Articles in Peer-Reviewed Journals

Álvarez-Benjumea, A (2022). Uncovering hidden opinions: social norms and the expression of xenophobic attitudes. European Sociological Review

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 quickly erode when individuals are exposed to hate content, therefore, facilitating the expression of prejudice. To test this, participants were invited to participate in an experimental 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. The effect is primarily driven by those more likely to hold anti-immigrant views. This points to an ‘emboldening effect’ whereby prejudiced individuals refrain from expressing prejudiced opinions in the absence of offensive speech. Otherwise, hidden attitudes are revealed. The results confirm that the expression of prejudice is context-dependent and that preserving a ‘norm environment’ requires sustained reinforcement of the norm. Furthermore, the results show that the composition of the population in terms of individual beliefs is paramount for the dynamics of erosion of the social norm. On the whole, these findings can inform effective public strategies against the spread of hate speech and offer a new methodological approach for studying hate speech in online contexts.

Data and materials

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Álvarez-Benjumea, A. (2020). Exposition to xenophobic content and support for right-wing populism: The asymmetric role of gender. Social Science Research92, 102480.

Abstract: This paper studies whether exposure to anti-immigrant sentiment in the online context affects the willingness to support an openly anti-immigration party, and shows how gender moderates the effect. We designed an online experiment in which participants were invited to an online forum to discuss immigration issues. We manipulate the social acceptability of xenophobic views by exposing participants to an increasing proportion of comments with anti-immigrant content. As a proxy for open support for anti-immigrant policies, we ask participants to donate to a well-known German party with a strong anti-immigration discourse: Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany). We find no evidence that exposure to increasing social acceptability of xenophobic content affected the willingness to donate. In an exploratory analysis, we find that women are particularly reluctant to donate after the anti-immigrant comments raised normative concerns. The results can shed light on the heterogeneous effect of counter-normative discourses on support for anti-immigrant parties.


Álvarez-Benjumea, A., & Winter, F. (2020). The Breakdown of Anti-Racist Norms: A Natural Experiment on Hate Speech after Terrorist Attacks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117 (37) 22800-22804.

Abstract: Terrorist attacks often fuel online hate and increase the expression of xenophobic and anti-minority messages. Previous research has focused on the impact of terrorist attacks on prejudiced attitudes toward groups linked to the perpetrators as the cause of this increase. We argue that social norms can contain the expression of prejudice after the attacks. We report the results of a combination of a natural and a laboratory-in-the-field (lab-in-the-field) experiment in which we exploit data collected about the occurrence of two consecutive Islamist terrorist attacks in Germany, the Würzburg and Ansbach attacks, in July 2016. The experiment compares the effect of the terrorist attacks in hate speech toward refugees in contexts where a descriptive norm against the use of hate speech is evidently in place to contexts in which the norm is ambiguous because participants observe anti-minority comments. Hate toward refugees, but not toward other minority groups, increased as a result of the attacks only in the absence of a strong norm. These results imply that attitudinal changes due to terrorist attacks are more likely to be voiced if norms erode.

Working paper

Data and code

Álvarez-Benjumea, A., & Winter, F. (2018). Normative Change and Culture of Hate: An Experiment in Online EnvironmentsEuropean Sociological Review34(3), 223-237.

Abstract: We present an online experiment in which we investigate the impact of perceived social acceptability on online hate speech, and measure the causal effect of specific interventions. We compare two types of interventions: counter-speaking (informal verbal sanctions) and censoring (deleting hateful content). The interventions are based on the belief that individuals infer acceptability from the context, using previous actions as a source of normative information. The interventions are based on the two conceptualizations found in the literature: (i) what do others normally do, i.e. descriptive norms; and (ii) what happened to those who violated the norm, i.e. injunctive norms. Participants were significantly less likely to engage in hate speech when prior hate content had been moderately censored. Our results suggest that norm adherence in online conversations might, in fact, be motivated by descriptive norms rather than injunctive norms. With this work we present some of the first experimental evidence investigating the social determinants of hate speech in online communities. The results could advance the understanding of the micro-mechanisms that regulate hate speech. Also, such findings can guide future interventions in online communities that help prevent the spread of hate.


Working paper


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