with the political left and center.

The analysis drew on multiple data sources. They acquired records of civil unrest events related to hard-right groups that occurred across the United States during the period studied compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, a non-governmental initiative that collects data on political violence and protest in 100 countries, and the Crowd Counting Consortium, a scholarly project that documents contentious events across the United States. They also accessed a database of all activity on the hard-right social media platform Parler in 2020, which included reliable information about users’ location. They created a database of tens of thousands of videos Parler users created and shared on the platform during 2020 and early 2021.

The researchers then mapped the data by U.S. Census Bureau core-based statistical areas — which are geographic units containing at least 10,000 people and an urban center — as well as counties. After finding an association between hard-right social media activity and subsequent hard-right civil unrest, the researchers examined potential causes of that relationship. This analysis focused on the content of people’s posts on Parler.

Their analysis produced no evidence that people were frequently using the platform to plan incidents of unrest. For example, only two of the 50 most frequently used words — “joined” and “meeting” — appear related to coordinating activity. Neither account for more than 0.5% of all words on used on Parler, the study found.

The researchers also measured how closely statements by hard-right “elites” made on Parler reflected ideas expressed by non-elites in the prior month. They found evidence that when non-elite users see their ideas expressed in commentary by prominent users, it alters their perceptions of social norms, aligning these perceptions with their existing views and corresponding behavior.

There is a lot of support in the sociology literature for the idea that people often understand social norms from cues they receive from elite or admired people in their groups, and we found evidence for this among people using hard-right social media,” Karell said.

When people see their existing beliefs and values reflected in elite commentary, previous research tells us this would have a validating effect that makes them perceive their views and ensuing behavior as more socially acceptable than they previously thought. As a result, people might subsequently take actions they would have previously avoided.”

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