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Where Does Cyberhate Come From? A New Study Investigates the Phenomenon Among French K-12 Students

By Henry Kronk
June 15, 2019

As more and more K-12 learning goes online, educators need to consider the effect that has on their students in regard to cyberbullying and cyberhate. Minimizing this behavior is, of course, a worthy goal regardless of online education. To this end, one must understand how and why cyberhate occurs in the first place. A recent study, “Toward an Understanding of the Characteristics of Secondary School Cyberhate Perpetrators,” explores this phenomenon among a large body of learners in France. It was authored by Professors Catherine Blaya and Catherine Audrin, both of whom teach at the Haute Ecole Pedagogique du Canton de Vaude in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Cyberhate Versus Cyberbullying and Other Online Activity

The authors distinguish cyberhate as the focus of their study from other forms of online aggression, like cyberbullying. Blaya and Audrin define cyberhate as, “as electronic communication initiated by hate groups or individuals, with the purpose to attract new members, build and strengthen group identity; it aims at rejecting others’ collective identity.”

The practice might involve generating hate or violence towards people or groups based on “color of skin, religion, national or ethnic origin.”

While the rise of this behavior is fairly recent, a decent amount of research has already investigated it. This research, however, does not necessarily come to clean conclusions.

To begin, it’s fairly well-established that being exposed to-, and targeted by, cyberhate leads to negative outcomes. It has been linked to lowered self-esteem, feelings of insecurity, and mental health events. In worst-case-scenarios, cyberhate precedes instances of violence, hate crimes, and recruitment to extremist groups.

It’s More Prevalent than You Might Think

What’s more, cyberhate has been found to be extremely prevalent among young people. One 2014 study among Europeans and Americans found that 53% were exposed to cyberhate and 16% were personally targeted.

A 2018 study, meanwhile, among Americans aged 15-36 found that over 20% admitted to spreading cyberhate.

Existing literature—both academic and otherwise—has created something of a character profile of cyberhaters. Cyberhate is associated with spending more time online and is more common among those who have “favorable attitudes toward violence.” Men are also more likely to commit cyberhate, as are those with little trust in institutions.

Also—victims of cyberhate are more likely to become perpetrators.

Blaya and Audrin set out with the following goals in mind:

(1) To assess the prevalence of the involvement of young people in cyberhate in France

(2) To examine the factors contributing to the involvement of young perpetrators of cyberhate

Based on previous research, they designed a questionnaire that focused on the following areas: demographics, ICT use, school bullying, life satisfaction, religion and practice, attitudes toward violence, trust in institutions, peer groups (which measures social skills, amount of friends online and IRL, and belonging to “deviant youth groups”), racist beliefs, cyberhate exposure, cyberhate victimization, and cyberhate perpetration.

They then sent this questionnaire to students at 16 secondary schools throughout France. In all, 1,889 students between the ages of 12 and 20 responded. It was split almost evenly between male and female students, and the average age was between 14- and 15-years-old.

Results of the Study

The researchers found lower rates of cyberhate among their sample than previous research. Roughly 10% of their respondents said they had been the victim of cyberhate, while 5% reported creating or disseminating it. They point out that, while the First Amendment carries large importance in the states, that is not the case in Europe. “There are probably contextual effects due to the cultural and legal differences as far as the freedom of expression and content regulations are concerned,” the researchers write.

Of the 1,889 students, 146 admitted to perpetrating cyberhate at least once. When it comes to factors or correspondences among those who spread hateful content, however, descriptive analysis did not have much to show.

Just under 60% were boys. They varied widely in terms of religious affiliation and practice and tended to have two working parents.  Surprisingly, a large majority (70%) reported being either very happy or relatively happy. Just 14% said they were moderately or very unhappy, with the remaining population reporting a neutral outlook on life.

As the authors write, “This contradicts research suggesting that young people adhering to extremist ideologies are unhappy and frustrated individuals and the fact that both parents work goes against the idea that extreme right youngsters are part of the ‘white trash.'”

Also contrary to previous findings, a majority reported that they had never felt bullied (61%) and had never been targeted by cyberhate via social media (71%).

Most (80%), however, had been previously exposed to cyberhate. Perpetrators also were generally ambivalent towards violence and had little faith in institutions.

When it comes to how the students who had sent cyberhate felt about racism, “results showed that 47% of the perpetrators consider racism not to be justifiable (n = 63), while 30% agreed it is justifiable sometimes. Finally, 22.5 % (n = 30) of the perpetrators considered racism to be often justifiable,” the authors write.

A Regression Analysis Turned Up Further Findings

Following this round of the survey, the researchers applied a regression analysis to the findings. The analytical technique compares the likelihood of associations between traits. For example, having one working parent might tend to pair with religious affiliation. This, in turn, leads to further insight.

The regression analysis revealed that the more one experienced cyberhate, the more likely one was to perpetrate it, adding a level of nuance to the descriptive findings. Other positive predictors of cyberhate included more time spent online, and belonging to a ‘deviant youth group.’

The authors conclude by writing that they found no other demographic predictors of perpetrating cyberhate besides being male.

“Perpetrators report more often being insulted at school than the other participants and thus being in a vulnerable position within their peer group,” Blaya and Audrin write. “Having a group of friends usually is a testimony that one has positive social skills; it acts as a protective factor against victimization. However, some groups of friends are inadequate and have a negative influence on the way their members behave. As we could see in this survey, belonging to a [deviant youth group] is positively correlated with having a high number of friends, contributes to a lower trust in the institutions and has a direct effect on producing or disseminating cyberhate.”

The findings of this study suggest that much more work needs to be done to investigate the phenomenon of cyberhate.

Read the full report here.

Featured Image: Prateek Katyal, Unsplash.