Key takeaways

  • The initiative demonstrates the possibilities for a major multidisciplinary research platform to tackle a complex social ill, which is especially critical in today’s society.
  • Research reveals new insights into understanding hate and its pervasiveness; for example, one team found 80% of 5th–12th grade students surveyed are exposed to hate on social media.
  • The initiative in its second year will fund new research teams and host a central research hub.

Last September, the UCLA Initiative to Study Hate launched what seemed to be a Sisyphean mission: to understand and tackle the phenomenon of hate. As the initiative marks its first anniversary, its researchers continue to seek out new pathways of understanding of hate, which has been such a prominent catalyst in recent convulsions of violence around the world.

“Hate is as vexing as it is pervasive,” said David Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History and director of the initiative. “But in just one year, we have gained important new insights into how it functions and how we might better address it.”

Teams have already shared findings to help understand the ways hate shows up in the brain’s neural pathways, the pervasiveness of youth’s experiences of hate on social media and the unexpected environments in which hate presents itself in daily life.

The results also continue to push the initial gambit of the initiative: to demonstrate that breaking through disciplinary boundaries to create a learning community — dedicated to addressing one of society’s most complex and ubiquitous problems — is not only necessary but achievable.

“We can see from both history and the current moment that it is incredibly destructive to let hatred and alienation metastasize,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, reflecting on the ongoing importance of the initiative. “Educational institutions like ours must take seriously their urgent responsibility to understand how we can dismantle the machinery of group hate and blunt its damage. Bringing our best thinking to our hardest problems is central to UCLA’s mission.”

In its inaugural year, the initiative built a community of 62 scholars from 20 different disciplines working on 23 discrete research projects. These scholars met monthly to share resources, discuss obstacles and provide each other with feedback. To advance even greater collaboration, three additional grants were awarded to teams that joined forces to enhance their work.

“As researchers, we often get stuck in our disciplinary silos and perspectives,” said Kevin Gatter, one of the fellows. “I’m a social scientist, but my colleagues from neuroscience helped me to overcome my project’s toughest challenges. This initiative is a testament to the importance of drawing from other fields in order to produce research that will have greater impact.”

Laying the foundation for research and solutions

Representing disciplines from community health to cognitive science, the preliminary findings from the first round of grants — detailed in a recently released annual report — promise to lay the foundation for future research and anti-hate interventions in various sectors, including education, health care and public policy.

Despite the challenge of precisely defining hate, initial research indicates that establishing a more unified understanding and method of measuring hate is possible. For instance, researchers applied sophisticated neuroscientific technologies to identify hate in the brain using actors in “hate” scenarios and found correlations with dehumanization in parts of the brain.

Teams also sought to understand the various environments in which hate presents itself.  Perhaps not surprisingly, online spaces were found to be hot spots, with one study finding more than 80% of the 5th­–12th grade students surveyed were exposed to hate while on social media. Almost half, or 47%, of all respondents had been cyberbullied. Another team identified troubling high rates of hatred directed against people experiencing homelessness: 75% of unhoused individuals surveyed reported experiencing discrimination within a 30-day period, and over half said they had been threatened or harassed.

Researchers delved into how hate spreads, especially through traditional and social media. They investigated hate groups that use platforms like YouTube and TikTok to foster hate against specific communities, aided by biased algorithms aimed at increasing traffic.

Even as the findings shed light on the pervasiveness of and the complexities of studying hate, they also demonstrated that an evidence-based understanding of hate can lead to better interventions and real change. Specifically, establishing clearer definitions of hate and its various iterations — including hate speech, hate crimes and bullying — can be used to develop more effective funding, legislation and approaches.

“The definitions of hate speech we are gathering based on the responses of youth using social media are significant,” said fellow and education research scientist Christine Ong. “We are hopeful our findings will eventually help schools, parents and young people develop strategies to prevent the worst effects of hate speech that we see spread online.”

Taking the research to the next level

As it enters its second year, the research initiative continues to expand its community and refine its platform.

An in-house research team spearheaded by Myers and sociologist Aaron Panofsky will tackle some of the core research questions animating the study of hate. For example, the group will examine historical approaches to combating hate and how the challenge of defining hate hampers its mitigation. The initiative brought on three postdoctoral scholars — Bethan Johnson (history), Michele Wong (social welfare) and Naomi Taub (English) — to form this research hub.

Five student fellows will be cosponsored by the initiative to help share its research and programming with the broader campus community. Their disciplines include neuroscience, African American studies, education, psychology and political science.

“It is vitally important that we incorporate the research talents of our undergraduate and graduate students into the initiative’s work,” Myers said. “They bring new perspectives and approaches that will substantially enrich the project.”

A new cohort of research teams, including four large-scale projects and seven smaller-scale projects, will be funded. Three are continuing from last year. One team, whose project “Social Media and Spread of Hate” analyzed the impact of hate and bullying on social media on grammar school and high school students, will expand their research to college students. The other large-scale grantees are focusing on investigating hate as it impacts youth, hate and the larger media and information landscape, and obstetric racism and anti-Black hate.

This year, the initiative is set to launch efforts to promote their research in the public sphere. This includes an upcoming podcast series to provide insights into the scope of hate and how to combat it. A new partnership with the California Commission on the State of Hate will help the agency develop resources and guidance for communities and government officials on how to effectively reduce and respond to hate activity in California. Another new partnership with the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies will focus on the place of antisemitism in the United States and beyond. This partnership is the recipient of a three-year grant from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation.

Myers emphasized this is only the beginning: “We don’t want simply to know how hate works; we want to eradicate it.”