Policy and Ethics

Twitter Responds to Racism and Islamophobia

Abstract

Twitter is one of the most commonly used forms of social media in the twenty-first century. Networking sites have established a universal dialogue between people with significantly different opinions and beliefs systems. Social media, intended to eliminate social restrictions and promote dialogue, is instead manipulated to promote racial violence. This research article investigates the impact of Twitter on Racism and Islamophobia and proposes a three tiered solution: eliminating anonymity, expanding Twitter’s moral board, and running an electronic search across all posts for online discrimination. Through the examination of international events that sparked controversial conversations on Twitter, this paper concludes that although Twitter can be used to encourage conversation between various ethnic groups in a respectable manner, it is being notably misused in order to promote violence. This article discusses the implications and limitations of three potential solutions to online discrimination through Twitter.

Keywords

Racism; Islamophobia; Social Media; Twitter; Hate Speech; Discrimination; Racial Violence

Introduction

The role of social media in American culture has grown exponentially since the early 2000s. It refers to the “use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue” [1]. Over the past several years, social media participation in the US has increased from 8% to 72% [2]. Dhiraj Murthy, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas, discovered that as a prominent communication platform, Twitter has continuously integrated itself into society with over 554.7 million worldwide users and 135,000 new users joining the network daily [3]. 100 million Twitter users post more than 65 million tweets daily [2]. Despite that these numbers only represent a fraction of the world’s total population and are limited by access to technology, the substantial societal impact of social media has become increasingly evident.

Although some believe social media can be used to eliminate social restrictions and promote dialogue, it has instead raised concerns about discriminatory tweets stimulating racial violence. Local and international attacks spark various types of responses in Twitter users, typically consisting of either support or bigotry. Responses displaying hatred toward one particular ethnic group often result in manifestations of brutality. While some minorities work to combat this racial prejudice through the encouragement of social rights movements, the magnitude of the Internet makes this a nearly impossible task to accomplish. This poses the question: can Twitter be used to prevent racism and Islamophobia in the US? Overall, an analysis of various perspectives through different lenses of racism indicates that Twitter needs to be regulated in order to prevent further discrimination in the US.

Results and Discussion

Importance of Dialogue:

Dialogue between different ethnicities is often hard to sustain, despite the presence of similar interests and the common goal of communication. However, interfaith dialogue between opposing perspectives is vital in combating racism in modern society. Edward Kessler, the director of the Woolf Institute and a fellow of St Edmund’s College, in his article, “Social Media and the Movement of Ideas,” discovered that in order for active dialogue to take place, all perspectives relevant to the conversation must be represented equally and genuinely understood by others [1]. The importance of dialogue in social media is highlighted when Kessler states that “once a message is posted online, control is lost” due to the versatility and accessibility of social media. This limited opportunity to enact effective dialogue risks the misinterpretation of content that furthers racial violence. Although the impersonal nature of the Internet allows for the manipulation of information, there are several examples of social media being used to promote interfaith dialogue instead.

Facilitation of Racism:

Naomee-Minh Nguyen, a graduate from the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University, defines racism as “the belief that all members of a race possess characteristics specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races” [4]. An example of this is evident in Birmingham, one of the most segregated cities in the US during the late 1900s, in which Blacks experienced unjust imprisonment. Tangent to Kessler’s ideas on the importance of dialogue, Birmingham is a clear example of the consequences of racial injustice due to insufficient dialogue. When African Americans sought communication with the leaders of Birmingham, they were met with consistent opposition to engage in a conversation, thus eliminating all opportunities for effective dialogue to take place [5]. When Dr. King states that “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he refers to the numerous years of pent up resentment African Americans have had against the occasional bigotry in American culture. Without proper dialogue assisting in the ventilation of their anger, African Americans seek expression through activism instead. Similarly, Mia Moody-Ramirez , the Graduate Program Director in the Department of Journalism at the University of Texas, conducted a study that analyzed the public’s response towards the deaths of African Americans, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in a 2014 shooting by a White police officer [6]. The study found that Twitter users often used the victims’ physical features and race to present the unjust occurrences of racial brutality as punishment these African Americans deserved, rather than the demonstrations of larger systemic injustices. Accordingly, the perspective of Black victims of racism is that a lack of effective dialogue on Twitter has led to the manipulation of narratives that then furthers discrimination and racial violence in America.

Combat Racism:

The Black Lives Matter movement became nationally recognized after leading the advocacy of justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This movement became a tremendous impetus in the fight for equality and displays how experience with racial bigotry helps influence African Americans’ use of Twitter. An online survey conducted by Roselyn Lee-Won, a Ph.D. in Communication from Stanford University, illustrates the perspective of Black activists who instrumentally utilize Twitter in order to make a difference in the Black community [7]. Known as “Black Twitter,” this influential usage counters the digital public by promoting symbolic and material forms of resistance to racism in the US [8]. These movements made a valiant effort in increasing the awareness of racism; however, they made no significant progress towards reducing bigotry in America. This highlights the structural violence implemented in the roots of American society and the necessity for Twitter reform.

