Can Facebook Really Drive Violence?

A person types on a laptop's keyboard.

Facebook representatives have been hauled before Congress three times in the past year—including testimony this week from Sheryl Sandberg—to answer uncomfortable questions about technology’s role in the spread of misinformation and its threat to U.S. democracy. But those questions aren’t the extent of the company’s public-relations problems. Facebook has also been accused of playing a role in political strife and even violence around the world, from reportedly enabling arms dealing in Libya and the propagation of conspiracy theories in the Philippines to allegedly helping fuel anti-immigrant violence on the streets of Germany.

The case against the world’s biggest social media platform is rapidly gaining momentum. But just how much concern is warranted? A recent article in The New York Times seems to suggest that the evidence is already in, and the link between Facebook and communal violence is real. The report, concerning attacks on immigrants in Germany, began with an anecdote: “When you ask locals why Dirk Denkhaus, a young firefighter trainee who had been considered neither dangerous nor political, broke into the attic of a refugee group house and tried to set it on fire, they will list the familiar issues.” The report alluded to those issues: economic decline, disillusionment, boredom, and the rise of fringe politics. It then added:

But they’ll often mention another factor not typically associated with Germany’s spate of anti-refugee violence: Facebook. Everyone here has seen Facebook rumors portraying refugees as a threat. They’ve encountered racist vitriol on local pages, a jarring contrast with Altena’s [a town in north-west Germany] public spaces, where people wave warmly to refugee families.

The authors cite the suspicion among locals that Denkhaus had “isolated himself in an online world of fear and anger that helped lead him to violence.”