Online Hate Research

New Research 2022: Online Hate and Social Media

CITS Director Joe Walther, along with faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students, has begun a new multi-year research project examining online hate—racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitism, attacks on sexual identity, and ad hominem attacks in political discussions—that is so tragically prevalent on social media today.

Professor Joseph Walther A centerpiece of the work is a new theory of online hate. It focuses on the use of social media by haters to garner social approval from like-minded others. Still in development, an initial version of the theory appeared in Current Opinion in Psychology this year, and a keynote address at Boston University’s Matrix of Challenges conference. The theory proposes that hate mongerers’ primary motivation for posting antagonistic messages is to accrue favorable responses (Likes, comments, friends and followers, and other signals of popularity and status) from others. Only secondarily--less importantly to them—are they there to harass prospective victims. They think it’s fun. It helps explain the thousands of followers to Gab’s anti-Jewish memes collection, as seen below. The research focuses on the performative and audience-seeking aspects of hate as a social, rather than individual, activity. However, it also explains how the cycle of hate perpetuates itself, magnifying prejudice, until, for a few, it boils over into the physical world.

Research is currently underway analyzing messages from Twitter, Gab, Parler, and Stormfront, to assess the degree of violence and disparagement, as well as suggestions of replacement theory ideology, in thousands of social media postings. Analyses will also assess correlations between these message dimensions and the popularity signals (Likes and Hearts) they accrued. Messages were sampled using keywords most frequently associated with hate messages, according to an international database, with additions from the ADL and recent American conflicts. Messages focus on hatred toward Jews, Blacks, Mexicans, women, LGBTQ+, Asians, and others.  

Upcoming major projects will involve combinations of data science and social network analysis to discover how groups of haters organize themselves, choosing victims, planning attacks, piling on, and congratulating themselves. A data scientist from Google will join the project as a CITS Visiting Researcher next Fall. CITS is also planning a symposium on online hate in 2023, involving leading scholars from UCSB, the United States, Asia, and Europe. It will also be the focus of a graduate research seminar in Winter Quarter, 2023.

Ultimate implications of the work include recommendations to social media platforms on moderation of popularity indicators rather than individual offenders, how blocking and account suspension of offenders by social media platforms may promote rather than inhibit subsequent hate messaging, and how intervention messages and strategies are prone to backfire if they are public (“badges of dishonor”) rather than private.

To find out how to help support this research, please contact Kelly Adams, Senior Director of Development,, Phone: 805-893-4968