Content Analysis of the Social Psychology of Hate Groups
Over a decade ago, it was already apparent that the Internet had advantages for social organization on the part of marginalized groups -- and that some of these marginalized groups would pose a challenge, as they could be described as "hate groups." A survey of literature on the social psychology of the Internet singles out many factors why "hate groups" can thrive on the Internet. As early as 1998, NYU Professor of Psychology John Bargh identified the way in which white supremacists used Internet "listservs" to reinforce their own beliefs and communicate with like-minded individuals across long distances -- and in the present Bargh warns that the internet has become such an effective tool for hate groups that it can give us an inflated sense of their numbers. Finally Bargh's insights may be applied to a specific sub-type of hate group -- anti-gay groups such as Pastor Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church, monitored as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- offering verification of his thesis.
I did research on hate groups in general, but I was more concerned to use a social psychology approach in addressing the questions of the difference between online hate groups and the conventional flesh-and-blood variety. Therefore, the lion's share of my research was devoted to content analysis of peer-reviewed journal articles about the difference in online social psychology vs. ordinary social psychology, in order to address the more general question of how the internet differs -- and whether a text-based rather than face-to-face form of social interaction permits the suppression of empathetic faculties, and might offer hate a chance to thrive. I also developed a specific interest in the social psychology theories of NYU Social Psychologist John Bargh, and refer to four of his peer-reviewed journal articles (under his sole authorship or co-authorship with Katelyn McKenna, and including a separate paper by McKenna in collaboration with others), as someone whose conclusions I was inclined to tentatively endorse.
I decided to select a specific test case, to apply aspects of the content analyzed. So rather than attempt to use Bargh's analysis of online social psychology to apply to hate groups tout court, I decided to limit the analysis to a specific subset of hate groups, namely those that organize around an anti-gay message. I focused on the Westboro Baptist Church, who became a notorious early adopter of online technology to promote hate with their adoption of the internet domain name "godhatesfags.com" in the late 1990s. I chose WBC because they are a group of relatively recent history and provenance, and because I wanted to apply theories of online social psychology as to how and why WBC's founder -- the notorious Pastor Fred Phelps -- managed to achieve the dubious distinction of being a pioneer in the use of the internet to promote hate in the late 1990s, while at the same time continue challenging the limits of free speech sufficiently to have had his case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the autumn of 2010.
Because my fundamental goal here was content analysis, I went into a substantial review of the general literature on the subject of the Internet's effect on social psychology, which included large-scale survey articles that were able to point me in the proper direction to consider how this might relate to hate groups. My conclusions on how it does relate to hate groups are given later, when I apply the broad insights from my review of the general literature on this subject to a specific test case. For now I will give an account of how social psychology literature since 1998 has handled the issue of the Internet and social organization, including "hate groups."
Howard and Rainie break down users of the Internet into four categories, and they correlated behavior to how long the person had been using the internet and how often he or she logs on from home. Those whose long-term use was purely utilitarian fell into a pattern of greater dependency, until they became the constant users who expressed opinions, whom they term "Netizens." Howard and Rainie would predict that hate-group members belong to the most savvy users, whom they term "Netizens." This category correlates to a much greater likelihood to use the internet to seek information about politics or to pursue political activity (one of the many categories they assembled data for). (Howard and Rainie, 395)
It is important to note at the outset that my focus is predominantly on social psychology. This is the only approach that attempts to account for the specific content of psychological beliefs that would enable us to distinguish a hate group from any other sort of social group. So for example certain types of psychological analysis which may be scientific -- such as the use of evolutionary theory to pose testable hypotheses about human behavior -- aren't very useful when it comes to something as political as hate groups. Piazza and Bering's 2009 study "Evolutionary Cyber-Psychology" adequately predicts certain behavioral facts about hate group, such as the notion that vulnerable marginalized social groups will be the target of aggressive or bullying behavior -- in other words, they sees as inevitable the tendency towards hate. However Piazza and Bering's definition of marginalization is so broad as to be meaningless in terms of social groups -- it includes all "newcomers or acquaintances of core members" of any sort of group behavior to be the predictable target of aggression, which is obvious to anyone who has attended a kindergarten and tells us only the worst about human group behavior while telling us absolutely nothing about, say, the actual political content of any human group's beliefs -- let alone an actively-organized hate group Piazza and Bering 1263).
In terms of a viable approach, our survey of content must begin with Kraut Patterson et al. And their 1998 paper "Internet Paradox." Kraut Patterson et al. employed longitudinal data for the purpose of analyzing the social psychology of users, by examining effect of Internet use on not just social involvement but also overall psychological well-being, and found (in the paradox that gives them the title of their study) that "greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness" (Kraut Patterson et al. 1017).
Kraut Patterson et al. strike us now, over a decade later, with their astonishing prescience about certain ways in which the Internet might change behavior. In some sense, though, their prescience is not so surprising: they are careful to position their analysis of the Internet's increasing importance with earlier analysis of those technologies (like television) that it most resembled. They begin with a large scale survey of psychological literature to date, charting the rise of the Internet in an era of large-scale social disengagement on the societal level in the period 1960 to 1995, but also venturing that -- in terms of both its delivery systems and its potential -- that it might be comparable to television in terms of the impact on social psychology. Study after study is cited which notes a correlation between television watching and increased social disengagement manifest in any number of socially undesirable behaviors, and the authors therefore propose collecting similar data on Internet usage. But their fundamental view is that the Internet is not capable of effecting any truly massive social change. As they write: "Weak ties…are especially useful for linking people to information and social resources unavailable in people's closest, local groups" (Kraut Patterson et al. 1019). Kraut and Patterson are reacting largely -- as they make clear -- to an earlier study by Katz and Aspden which seemed wildly over-optimistic in terms of how the internet might actually change behavior. Katz and Aspden had suggested that "the Internet is creating a nation richer in friendships and social relationships" -- and I would like to suggest later that in certain important ways Katz and Aspden were right, when it comes to the analysis of how hate groups operate online -- but Kraut and Patterson were intent on attacking their fundamentally optimistic assumptions, largely because they see the Internet as capable of producing social "weak" rather than "strong ties." "Weak ties" for Kraut and Patterson seem to perpetuate themselves, which is one reason why they conclude (and their data supports the conclusion) that greater Internet usage may very well increase overall social interaction but only in the limited mediated forms of social interaction that the Internet can provide, while simultaneously decreasing real-world "strong ties."
But in the same year of Kraut and Patterson's study, John Bargh and Katelyn McKenna published the first of several papers which was keen to examine the Internet's power for social change and psychological self-definition for individuals, especially in terms of establishing a group identity. For them, the Internet…