Opinion|The Online Cacophony of Hate Against Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Donald Trump has made the demonization of Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, a key element of his 2020 re-election strategy. But the targeting of Ms. Omar and her fellow Democrat and Muslim member of Congress, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, started as soon as they became candidates.
We published a study this week that found that, around the 2018 midterm elections, Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib were in the cross hairs of a tiny band of Islamophobes, long before Mr. Trump elevated them in his tweetstorms, and likely before they were even on his radar.
We studied more than 113,000 tweets, posted from early September 2018 to the weekend before the election, that mentioned Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Omar Qudrat, a Republican congressional candidate in California who lost his race.
Ilhan Omar was the prime target. Roughly half of the 90,000 tweets mentioning her included hate speech or Islamophobic or anti-immigrant language. Put another way, almost 60 percent of the network of accounts that mentioned or tagged her had posted at least one tweet containing hate speech or overt disinformation. Almost one-third of the tweets mentioning Ms. Tlaib were Islamophobic or xenophobic. Even Mr. Qudrat, a former military terrorism prosecutor, faced online harassment.
The sheer number and proportion of negative tweets indicate that much of the targeting was done by people or organizations from far outside the districts in which the candidates ran. Our review of profiles of those accounts, which included 2,354 that attacked both women, bears this out.
But the most striking thing we uncovered happened in the months after the election. When we revisited these accounts in July, a significant portion of them were simply gone. Some had been suspended by Twitter for violating standards, such as posting inappropriate content or showing characteristics of bots. Others had been deleted by the account holders. Malicious actors will often remove the accounts that make up their bot networks — like drug dealers tossing burner phones — to cover their tracks.
During the height of the campaign, there were 50,699 accounts in Ilhan Omar’s Twitter network. By July, 14 percent of those accounts were missing. Similarly, in Ms. Tlaib’s network, 11.9 percent of accounts in the network were either suspended or deleted. Still others had gone largely dormant.
A large percentage of these trolls were likely bots or automated accounts run by people, organizations or state actors seeking to spread political propaganda and hate speech. That’s based on telltale iconography, naming patterns, webs of linkages and the breadth of the postelection scrubbing.
This all suggests that this Islamophobic and xenophobic narrative largely originated with a handful of bigoted activists and was then amplified by vast bot networks whose alleged owners never existed. “Ordinary” account holders, many retweeting just one post, were then swept up in the rancorous energy of the crowd.
Yet the manufactured outrage produced by this anti-Muslim cabal turned what was supposed to be Twitter’s venue for social discourse into a one-way digital highway of harassment and hate.
Key themes included Muslims as subhumans or “Trojan horses” seeking to impose Shariah law on America. Ms. Omar’s hijab was a lightning rod; so was Ms. Tlaib’s Palestinian heritage. Forty percent of those attacking Ms. Omar for her comments on Israel also used overtly Islamophobic or xenophobic language, like “@IlhanMN I stand with Israel and denounce Mohammad as a false prophet and Islam the work of Satan.”
“Terrorist” and “jihadi” were among the most frequently occurring words in tweets tagging Ms. Tlaib. Disinformation and unproven allegations originating on obscure blogs, including stories that Ms. Omar supported female genital mutilation and had married her brother, were widely retweeted and picked up by an array of right-wing sites such as PJ Media.
We found something else that was striking. America’s anti-Muslim narrative has long been shaped by an Islamophobic lobby that the Center for American Progress has called “Fear Inc.” Most of those “old school” figures were absent from the hate-filled narrative around Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib, eclipsed by a new cadre of internet-savvy actors that have seized control of the anti-Muslim narrative, including the provocateur Laura Loomer, who has been banned from most social media platforms; Alphanews.com, a crowdsourced Minnesota aggregator; and an array of bots that mask the real faces behind them.
Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, recently announced that the platform would refuse to accept most political advertising, because it “brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.”
But paid advertising is just part of the problem. The online cacophony of hate Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib encountered had nothing to do with political ads. The extent to which trolls controlled the narrative on Twitter, at no cost, raises questions about the nature of public discourse in the age of social media and the challenges for Muslims and candidates from other minority groups seeking a voice in the political process in the 2020 election cycle.
There was no magic to what we did. If we can find the trolls, so can Twitter. If we can single out those using hate speech, so can Twitter. If we can map the bot networks, so can Twitter. This is about the platform taking responsibility and systematically enforcing its own standards, not passing the buck and blaming advertising while ignoring the fact that it is the true currency of Twitter — the tweets themselves — that bring “significant risks to politics” and “the lives of millions.”
Lawrence Pintak (@lpintak) is a professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and author of “America and Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump.” Jonathan Albright (@d1gi) is the director of digital forensics at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Brian J. Bowe (@brianjbowe) is an associate professor at Western Washington University.
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