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Anti-Islam Speech Online May Be Linked To Increased Attacks On Muslims

A girl wears a band reading ‘ Islam is peace ‘ as members of the Milanese Muslim community gather in downtown Milan, Italy. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LUCA BRUNO
A girl wears a band reading ‘ Islam is peace ‘ as members of the Milanese Muslim community gather in downtown Milan, Italy. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LUCA BRUNO

Hate crimes against Muslims have spiked in recent years in the United States and abroad. But a new study aims to draw a correlation between the rise in violent attacks against Muslims and anti-Islam speech online.

A small UK-based study published in the International Journal of Cyber Criminology found that anti-Islam content on Facebook included visually or verbally characterizing Muslims as terrorists or rapists. Muslim women were also depicted as national security threats, side by side with posts saying Muslims should be deported and that there is a war against Muslims.

“The worry I have is that these online groups and communities will use this support to foster an offline extremist counter-narrative,” lead researcher Imran Awan wrote in a Middle East Eye post debuting his study.

The worry I have is that these online groups and communities will use this support to foster an offline extremist counter-narrative.

After analyzing just 100 Facebook pages from 2013 to 2014, Awan, an associate criminology professor at Birmingham City University, found 494 instances of Muslim-targeted hate speech that increased following news reports of crimes perceived to be committed by Muslims or in the name of Islam, such as the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal or the Islamic State beheading of American photojournalist James Foley.

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There were two main issues, Awan said, that facilitated the proliferation of Islamophobic speech: anonymity and lax online content moderation.

“Many people on Facebook had used anonymity to espouse a certain type of hatred and it was evident that they had done this because of this loophole,” Awan told ThinkProgress via email. The “loophole” he referred to is Facebook’s “humor and satire” policy that permits offensive speech that would otherwise be banned from the site.

“This has allowed for groups and individuals to target Muslims with racist satire and humour knowing that they cannot be removed because it is ‘banter,’ etc.,” Awan continued. “Every time a trigger event occurred, it led to an escalation of the online abuse,” even when the topic discussed was less politically polarizing such as halal meat, he said.

Facebook and other social media sites have received intense criticism for not removing hateful content, allowing it to spread.

Every time a trigger event occurred, it led to an escalation of the online abuse.

Facebook bans attacks on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and health condition. But it does permit speech on those topics if it’s classified as social commentary, humor, or satire. When contacted for this story, a Facebook spokesperson said, “There is no place for hate speech on Facebook. If someone reports hate speech on Facebook, we will review the report and remove the content if it violates our Community Standards.”

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Facebook users can also report abusive content even if it falls under humor, and use filters to avoid potentially offensive posts. But even with content moderation and abuse reporting tools, the concern is that online abuse targeting Muslims correlates to attacks offline.

“If you say something Islamophobic at work there are repercussions and accountability. That’s not the case online,” said Engy Abdelkader, senior fellow and professor for Georgetown University’s Muslim-Christian relations center, the Bridge Initiative. “Similarly if my neighbor was going to post something, ‘I hate Muslims, they should die,’ it’s reprehensible but it’s not a comment that authorities [in the United States] can act on. It’s very different if he becomes more specific in the threat,” such as targeting an individual, group, or institution.

“There are various factors that contribute to Islamophobia that occurs offline,” she said. That includes “every time there is a real or perceived terrorist attack by someone who identifies or is identified as Muslim.”

Members of the Milanese Muslim community gather in downtown Milan, Italy, Nov. 21, 2015, to protest against violence. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Members of the Milanese Muslim community gather in downtown Milan, Italy, Nov. 21, 2015, to protest against violence. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Abdelkader is right about how violent attacks committed by those who identify or are perceived as Muslim broadly fuel Islamophobia. Since the attacks in Paris in November 2015, ThinkProgress has found over 90 Islamophobic acts, including personal threats and harassment.

Additionally, threats and political rhetoric that single out Muslims online has real life effects. The Bridge Initiative found 174 reported incidents of violence against Muslims, including vandalism, arson, shootings, bombings, murders, physical assaults, and threats, according to its “When Islamophobia Turns Violent” report.

In June, a Seattle man was arrested for online harassment after threatening to kill Muslims at a mosque. Robert Kinder Farris, 37, was charged with malicious harassment after posting threats against the Idriss Mosque in northern Seattle. Police dispatched to the mosque after the threats were reported. A mosque in Dearborn, Michigan was also threatened in June via Twitter following the Orlando mass shooting.

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Anti-Muslim rhetoric used by far-right politicians in the United States and across Europe likely isn’t helping. That sentiment was named a prominent impetus behind Brexit, and since the vote to leave the European Union, the U.K. has seen a rise in hate crimes.

In the United States, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has previously said he would ban all Muslims in the country, including Muslim Americans. He’s also called for all Muslims to register in the country, and said that “Islam hates us.”

More recently, Trump recently criticized Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim U.S. Army Captain killed in Iraq in 2004, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in July. After Khan’s impassioned speech denouncing Trump as a man who doesn’t understand sacrifice, Trump responded, “I would say we had a lot of problems with radical Islamic terrorism.”

Conflation of extremist militia groups with everyday Muslims translates into action, with speech online and in public turning into real physical threats.

Those views are echoed online and on the streets. Some of it is by opinionated individuals, while others have more organized campaigns that target Muslims. Ultimately, political rhetoric, news events, and even social media criticism together shape the public perception of an entire religious group.

“There are no alternative portrayals of Muslims,” Abdelkader said. “’Terrorists represent a fraction of a fraction of the Muslim community, which is 1 to 2 percent of the [U.S.] population. Most [Americans’] information about this group is coming from what they’re reading,” Abdelkader said.

That conflation of extremist militia groups with everyday Muslims translates into action, with speech online and in public turning into real physical threats.