Racism behind the screen – the impact of social media in post-Brexit hate crime

When Britain left the European Union, many voiced concern about the implications of such a seismic decision on race relations. A statement released by the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) in June found that reports of hate crime had risen by 57% since the Brexit vote; a worrying spate, especially considering the rise of far right nationalist movements throughout Europe.

When you hear the phrase ‘hate crime’, what springs to mind? Cases of physical assault, verbal abuse and vandalism were all reported in the midst of the EU vote, but in the digital era, there is a another face to racism that can’t be seen on the streets. The world of social media has changed the way that we interact, allowing people to communicate their thoughts and opinions in a way that was previously unimaginable. In data collected by counter-racism group, Post-Ref Racism, online abuse only accounted for 5% of post-Brexit hate crime incidents, with verbal abuse being the most common at a staggering 76%. However, the study highlighted the fact that the mere presence of racist and xenophobic narrative on social media contributes to what they call ‘the increasing normalisation’ of prejudice attitudes that have revealed themselves in wider society following the referendum result.

To better understand the influence of social media in race relations, Keep the Faith MCR spoke to Sharon Coen, a Senior Lecturer in Media Psychology at the University of Salford.


Sharon agreed that people are more likely to display racist behaviour online, pointing to a phenomenon known as ‘the dishinibition effect’ as an explanation.

“Some scholars suggest that this is due to the fact that when one is online they do not have feedback from others and they tend to ignore the potential impact their words might have on others. Others suggest that we use the internet to explore different aspects of ourselves, so it might be that people online ‘try out’ nastier behaviours which they wouldn’t be able to perform in their everyday life… Put simply, people might think less before posting online.”

Everyone’s experience of social media is different, and although sites like Facebook and Twitter present opportunities for thoughtful discussion, the type of content users interact with online can shape their attitudes. Sharon alluded to the fact that hateful dialogue will not reach everyone online, but once in the loop, can easily become the norm within certain online communities.

“Social media often function as an echo chamber, thus I would say that IF you are the kind of person who follows or is interested in this kind of discourses, you are more likely to come across them more easily. Of course, there is also the associated issue of trolling and cyberbullying, whereby someone is targeted by others and insulted or verbally aggressed.

“The main effect that all (not only social) media seem to have on people is a change in the perception of what is and what isn’t acceptable to do, feel or say in their society. As a consequence, majority members who often see posts containing hate crimes might perceive that it is acceptable to express these kinds of views towards members of minority groups.”

Sharon’s acknowledgement of traditional media channels – such as television and print – as a contributing factor to public perception reflected a widely held accusation that some media outlets behaved unethically in the build up to the referendum campaign. An exemplary case was a front-page headline published by The Sun, which read: “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. The headline generated more than 3,000 complaints on the basis that it was misleading and aggravated prejudice towards the British-Muslim community. As a result, The Sun were forced to issue an amendment by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

Some commentators have expressed concern that the popular rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiments, echoes radical rhetoric that was more common in parts of the 20th century throughout Europe. Oswold Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) gathered significant momentum in the 1930s, boasting more than 50,000 members at its peak. Such popular support was partly attributed to ratifying headlines written by The Daily Mail and other newspapers – the dominant source of news at the time.

The gradual decline of printed media has been a sad sight for many journalists and consumers, but the fact that social media is becoming an increasingly dominant news platform may have in fact presented opportunities in combatting prejudice dialogue. Although social media provides space for people who share racist beliefs to congregate, through comment boards and online campaign groups, the internet allows users to engage with and challenge radical views, whether individuals or organisations are spreading them. Dr Coen reiterated:

“If someone ‘likes’ a racist page, that means that Social Media are not breeding racism, they are simply allowing racists to find a place where they can express their views and interact with others who share the same view. We must not forget nonetheless that Social Media also allow people who are traditionally silenced to speak up and to find a forum (think for example of support groups for different health conditions, the mental health campaigns, the anti-racism accounts etc.”

The challenge now is to ensure that these confined groups stay confined. Brexit, and some of the political and media narrative surrounding it, gave flesh to the brittle bones of racism, allowing it to muscle its way in to mainstream dialogue.

“Much of what we think and feel, and most of our actions are shaped by our cultural and social beliefs and values. Therefore, we need to stand together as a community and refuse to accept these discourses. We need to step up and counteract the racism, and call it out whenever we see it. We need to stand with the victims of Hate Crime and let them know they are not alone.”


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