Social media becomes filled with hate speech when users search for info on terrorism

YORK, United Kingdom — Terrorism can be a very sensitive subject. A study finds even talking about this violent topic can bring out the worst in social media users. Researchers say users of Community Question Answering sites (CQAs) use more hate speech when searching for information about terrorism or terrorist attacks.

CQAs are social media websites that allow users to post questions to other users, answer questions, and evaluate responses. Previous research has examined terrorism-related data from Facebook and Twitter, but this study by a team at the University of York was the first of its kind to examine trends on Yahoo! Answers.

The British researchers wanted to learn how Yahoo! was used on the topic of terrorism, examining a dataset of 300 questions that drew over 2,000 answers.

The internet’s fascination with terrorism

The questions represent the online community’s information needs and include queries about the life of extremists around the world and counter-terrorism policies. The results show that, overall, sensitive or potentially inflammatory questions outnumber innocuous ones.

For example, the question “who exactly created ISIS?” was treated as an innocuous question, but these types of queries were far outnumbered by questions such as “do you agree with Donald Trump that we should ban Muslims coming from countries seized by ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terrorists?”

“It seems that people are really curious to know about terrorists, what terrorists think, their ideas etc.,” says Dr. Snehasish Banerjee of the York Management School in a university release.

“While portrayed as a threat to society and human civilization by mainstream media, terrorists sell terrorism as freedom fighting via social networking sites and private messaging platforms. However, the actual workings of terrorism are largely shrouded in secrecy. For the curious, a convenient avenue to turn to is the community question answering sites.”

Anonymity makes people bolder

More sensitive, hate-tinged questions were much more likely to be submitted by anonymous users than innocuous ones. There wasn’t a significant difference between anonymous and identified users in the answers to these questions. However, most of the online identities of users weren’t recognizable or untraceable to their actual identities. Researchers say when using non-traceable online names and identities, CQA users become more emboldened and prone to using provocative, uncivil, or inflammatory language.

“We found that answers were laden with negative emotions reflecting hate speech and Islamophobia, making claims that were rarely verifiable,” added Dr. Banerjee. “Users who posted sensitive questions and answers generally tended to remain anonymous. This paper calls for governments and law enforcement agencies to collaborate with major social media companies, including CQAs, to develop a process for cross-platform blacklisting of users and content, as well as identifying those who are vulnerable.”

The study was published in the Aslib Journal of Information Management.

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Ben Renner

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