Hate speech is not hard to find in 2017. A new study in Aggressive Behavior reveals that such verbal violence begets more hate and prejudice.
Three Polish academics conduct three experiments in Poland on attitudes toward hate speech targeting Muslims and LGBT groups (“two minorities particularly affected by hate speech in Poland”). Their findings on how desensitization works, they say, can be applied globally.
In the first, the researchers randomly select 1,007 Polish adults and expose them to six examples of verbal violence. They ask each to rate the examples on a seven-point scale from “not at all offensive” to “strongly offensive.” Then, to determine respondents’ level of prejudice, they ask them on a four-point scale if they would accept a member of these minorities as a neighbor, co-worker or part of their family. They also collect a measurement of how frequently the respondents encounter hate speech. Their findings:
- People exposed to hate speech appear less sensitive to it; it upsets them less.
- But after controlling for desensitization, “frequent exposure to hate speech was associated with decreased” prejudice. (They cannot explain this “non-intuitive” finding.)
In the second experiment, 39 white Polish undergraduates (the experimental group) were exposed to examples of hate speech in the comments section of an online forum. Another 36 (the control group) were exposed to benign comments. Then both were asked about their acceptance of minority groups on the four-point scale used in the first experiment. All then saw the offensive comments shown to the first group and were asked to rate the statements’ offensiveness.
- The experimental group perceived the examples “as being significantly less offensive” than the control group did.
- Exposure to hate speech “caused an increase in the level of prejudice.”
The third experiment tested white Polish attitudes toward Middle Eastern refugees by presenting 682 teenagers with examples of hate speech targeting refugees and Muslims. The teenagers were asked how offensive or inoffensive they found the language and asked how often they encounter such statements. They also completed surveys measuring their sensitivity to anti-immigrant prejudice.
- Exposure to these examples of hate speech “was a significant and positive predictor” of prejudice.
- Frequent exposure to hate speech is associated with a feeling that it is less offensive (“desensitization”).
- This lower sensitivity to hate speech was associated with higher prejudice.