Muslim Candidates like Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have been called “dogs,” “pieces of garbage,” “terrorists” and “demonic” by trolls on Twitter because of their religions. A new study by the Social Science Research Council suggests Twitter could be partially responsible for this islamophobic social media blitz.
“#Islamaphobia: Stoking Fear and Prejudice in the 2018 Midterms” is a look into islamophobic trolling on the internet during the 2018 midterm elections. The study, by Lawrence Pintak, Jonathan Albright, Brian J. Bowe and Shaheen Pasha with contributions by Heena Khan and Anastasia Vishnevskaya, found that while candidates including Omar and Tlaib discussed only experiencing limited instances of Islamophobia among constituents, abuse ran rampant on social media.
The study analyzed 113,000 tweets directed at Muslim candidates. The report categorized more than half of accounts that tweeted about Omar as “trolls” because they engaged in hate speech. Sixty-seven percent of tweets mentioning Omar’s handle @OmarMN were by trolls, according to the results.
Because the number of hateful messages on Twitter far surpassed those in real life and on the campaign trail, the study concluded the site was responsible for giving these messages a national and international stage.
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The study points out many of the hateful messages in the tweets violated Twitter’s Terms of Service, which prohibit violent threats and attacks based on religion. Many of the accounts that shared these tweets were later deleted. Large numbers were also from automated bot accounts. Of the top 20 conservative accounts that spread messages about Omar, at least nine were bots, the report found.
On Sunday, Omar retweeted some of these violent messages, calling for Twitter to take action.
Yo @Twitter this is unacceptable! https://t.co/EShwP1UU9O
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 3, 2019
Republican Ted Cruz tweeted in support of her.
This is reprehensible. Disagree with @IlhanMN on the merits, fine, but death threats to anyone are not a joke. https://t.co/TaUk5MWpwu
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) November 4, 2019
Tlaib said the report was not surprising.
“Sadly, the SSRC report on Islamophobia online during the 2018 campaign is not surprising — anyone who has ever read my Twitter mentions and replies has already seen the level of hate that exists online,” she told the Washington Post.
The study found overall, Muslim women were more likely to be targeted than men.
Common messages used against Omar and Tlaib included claims that Omar’s choice to wear a hijab showed she wasn’t loyal to the U.S., that Omar was a “poster child” for incest and female genital mutilation, that Tlaib would impose Sharia Law in the U.S. that the women did not belong in the U.S. and that they were anti-Semitic.
“No one that wears a #Hijab should be running for office in America. The #Quran #Islam and our #Constitution are Not compatible in any way,” one tweet said.
“@RashidaTlaiB No to your sharia ‘law’. Go back to your desert,” another said.
The study adds to the conversation of whether social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are responsible for ousting accounts that engage in hate speech. Hate speech is not protected under the First Amendment, but regardless, these companies are private and have the right to enforce rules against trolling, cyber-bullying and the dissemination of false information.
The fact that Twitter has given these messages a platform has led to arguments by these Muslim politicians and their supporters that the platform has been complicit in the islamophobic spread of misinformation.
“.@jack, you said last year that you’d hold Twitter ‘publicly accountable towards progress,’ Omar tweeted at Twitter CEO Jack Patrick Dorsey. “Yet @RashidaTlaib, @omarqudrat1, and me have been targeted by hate speech and disinformation. Progress means Muslim voices aren’t silenced or smeared. Stand by your commitment.”