Facilitation of Islamophobia:

In accordance with a lack of productive dialogue contributing to injustice among African Americans, Twitter portrays Islamophobia negatively and fails to accurately represent the perspectives of Muslims, resulting in the inaccurate perception of Whites as blameless victims. Additionally, rather than contesting racist comments, the American public repetitively displayed substantial prejudice towards Muslims online. Islamophobia has become more scrutinized after a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes post 9/11 and the Paris attacks in 2015. Against a backdrop of already rising bigotry towards Muslims, Engy Abdelkader, an award-winning scholar from the University of Pennsylvania, examines how Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner at the time, promoted anti-Muslim hostility during the 2016 U.S. presidential season by using Twitter to proliferate Islamophobic propaganda following the Paris attacks. Due to the spread of anti-Muslim content on social media, during this time, there were approximately 174 reported incidents of anti-Muslim brutality, including 12 murders, 29 assaults, 54 acts of vandalism, 8 arsons, and 9 shootings or bombings in the US, in which victims were most likely between ages 18 and 24 [9]. Consequently, Muslims with a prominently visible identity, live in continuous fear of online threats of violence transpiring into a reality. Irene Zempi, a lecturer in criminology at Nottingham Trent University, directed a comprehensive study of victims of online Islamophobia and found that this discrimination has encouraged the prevalence of psychological and emotional consequences among Muslims such as, “low confidence, depression, and anxiety as well as increased feelings of vulnerability, fear, and insecurity.” Correspondingly, Muslims occasionally take steps to conceal their identity, by taking their veils off or shaving their beards, in hopes of reducing racial brutality [10]. These findings foreground that the daily lives of Muslims in the US have been immorally affected by an increase in bigotry on social platforms solely due to their perceived religious affiliation.

Combat Islamophobia:

In rare instances where productive dialogue occurs, Muslims instrumentally use social media in order to help others gain a positive understanding of their faith and prevent further racial prejudice. This idea is portrayed when Saifan Shahin, a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas, analyzes a large-scale debate on Twitter concerning the deaths of 49 people in a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando conducted by Omar Mateen, a US-born civilian from Afghanistan [11]. Initially, the conversation focused on advancing messages of support towards the victims and their families. However, after the disclosure of the shooter’s Muslim identity, Mateen’s actions were immediately linked to Islam as a whole, and the conversation progressed to blaming the Muslim community. Despite this racial prejudice, Shahin found that the majority of tweets pointed out the errors of this bigoted attitude. Overall, Mateen’s faith was discussed briefly on Twitter, and some believe this proved that Americans did not cave into Islamophobia, especially considering that this tragedy occurred after the prejudicial 2016 election cycle. This scenario is parallel to how African Americans combated racism by generating social movements on Twitter to gain support for equality. In both situations, social platforms were utilized to drive the narrative away from discriminatory assumptions based solely on one’s race. Walid Magdy, a Ph.D. from the ​School of Computing at Dublin City University, examines how the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015 prompted a similar response on Twitter, with millions of tweets after the attacks displaying mixed perspectives [12]. The possible association between the act of terror and Islam created a global discussion between those attacking and those defending Muslims. An analysis of 8.36 million tweets collected from Twitter after the attacks showed that the majority of Twitter users vindicated Muslims [12]. However, Magdy also discovered that a significant number of tweets that accused Muslims were primarily localized around western countries such as the US, thus accentuating how American culture still faces the serious issue of discrimination and needs to be refined.

Conclusion

Although Twitter can be used to overcome ignorant stereotypes and combat racial prejudice, it is repetitively abused to encourage discrimination and prejudice. Currently, social rights movements are utilized on Twitter to increase awareness of racism but do not solve the fundamental issue of discrimination in America, incentivizing further Twitter reform. A lack of significant restrictions for online content on Twitter has allowed for the escalation of racist comments that promote violence. Therefore, Twitter must be restricted in order to prevent racism and Islamophobia in the US, while continuing to promote dialogue.

One possible solution is to eliminate the anonymous factor of posts on Twitter because it enforces individuation. Individuation is when individuals act more recklessly under the cover of an anonymous persona because they believe in the absolvement of their true identity [1]. This solution implies the slight reduction of discriminatory content, due to the relatively small percentage of anonymous tweets on social platforms. A significant limitation to this solution is that some anonymous users either 1) do not care about their true identity being exposed or 2) need anonymity for personal reasons other than the promotion of prejudice. Considering these limitations, the most feasible solution is to expand Twitter’s moral board that regulates racially inappropriate content. Currently, Twitter users are expected to self-edit posts, making it easier for harmful messages to proliferate online [1]. This appends the necessity for restricting each post to be racially appropriate so that effective dialogue is maintained and racial violence is prevented.

However, some believe that restricting users’ posts is restricting their fundamental freedom of speech. Although the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of speech, there have been exceptions for speech that violates the legal rights of others, such as the verbal threats addressing African Americans and Muslims. This is why this right should be restricted, not eliminated, to promote an equanimous platform in which all users feel equal amounts of safety and opportunity. A limitation to this solution is the ambiguity of who or what determines the difference between what is morally right and wrong to post. In order to resolve this issue, it is important to eliminate any factor of bias in the decision, indicating that the most effective method is the implementation of technology. This can be achieved by running an electronic search across all posts on Twitter for specific prejudicial language that will alert the user to change their post so that it becomes more viable for active dialogue. This solution implies the restriction of discriminatory posts in order to prevent racism and Islamophobia in the US while continuing to assist the promotion of dialogue. In a racist society it is not enough to simply not be racist. Hopefully through these solutions, we can take one step as a community to be anti-racist instead.

Acknowledgements

Audra Johnson received her bachelor’s degree in English from ASU and pursued her master’s degree in education from NAU. She has taught all grades at the high school level and first-year composition at Mesa Community College, Chandler-Gilbert Community College, and Rio Salado College. She also serves as a Reader for the AP Language and Composition exam.

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About the Author

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Viveka Chinnasamy is a junior at Hamilton High School, AZ. She has taken 12 college level courses including AP Seminar, AP Research, AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Language. She is involved in several research projects that are affiliated with ASU and is currently publishing 3 other scientific research articles.

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