The contact hypothesis and the virtual revolution: How online contact experiences are shaping intergroup attitudes

Bond, Julian (2023). The contact hypothesis and the virtual revolution: How online contact experiences are shaping intergroup attitudes. PhD thesis The Open University.



The contact hypothesis postulates that, under the right conditions, intergroup contact can positively affect intergroup relations and so has the potential for beneficial effects in society. Since the original statement of the contact hypothesis, there has been a fundamental change in how people communicate, with online rather than face-to-face interactions increasingly becoming the primary means of communication.
There has, though, been little academic research into whether this transformation of human interaction has affected the connection between intergroup contact and intergroup relations. This research sets out to fill this gap. The core objective is to understand the role that online intergroup contact plays in people’s daily lives and how it relates to their outgroup perceptions in the context of their face-to-face intergroup contact.
The thesis reports on two major original studies, both with sample sizes over 1,000. Study 1 examines interethnic contact between Black and White people in the United Kingdom. Study 2 is a longitudinal study in Northern Ireland investigating the interactions between Catholics and Protestants. In both studies, self-reported naturally occurring intergroup contact was measured both face-to-face and online, taking account of contact valence and whether the contact was direct or vicarious.
The data unequivocally demonstrates across both studies that online contact was significantly more negative compared to face-to-face contact, especially when contact was vicarious. In both studies, positive contact showed stronger effects on prejudice when it was face-to-face, but negative contact was more strongly linked to prejudice when contact was online.
This result suggests that as more contact occurs online the valence of intergroup contact is becoming increasingly negative, and this increasing negativity is having a detrimental effect on intergroup prejudice. Without interventions to prevent this, there is a risk that the shift towards online intergroup contact will increasingly divide society and increase intergroup animosity.

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