By Ruth Conniff
A new report shows that Islamophobia is metastasizing on the Internet. After anti-Muslim sentiment crystallized in 2010 around the construction of an Islamic interfaith center in Manhattan, there’s been a sharp increase in such feelings.
“In recent years, we have seen hate groups and anti-Muslim activists use the Internet and social media platforms to spread hate,” Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates and lead author of the report, tells me. “For example, Pamela Geller, a well-known anti-Muslim proponent who has her own blog, had 19,000 supporters on Facebook last summer. Today, less than a year later, she has over 78,000 supporters.”
The report is entitled, “Click Here to End Hate: Anti-Muslim Bigotry Online & How to Take Action.” It mentions several hate groups.
There’s Act! for America, led by Brigitte Gabriel, who, the New York Times reports, “presents a portrait of Islam so thoroughly bent on destruction and domination that it is unrecognizable to those who study or practice the religion.” Her outfit claims to have roughly 875 chapters and 279,000 members nationwide. Its Facebook page has almost 84,000 likes.
The United States Defense League, dedicated to “exposing Shariah law,” has nearly 23,000 likes for its page.
A blog named Bare Naked Islam has a reported 51 million hits since 2008.
The report does a good job of highlighting disturbing use of social media by elected representatives.
“It's quite troubling to see the extent of hate online, particularly when it comes from public officials and public figures that are using their personal Facebook pages or social media accounts to encourage violence against American Muslims,” Ahussain says. “It's clear that anti-Muslim bigotry online is alive and well on these various social media platforms.”
The report cites the case of a Tennessee county commissioner, Barry West, who posted a Facebook picture of a man aiming his gun with one eye closed. The photo was captioned: “How to Wink at a Muslim.”
And there is the online spewing of hate by public commentators. After the April Fort Hood shooting, Patrick Dollard, a documentary filmmaker and past Breitbart News contributor, tweeted, “If there is even one more act of Muslim terrorism, it is then time for Americans to start slaughtering Muslims in the streets, all of them.” In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings, Fox news contributor Erik Rush was more succinct: “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.”
Ahussain and her colleagues recommend some things that can be done to fight such hate without violating free speech.
“The report focuses on two methods of responding to hate online: using the tools that Internet companies have put in place to report content that violates their policies, and engaging in counterspeech,” Ahussain says. “Many of the leading companies have policies specifically dedicated to hate speech on their platforms and they look to us, the users, to report the content.”
“Also, counterspeech has been a powerful antidote to bigotry that can completely transform a hate-fueled conversation into something productive and positive,” she adds. “We were inspired by the research surrounding counterspeech and how powerful it can be. In research that Twitter shared with us for the report, we saw that social media users often use ridicule and humor to drown out hate and we hope that this report will encourage others to do the same.”
As an example, the report cites the barrage of online hate received by the current Miss America Nina Davaluri (actually of Hindu background) when she won the contest last year. Some of the offenders actually apologized when challenged.
Ahussain wants the White House to address such bigotry.
“We recommend that the White House convene a national-level dialogue on hate against religious communities,” she says, “and invite Internet companies to participate in discussions about how to address this issue.”
Recent events have proven the report’s relevance.
“Buddha didn’t create us, Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures,” Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is reported to have said in remarks that leaked public in the past few days. “They didn’t bring the Koran over on the pilgrim ship.”
And California GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly recently reposted on his Twitter account an article accusing primary opponent Neel Kashkari (again, of Hindu ancestry) of assisting in the imposition of Shariah law when he was part of the Treasury Department in the Bush Administration.