(Working papers, data, and materials might be available upon request. Please, feel free to contact me)

Alvarez-Benjumea, A., and Winter, F. (2022). Social Sanctions against Online Hate Speech: Three Experiments on Counterspeech


The increase in online hate speech poses a challenge to democracy. Counterspeech is currently advocated by many as the best strategy to counteract hate speech as it does not carry the negative externalities of other interventions like censoring content. We investigate whether and how frequently counterspeech is produced as a spontaneous response when participants encounter hate speech online. We find the rate of spontaneous counterspeech to be small. Participants with a positive attitude towards the target of hate were also more likely to use counterspeech. No other specific variables related to the participants, such as their gender or level of education, were important in determining whether or not they used counterspeech.

In a second experimental study, we test different strategies to increase the willingness to sanction online hate speech. First, we test whether participants are more likely to respond to hateful messages with counterspeech when they can observe previous participants have done so. Exposure to counterspeech by anonymous others strongly encourages participants to act against hate. Second, we test whether informing participants of the inappropriateness of using hate prior to participating in an online platform, thus increasing the salience of the norm, increases their willingness to sanction. Increasing the salience of the norm does not have an effect on the number of sanctions and, if anything, participants are less willing to sanction.  In a third experiment, we test the mechanisms behind the behavioral results by investigating how observing the normative message or counterspeech affects social norms of the expression of hate speech.  The results highlight the importance of normalizing and spotlighting counter-speakers as a measure to increase spontaneous counterspeech.



Alvarez-Benjumea, A. (2021). Uncovering Hidden Opinions: The Erosion of Norms and the Expression of Xenophobic Attitudes.

Abstract: Social norms against prejudice are widespread and generally supported by society, yet examples of bigotry are often found. I propose that anti-prejudice norms can easily erode when individuals are exposed to hate content, therefore facilitating the expression of prejudice. To test this, participants were invited to take part in a controlled online forum discussing immigration. I compare the comments of participants exposed to xenophobic content to those not exposed. The empirical results show that exposure to hateful content erodes norm compliance: the more hateful content participants could observe, the more hateful their subsequent comments were. Furthermore, the effect is greater amongst those more likely to hold anti-immigrant views. This indicates an “emboldening effect” whereby in the absence of offensive speech, prejudiced citizens refrain from expressing prejudiced opinions. Otherwise, hidden attitudes are revealed. The results imply that the expression of prejudice is context-dependent. However, because norms can easily erode, the preservation of a “norm environment” requires sustained reinforcement of the norm.

Watch a short presentation of the project at the NoBeC talks

Zhang, N., Alvarez-Benjumea, A., and Winter, F. (2021). Party Trumps Race: How Black, Hispanic and Asian Republicans React to Explicit Racial Rhetoric.

Abstract: As racial hostility has become increasingly evident within the Republican party in recent years, scholars and political observers are challenged to explain continued GOP support amongst segments of minority voters. Against this backdrop, we examine the racial attitudes of minorities within the Republican Party. Our research draws from a large-scale original survey measuring Americans’ reactions to the racially-offensive speech. We find that Black, Hispanic and Asian respondents who identify with the GOP are consistently more tolerant of prejudice than their non-Republican counterparts, even with respect to statements targeting their “own” race. Further, in some instances, minority Republicans react similarly to White Republicans when presented with racially-hostile comments about other minorities. These patterns are largely consistent with accounts of social sorting and partisan influence which have been advanced to explain the political alignments of White Americans and provide an explanation for why some minorities may choose to remain within the GOP despite its stance on racial issues.

Alvarez-Benjumea, A., Freund, L., Luckner, K., Winter, F. Public Signals as Coordination Devices: The Moderating Effect of Group Identity.

Abstract: Experiments on social norm intervention suggest that public information, which creates common knowledge, is more effective in increasing norm conformity than privately disseminated information, regardless of other factors affecting norm conformity, such as group identity. We present a theoretical model and an experimental test of the effect of the channel of dissemination (public vs. private) of a normative message under different levels of group identity on norm compliance in a public goods game with heterogeneous groups of actors. In the theoretical model, we derive an actor’s pecuniary and identity utility, as well as the conditions under which they will coordinate on a correlated equilibrium. In the experiment, we play a public goods game in which we provide the participants with a normative message about the fairness norm. The conditions vary between low/high group identity and public/private information. We test the coordination on the provided fairness norm in each setting. To increase the strength of the test, we introduce heterogeneous endowments. This increases the number of alternative fairness norms on which coordination is feasible. Our results suggest that group identity increases norm compliance, while the public dissemination of normative information has no, or even negative, effects on norm compliance depending on the type of actor in question.

The effect of anomie on norm-compliance (together Winter, F.)

Tracking the Trump Effect (together with Winter, F. and Zhang, N.)

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