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Spreading Racism via Facebook

• March 29, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: AMAZE646/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Heavy Facebook users are more likely than those who log on occasionally to react positively to racist remarks.

Is Facebook a particularly powerful medium to spread racist messages? That’s the disturbing implication of a newly published study.

“Frequent users are particularly disposed to be influenced by negative racial messages,” psychologists Shannon Rauch and Kimberley Schanz write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

They argue these heavy users log onto the site in search of social inclusion rather than information—and as such, they’re prone to express agreement with the material they see without thinking about it too deeply. This combination of “a need to connect and an ethos of shallow processing” creates an atmosphere conducive to the spread of racist thoughts.

Rauch and Schanz describe a study featuring 623 Internet users, nearly 95 percent of whom had a current Facebook account. They were asked how often they checked the site, reporting their typical usage on an eight-point scale from “less than once a week” to “20 or more times per day.”

They then read one of three versions of a Facebook Notes Page, which was purportedly written by a 26-year-old white male named Jack Brown.

One version contained what the researchers describe as a “superiority message,” a post in which Jack “contrasted the behaviors of black and white individuals, only to find consistent superiority of the whites.” The second contained a “victim message,” a post in which Jack argues that “whites are the most oppressed racial group in America.” The third contained an “egalitarian message,” a post in which Jack gives examples of anti-black racism he has witnessed.

The study participants were asked, among other things, “how much they agreed with the message,” “how accurate they found it,” “how much they liked the writer,” and how likely they were to either share the post with others or argue against it.

The researchers found more-frequent Facebook users did not differ from the others in their reaction to the egalitarian message. However, they “were more positive toward the messages with racist content—particularly the superiority message,” they write.

Why would this be? “Frequent Facebook users are likely susceptible to negative persuasive messages because they engage in less critical processing, either because of their online experiences or personality traits,” Rauch and Schanz write. “Agreement and positive attitudes are driven by a need to belong and connect with others.”

They note that, compared to those who use the site primarily for entertainment or “connecting with others,” the minority of Facebook users who report they use the site to find information and express their opinions were more likely to reject the racist messages. This group “appeared to discriminate between messages” to a far greater degree than the others.

“This is a sobering finding, given that Facebook use has become increasingly commonplace, and … information-seeking is not a primary motivation of most Facebook users,” Rauch and Schanz conclude.

“Facebook clearly has diverse content,” they note, “which can include persuasive messages of a sort that warrant critical thinking and some depth of processing.”

But critical thinking is often absent when people are motivated by the desire to be accepted, or to be entertained. As a result, this study suggests, some pretty disturbing stuff is being received with uncritical acceptance.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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