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The web is celebrated for cultivating an increased sense of connection. But a new study shows that added online access leads to more fracturing in real life. Racially charged hate crimes go up as broadband access expands.
But there is a very important caveat. The correlation between increased internet access and spikes in hate crimes is much stronger in places that are already racially segregated, according to academics from NYU's Stern School of Business and the University of Minnesota. "Counties that have higher racial tendencies tend to have a higher effect," study co-author Jason Chan told Ars Technica.
Researchers looked at the number of broadband providers in the US between 2001 and 2008. They ruled out dial-up connections and determined a multimedia-friendly speed that would facilitate access to online hate content. These were combined with reports of racially charged hate crimes from counties across the country.
Other factors considered were physical terrain, broadband access, racial diversity, socioeconomics, crime statistics, and presence of law enforcement. There were also adjustments for particular periods, such as the year following the September 11 attacks.
If a county's population has a high rate of racial segregation, the addition of broadband correlated with a much higher rate of hate crime. Similarly, if a county's Internet users tended to search more for racist material online, the hate crime rate in real life went up.
Where populations were more mixed or there was less interest in online hate speech to begin with, the effect of increased access to the internet on real life hate crimes, while present, was much less significant. In other words, racists are more likely to engage in hate crimes having accessed vitriol online.
Algorithms Confirming Worldviews
The study points out that Internet users "are unlikely to seek out online content that is counter to their viewpoints." Its co-author, Chan, also pointed out that news aggregation services like Google and Facebook "personalize content towards users' past history, making it more applicable or appropriate for them."