Study ties Facebook engagement to attacks on refugees

A study of circumstances and demographics attendant on attacks against refugees and immigrants in Germany has shown that Facebook use appears to be deeply linked with the frequency of violent acts. Far from being mere trolling or isolated expressions of controversial political opinions, spikes in anti-refugee posts were predictive of violent crimes against those groups.

The study was conducted by Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick. Their theory was that if country-wide waves of “right wing anti-refugee sentiment” result in subsequent waves of actual crime; these waves would travel the way any others do, via TV, word of mouth, radio, and of course social media.

Now, if the anti-refugee rhetoric spreads via social media, then we can expect more crimes to occur in areas where there is more social media use, right? And specifically, areas where there is more activity among anti-refugee groups would see the most.

To test this theory, Müller and Schwarz used activity on a pair of major Facebook pages in Germany to measure social media use in general and specific to right-wing groups. For right-wing activity they looked at page of the “Alternative for Germany” party, the most popular anti-immigration political faction in the country and one that does not attempt to control the conduct on its threads. As a measure of overall Facebook use, they used Nutella’s popular public German page.

With hundreds of thousands of posts and comments broken down by area, the researchers were able to identify overall patterns of social media use, and then isolate anti-refugee sentiment within that. Their findings are unambiguous:

Using these measures, we find that anti-refugee hate crimes increase disproportionally in areas with higher Facebook usage during periods of high anti-refugee sentiment online. This effect is especially pronounced for violent incidents against refugees, such as arson and assault. Taken at face value, this suggests a role for social media in the transmission of Germany-wide anti-refugee sentiment.

A quick estimate on their part suggests that the social media activity may have increased attacks by 13 percent or so — not a number to be quoted as definitive, but rather an indicator that we are not quibbling over half a percent here and there but meaningful numbers.

But the researchers are also careful both to carefully define the scope of those findings:

We do not claim that social media itself causes crimes against refugees out of thin air. In fact, hate crimes are likely to have many fundamental drivers; local differences in xenophobic ideology or a higher salience of immigrants are only two obvious examples. Rather, our argument is that social media can act as a propagating mechanism for the flare-up of hateful sentiments. Taken together, the evidence we present suggests that quasi-random shifts in the local population’s exposure to such sentiments on social media can magnify their effect on refugee attacks.

…and to account for the many confounding variables that may invisibly affect the data, of which below.

Correlation vs causation

No doubt many readers will be skeptical of any study like this one; after all, these are very complex issues with many moving parts, and correlations may appear between things regardless of whether those things directly cause or effect one another. Fortunately the researchers foresaw this objection and were circumspect in their delineation of the link between social media use and attacks.

There are a handful of prominent possible alternative explanations, which the paper deals with in various ways.

First is the possibility that attacks are just more likely in areas where there is heavier social media use. This was my first thought: where are conflicts likely to occur? In places with dense and diverse populations, which seem likely to also have more internet and social media use.

This is dispatched in several ways. In the first place, the study looks at changes in violence levels within an area, not across the whole of Germany. In other words, the pattern of anti-immigrant posts preceding anti-immigrant violence is seen whether it takes place in a smaller town with low levels of social media engagement, or in larger cities where Facebook use is much more frequent.

Next, the Nutella control group provides a measure of social media activity independent of political issues — so patterns of use for a broad swath of users associated with seasons, weekly rhythms, holidays and so on can be identified down to the level of the county. When a population deviates from that pattern, you can be reasonably sure that something about that population is driving that deviation.

Something they couldn’t exactly control but is nonetheless useful is seeing how various internet and Facebook outages affect the patterns. It turns out that internet disruptions completely eliminate the increases in violence normally seen during a country-wide wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Furthermore, they write, “the effect of refugee posts on hate crimes essentially vanishes in weeks of major Facebook outages.”

Spikes in activity expressing negative feelings towards other frequently targeted groups, for instance Jews, were not associated with increases in refugee-related violence, so it isn’t just that people lash out when they are feeling especially hateful.

Lastly, the researchers showed that other coverage of refugee-related issues, like that by major news outlets, drives local engagement in the form of protests, but does not seem to predict violent acts.

As the researchers say, Facebook isn’t just plain causing violence to happen. The places where it happens are often historically right-wing places that have had higher incidence of violence and hate crimes in the past. But it seems inescapable that Facebook is nevertheless an important way that refugee-related hatred and vitriol in particular is spread, as evidenced by the lack of increases in violence when the social network is unavailable.

The connection seems clear: hateful content spreads via Facebook and where it is engaged with the most, there you find the most violence. On its face this doesn’t seem like something Facebook can moderate away — it’s a natural consequence of how the fundamental social media ecosystem pioneered by Facebook works. Having it repeatedly and systematically connected with increases in violence isn’t a good look.

Why the next CryptoKitties mania won’t be about collectables

In recent months, the CryptoKitties fad that had users buying and selling tens of thousands of dollars of blockchain-based collectable cats has settled down considerably. That is not to say that CryptoKitties hasn’t spawned numerous copycats (see CryptoPuppies, CryptoCountries and many more). Unfortunately, the immense popularity of CryptoKitties is unlikely to be repeated, at least not by clones hoping to cash in on the novelty of blockchain-based crypto collectables.

