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UNLV Professor Studies How The Internet Cultivates Hate

UNLV Sociology Professor Simon Gottschalk
UNLV Sociology Professor Simon Gottschalk

With white supremacist violence on the rise nationwide, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociologist is studying how the Internet can turn hateful feelings into deadly actions.

Simon Gottschalk says hateful ideology isn’t new, but the Internet offers a new, disconnected way to interact with those ideas.

“Once one goes online, the dynamics of our actions, what we do and how we interact online, prompt a certain sense of ‘unreality,’ if you will,” Gottschalk said. “So that we kind of lose contact between what we type and the consequences of what we type.”

A recent UNLV article describes Gottschalk’s latest research, which involved analyzing more than 4,400 discussion threads from eight blogs hosted on three prominent white supremacist websites. Gottschalk and his students then developed a model “that explains how individuals who join white supremacist networks transform private feelings of fear, anger, and shame into a sense of power, pride, belonging, and a desire for vengeance.” The team’s findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Deviant Behavior.

Gottschalk says online communities make it easier for people to join than in the past, as there are no physical limitations.

“Joining those movements required some doing, meaning people had to gather in a particular space,” Gottschalk said. “The space was limited in terms of physical capacity, it was limited in terms of time. It had to be protected, it had to be secret, it had to be all those things.”

To combat online radicalization, Gottschalk says one potential option is to shut down white supremacist websites, something he acknowledges would be fraught with controversy. He also suggests more education and intervention, as well as algorithms to block out certain hateful content.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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