Trail of hate speech on social media led to violence at the Capitol, researchers say

Studies show hate speech is rising in the U.S., and social media is being used by extremist groups as an organizing platform.

While hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, it can lead to violence.

"We’ve been very concerned not just now but for years have been monitoring social media because there’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of bad stuff is happening," said David Barkey, the Anti-Defamation League senior and southeastern counsel.

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ADL said the internet became a powerful tool for that kind of speech. Joshua Scacco, Ph.D., an associate professor of political communication at the University of South Florida, calls it an accelerant.

"It is allowing individuals to essentially opt-in to content, to messaging, that they might otherwise already agree with," said Scacco.

On January 6, researchers identified extremist groups and hate groups at the Capitol riot using the symbols on display. The violence that followed forced major social media platforms to ban or restrict users.

"In the events of last week, we saw people sharing content that was encouraging this kind of behavior or misinformation. And social media is just a natural platform for this content to be posted," said Kelli Burns, Ph. D., an associate professor at USF’s Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications.

Burns said platforms need to be transparent and held accountable for false or misleading information and hate speech on their sites.

"I think we’re going to see even more pressure from advertisers. This is something that flared up last year, that advertisers taking a stand and saying we are going to advertise on these social media sites unless they do something about the content that’s posted here," said Burns.

Organizations like the ADL agree, saying big tech should invest their resources in better oversight.

"Maybe it’s perhaps because of the terrible events that happened last week that maybe it’s coming to the forefront of what’s online, but this has been happening for years," said Barkey.

Since those companies are private, you have to agree to their standards when you use them. Experts said those platforms should be more consistent with their actions against users across the board.

ADL said there are tools for anti-bias training, a hate symbol database and resources for parents to monitor what their children are exposed to online at