What is it about?

Terrorist attacks often fuel online hate and increase the expression of xenophobic and antiminority messages. Previous research has focused on the impact of terrorist attacks on prejudiced attitudes toward groups linked to the perpetrators as the cause of this increase. We argue that social norms can contain the expression of prejudice after the attacks. We report the results of a combination of a natural and a laboratory-in-the-field (lab-in-the-field) experiment in which we exploit data collected about the occurrence of two consecutive Islamist terrorist attacks in Germany, the Würzburg and Ansbach attacks, in July 2016. The experiment compares the effect of the terrorist attacks in hate speech toward refugees in contexts where a descriptive norm against the use of hate speech is evidently in place to contexts in which the norm is ambiguous because participants observe antiminority comments. Hate toward refugees, but not toward other minority groups, increased as a result of the attacks only in the absence of a strong norm. These results imply that attitudinal changes due to terrorist attacks are more likely to be voiced if norms erode.

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Why is it important?

Surges in hateful and xenophobic content online are often found after terrorist attacks. We find that this effect is highly dependent on the local context and the respective social norms. Prejudiced attitudes are likely to be voiced only if the perceived social acceptability of expressing prejudice increases. Since antihate norms play an important role in containing the expression of prejudice, understanding how terrorist attacks may impact the strength of the social norm is essential to understanding societal responses to terrorist attacks.

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This page is a summary of: The breakdown of antiracist norms: A natural experiment on hate speech after terrorist attacks, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2007977117.
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