GW Study Links Offline Events to Spikes in Online Hate Speech

Trigger events, such as protests and elections, often lead to an increase in numerous types of online bigotry toward a wide range of targeted groups.

January 25, 2023

Yonatan Lupu

WASHINGTON (Jan. 25, 2023)A new George Washington University study reveals that real world events are often followed by surges in several types of online hate speech on both fringe and mainstream social platforms. Researchers discovered that racist rhetoric constituted the overwhelming majority of bigoted remarks online, but expressions of hate toward other groups with little connection to a trigger event abounded as well.

The research team trained an algorithm to analyze seven types of online hate speech: racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitism, anti-religion, anti-immigrant, and xenophobia. The machine learning analysis covered six interconnected online platforms, from mainstream sites like Facebook to websites notorious for hosting offensive content, such as 4Chan and Gab. In all, researchers collected 59 million English-language posts from approximately 1,150 online communities.

"More than any other event we studied, the murder of George Floyd and ensuing protests triggered sharp increases in online hate speech,” Yonatan Lupu, a GW political science professor and lead author of the study, said. “In the online communities we study, levels of hate speech still have still not returned to where they were before the murder.”

Racist posts skyrocketed by 250% during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. The research team observed that many other types of online hate speech, especially anti-LGBTQ and anti-Semitism, also increased, despite those targets not being directly connected to demonstrations for racial justice. Facebook experienced the largest increase in racist content during the George Floyd demonstrations, outpacing even some unmoderated web forums.

“These events highlight both the importance of content moderation and the challenges of effectively implementing this,” Lupu said. “Hateful users online mobilize quickly and move across platforms easily. Our evidence suggests content moderators on mainstream platforms should be keeping an eye on how discourse and narratives evolve on fringe platforms.”

The study took place between June 2019 and December 2020. Researchers did not collect any user information and did not investigate how online hate speech influences offline events. Although the study has concluded, the research team continues to monitor approximately 2,000 online hate communities, where bigoted content continues to run rampant at elevated levels.

“Hate online is still very much alive and our team is continuing to study its evolution and spread,” Richard Sear, a data analyst in the GW Department of Physics and co-author of the study said. “Recently, we have looked not only at how different types of hate fluctuate in response to real-world events, but also how they respond to efforts by moderated platforms to remove hateful content. ‘Deplatforming’ has been a major topic of interest over the past couple of years, and we hope to inform strategies for removing hateful content that won't result in further escalation of hate levels or even re-emergence of removed content.”

The study, “Offline Events and Online Hate”, was published in PLOS ONE on Jan. 25, 2023. In addition to Lupu and Sear, the research team includes GW physics professor Neil F. Johnson and former GW researchers Nicolás Velásquez, Rhys Leahy and Nicholas Johnson Restrepo, and Beth Goldberg of Google. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and Jigsaw (a unit of Google).