The legacy of CryptoKitties is still in development, but most can agree that the project raised awareness (and attracted development talent) to new uses for blockchain tokens. In particular, CryptoKitties introduced many to the concept of non-fungible tokens, or “NFTs,” which might impact more than the world of cryptocurrencies.

NFTs are unique blockchain tokens that can be transferred to other people, similar to cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin and Ethereum), but they ordinarily cannot be replaced by another token of equal value — this is because each NFT has its own unique token identifier (and often, associated reference metadata).

Today, most NFTs are used in blockchain-based collectible games; however, use cases of NFTs are only just beginning to be explored. This article briefly discusses the origin of NFTs, explores several flavors of NFTs in the blockchain ecosystem and highlights some potential legal hurdles facing NFT developers.

Collectible origins

The physical collectible trade emerged in the 1860s with the first baseball trading cards. Since that time, physical collectibles have dominated the collectible market. Ownership of physical collectibles is straightforward: When a collector buys a physical collectible, the collector has complete ownership and can sell or trade the collectible at will. Collectors are only prevented from infringing on a collectible’s underlying intellectual property rights. Thus, collectors can buy, sell or trade, but not copy, physical collectibles.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in-game collectibles, or virtual assets, emerged. Virtual assets are those goods only found in virtual worlds. Like physical collectibles, there is a robust market for virtual assets. Unlike physical collectibles, however, gamers who find virtual assets in the virtual world do not own them: Large game developers and publishers often license virtual assets to gamers through contractual terms. Thus, the exchange of virtual assets is cabined to authorized in-game trading or illegal trading via auction sites like G2G.

With the emergence of the ERC-721 token standard, new digital collectibles (like CryptoKitties) or tokenized goods, have changed collectible ownership discussions. Specifically, NFTs are revolutionizing digital asset ownership. NFTs allow for the complete ownership of tokenized goods: Collectors own their tokenized goods in perpetuity and can buy, sell and trade their tokenized goods at will. Thus, tokenized goods are a unique hybrid between physical collectibles and virtual assets, in that they offer complete ownership of digital wares. Even though in practice NFT owners have property rights in their tokenized goods, it is unclear if an owner’s property rights are recognized under U.S. property law.

Evolution: ERC-721 and exotic tokens

ERC-721

The first and most prevalent NFT is the ERC-721 standard, primarily due to the success of CryptoKitties. Developers are experimenting with ERC-721 for everything from digital collectibles to securitized investment products. The development of ERC-721 token-based collectible games and the subsequent explosion of speculative interest by investors has put a spotlight on several important legal issues, including issues related to ownership, privacy and money transmission.

In games like CryptoKitties, ownership of the token is clear-cut because each CryptoKitty is a newly developed piece of intellectual property. However, if larger game developers and publishers adopt NFTs, we could quickly revert to the well-worn path of virtual goods, where the token holder is deemed a licensee instead of an owner and is therefore unable to transfer or sell the virtual good to others off platform.

ERC-721 token-based games often play with the “tokenMetadata” function to create various permutations and combinations of characteristics (e.g. breeding in CryptoKitties). Depending on the application, this reference data may be stored in a centralized database or cache folder outside the control of the token owner, which may result in disputes over ownership, particularly when the intellectual property rights for the reference data and the token belong to separate owners.

NFTs can include functionality that may subject NFT businesses to FinCen registration because the same wallet that accepts NFTs can also accept ERC-20 fungible tokens. NFT businesses need to pay special attention to how they structure their tokens and the functionality of wallets that hold them.

Additionally, a tokenized asset exchange may qualify as an investment contract and thus a security. For example, suppose an application developer developed a tokenized asset, like a unique digital weapon, before the application or game in which the tokenized asset could be used has been developed. The application developer then decides to sell the tokenized asset for money to raise profits for the development of the application itself. This transaction may be deemed an investment contract and therefore an unregistered security.

ERC-721 collectable tokens currently dominate the NFT landscape, but we expect this trend to shift as new and more robust use cases come to the forefront. The development of other exotic token standards may also eat into ERC-721 market share; however, a diverse offering of NFT standards should help bolster the NFT ecosystem.

Exotic tokens

More exotic token standards, such as ERC-420 and ERC-998, offer insights into the potential of NFTs and quasi-NFTs. Tokens compliant with these exotic token standards will have unique functions that make them well suited for a variety of use cases. For example, in games, ERC-998-compliant tokens could represent characters that carry consumable rations (ERC-20 tokens) and non-fungible weapons (ERC-721 tokens) or, in commerce, classes of these tokens could be used for tiered membership programs or in the creation of markets in securities products.

While perhaps not the most politically correct use of NFTs, “Rare Pepes,” or rare digital art based on Pepe the Frog, allows users to create, trade and sell their artwork for “Pepecash.” Rare Pepes utilize ERC-420-compliant tokens (the “dank standard”), which demonstrates how NFTs can be used to establish limited editions of digital artwork. This type of quasi-NFT could also be used to offer multiple series of limited-subscriber investment products.

Exotic tokens are just emerging, and we expect to see additional standards and use cases come to market frequently over the coming years.

Conclusion

From the humble origins of the baseball card, NFTs, which offer many of the same features of physical collectibles and virtual assets, are the next evolutionary leap of this industry. NFTs also have many potential use cases outside the world of digital collectibles in everything from artwork to securitized investment vehicles. Although they are still in their very early days, we expect NFT’s to have a bright future.