At the time Durkheim lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people did this in their homes and on the street; they still do, but now they have Facebook and other online social media platforms where, under the cover of anonymity, they can wax the most hateful bile imaginable.

Muller told me via email that “our study design does not allow us to say how much of the development in hate crimes can be accounted for by things happening on social media” and that the study’s numbers are “subject to many caveats.”

Muller emphasized that “any causal interpretation of our findings hinges on the results for internet and Facebook disruptions,” adding: “We find that, during such outages, the correlation between local hate crimes on one hand, and the interaction of the sentiment measure and local social media usage on the other, is essentially zero. This implies that at least some of the correlation we are capturing reflects a causal effect.” Or as the Times summarizes it: “Whenever internet access went down in an area with high Facebook use, attacks on refugees dropped significantly.” Which in turn might suggest a kind of drip-feed effect, whereby a cut in the supply of hateful online rhetoric could stop some real-world hate crime in its tracks.

This would be reductive, to say the least. Which isn’t to deny that Facebook and other social media platforms can facilitate violence by allowing people to disseminate beliefs and rhetoric that legitimizes it, nor is it to ignore the crucial role it can play in helping violent activists to coordinate and mobilize for the purposes of carrying out attacks. But it is far from clear that Facebook itself can materialize the motive for people to act violently. A similar debate can be found among terrorism studies scholars on whether exposure to online terrorist propaganda can radicalize those so exposed. The consensus here is that while sustained exposure may reinforce beliefs that are already extreme it is unlikely, by itself, to cause radicalization, let alone “push” people to act on their violent beliefs.

And notice the inherent determinism of the “push” metaphor. Are we really to believe that this happens, as if people have no say in the matter or any active desire to be pushed? And even if we allow that they are pushed, how does the pushing mechanism work? Is it a quick push, or is it a cumulative series of mini-pushes? More specifically, just how psychologically invested in a violent ideology do you have to be before you are pushed or allow yourself to be pushed? A little, a lot or not at all? And, finally, why do the majority of those who consume and circulate online hate speech refrain from implementing its hysterical demands and incitements? If online hate speech were so causally combustible you would expect to see far more hate crimes than actually occur, given its massive and ugly prominence across social media. Which raises the possibility that some hateful people refrain from violently acting out their hatreds in the real world because the online, fantasy variant allows them to vent indignant and cathartically release some of their hateful sentiments.

These questions should be at the heart of the debate about the role of social media in the contemporary world, yet they are too often crowded out by those who think that hateful words are not only deeds but also the root cause of deeds far graver.

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