Virginia Tech researcher says social media contributing to rise in hate groups

Study says online rhetoric could be contributor to violence in Charlottesville

BLACKSBURG, Va. – One researcher at Virginia Tech says the violence in Charlottesville this past weekend may be evidence of a growing trend. Director James Hawdon of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention says his data shows social media is facilitating the spread of extremist views, and it could lead to more violent events in the future.

Years ago, Hawdon says he realized extremist ideas were becoming more common around the country.

"That's always been there in our country, but it seems to be coming to a head," said Hawdon.

But it took an event too close to home that made him want to find out why. Hawdon says he began his research on social media's role in propagating extremist views after the mass shooting on Virginia Tech's campus in 2007, and he says what he's found has him worried that the violence we saw in Charlottesville this past weekend is just part of a growing trend.

"I think we are, we are likely to see more events like we saw in Charlottesville," said Hawdon.

Hawdon says that's because, of the people he's surveyed, many of them are seeing more violent messages.

"About 40 percent of the messages that they saw actually advocated violence against some group," said Hawdon.

Hawdon says that rhetoric can translate into actual violence, and because of the way social media works, he says people might unexpectedly become politicized.

"If you click on something let's say, as an example, slightly right of center, the next lead might be a little more right to center, and then the next, and you go further and further and further towards the extreme, and the danger there is if you, you don't realize that's happening," said Hawdon.

Hawdon's research shows this phenomenon is happening at an alarming rate. Between the years 2000 and 2010, the number of active hate groups in the U.S. grew by 66 percent. Today, there are around a thousand that are active. Hawdon says, one way to combat the growing trend is to put pressure on the sites they use to communicate, the biggest being Facebook.

"There's not much the government can do about that because it's an issue with the first amendment... I think, if there is social pressure to do it, and basically people say we're not going to use your product unless you do this, then they will do that," said Hawdon.