Thesis Spotlights – The spreading of hostility: Unraveling of social norms in communication
Amalia Alvarez Benjumea, PhD student, Germany
Email: alvarezbenjumea [at] coll.mpg.de
Institution: University of Cologne and Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods
Time: August 2015 to February 2019
Supervisors: Fabian Winter (Max Planck Society) and Clemens Kroneberg (University of Cologne)
I am a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, Germany, where I work in the Research Group “Mechanisms for normative change” under the supervision of Fabian Winter. I am also a PhD student at the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Cologne, under the supervision of Clemens Kroneberg. I started my PhD on August 2015 and will, hopefully, be finished in February 2019. My thesis focuses on conditions under which social norms change, and how social feedback affects conformity to them. I have a special interest in social norms of communication, specifically in the relation between norms and the expression of prejudice and other (extreme) opinions. In my research, I use different methodological approaches, but with a focus on experimental methods.
An important part of my work focuses on how social norms regulate online hate speech, i.e., how expressing prejudiced views is inhibited by perceived social norms in online environments, and how external shocks can unleash such norms. We designed an online experiment in which participants were asked to participate in an experimentally controlled online forum. We constructed different experimental conditions to tackle hate speech: censoring hate content or using previous comments as informal sanctions. Data suggests that moderate censoring of hate speech has positive effects on the overall level of hate speech of subsequent comments. I also use the comments collected on the online forum to describe the effect of a series of terrorist attacks in Germany during the summer 2016 on the levels of online hate speech. I use pre and post attack data to identify a relaxation in social norms on hate speech against refugees.
My last project focuses on disentangling different mechanisms behind the unravelling of norms in communication. This is one of the first controlled experimental setups in an ecologically valid environment and presents some of the first experimental evidence investigating the social determinants of hate expression. This research adds to the literature on social norms, and shows how, regardless of people’s real preferences, social norms influence the public expression of certain opinions.