STUDY: Reading Hate on Facebook Is Bad for Your Health

Forget sticks and stones; when it comes to social networking, it turns out that words can — and do — hurt us.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

September 02 2014 2:53 PM ET

A new study out of Italy has found that women and minority groups — including LGBT people — are negatively affected by encountering hate speech on social media platforms like Facebook. 

In fact, reading homophobic or sexist comments on public threads can cause "anxiety, distress, and deterioration in trust towards unknown others," the researchers at Sapienza University of Rome and the Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques du Grand-Duché du Luxembourg found.  

Even simply reading derogatory comments — without responding to them — can negatively impact an Internet user's well-being, the researchers discovered. And when it comes to interacting in public comment threads, the study shows that common courtesy goes out the window. 

"Interacting online entails a higher risk of being targeted with offensive behaviors and hate speech," the report reads. "This risk is particularly significant for women and users belonging to minorities or discriminated groups."

The study, which analyzed the social networking habits of a broad representative sample of 50,000 Italian citizens, appears to be the largest of its kind, and it may provide some of the most concrete empirical evidence about the impact of social media interactions on an individual's well-being. Previous studies have offered contradictory conclusions about whether online social networks discourage face-to-face interaction, and while this Italian study doesn't answer that question, it does shine a light on the damaging impact of reading aggressive, negative comments directed especially at members of minority groups. 

Whereas in-person conversation tends to be accompanied by basic polite civilities, the researchers discovered that such niceties all but evaporate when people interact online — where users do not have to be responsible for or even cognizant of how their comments are received. 

"As a result, people care less of the risk of offending others in a conversation. In physical interactions, we usually think twice before insulting a person who politely expresses an opposing view," notes the study. "In online interactions, dealing with strangers who advance opposite views in an aggressive and insulting way seems to be a widespread practice, whatever the topic of discussion is."

Because people tend to socialize with others who share similar views, experiences, and sentiments, the study points out that online interaction — unmoderated by location, ideology, or ethnicity — can harshly expose individuals to aggressively contradictory opinions. Witnessing such unfiltered interaction — which, the study acknowledges, has a tendency to steer toward radical hate speech — builds distrust among users who are interacting with hostile but nameless commenters. 

"For example, tolerant users may easily find themselves to interact with unknown, racist or homophobic readers in a 'public' page," the study reads. "Think of the unexpected and unwanted interactions that take place on the Facebook page of a national newspaper, where a wide and heterogeneous audience can comment on news and editorials. ... In principle, exposure to diversity might be considered as a source of knowledge and dialogue. However, the empirical literature has shown how interaction with heterogeneous preference types can also turn into a powerful source of frustration and distrust."

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