Category: Politics

Can ‘Online Surges’ Drive Long Term Attitude Change?

It comes as little surprise to learn that today’s wave of anti-Muslim online sentiment is being led by specific Islamophobic organisations, and channelled through public figures such as Tommy Robinson and Pamela Geller. And over the last three years, a spate of incidents tied to Muslim perpetrators, including vehicle attacks and knifings, have added fuel to the fire and, in the minds of some, justified their anti-Muslim viewpoints. Indeed, one often notices a sense of warped, self-righteous ‘public duty’, among online commenters who bash Muslims and link them ceaselessly to terrorism. After all, aren’t terrorists a danger to our society; public enemy number one? Surely it’s acceptable to point that out. When looking through the lens of online news and social media, especially in the unbridled comments sections, the casual observer may come to feel that the majority of Britons hate, fear, and dehumanise Muslims.

But that particular picture of public opinion could be misleading. The true makeup of this climate of hate may come as more of a surprise. A soon-to-be-published report (and numerous bloggers and journalists) claims that many of the social media accounts spreading anti-Muslim sentiment online aren’t who they claim to be. Many aren’t even human, while others don’t represent ‘organic’ human opinions. Here we have the bots and paid sock-puppets. One is generated by algorithms, the other operates from a pre-existing messaging playbook. Attempts to engage them in dialogue often feel like arguing with a brick wall, or an extremely resilient ideologue; impervious to reason of any kind. Oddly, people often describe ardent Trump supporters in this way.

In terms of the climate around Muslims and Islam, these media manipulators use a range of tools to try and shift public opinion on a wide scale. A lot of psychological devices come into play here, for example the bandwagon effect. In this, people tend to do something just because others are doing it; such as blindly adopting a popular opinion around a contentious social or political issue. It’s a tool that’s been used for decades in political campaigns and commercial advertising. When bots and sock-puppets masquerade as ordinary British and American citizens (cleverly leveraging their profiles to appear so) who hate Islam, they are relying on the bandwagon effect to encourage real citizens to adopt similar views. When it looks like so many people are talking badly about a certain group or person, it’s easy to assume the rumours might well be true. The bot armies also latch onto people like Tommy Robinson to amplify his messages, and add their own, whenever a relevant story breaks.

Unfortunately, terrorist attacks have become a critical asset in a giant influence ops campaign. Just as PR stunts drive content marketing traffic in the commercial world, so attacks (or rumours of attacks) also drive anti-Muslim ‘brand-building’ in the world of organised Islamophobia. It’s an interesting symbiotic relationship that would merit further study. The prime goals of the campaign appears to be driving wedges into society, creating an atmosphere of fear and turning groups against one another. Persuasion, whether by means of disinformation or fact, has attitude change as its end goal. A range of psychological theories purport to explain the processes behind it, but for now it’s more important to focus on effects. Whoever is masterminding these influence ops wants to shift the pendulum and create a new anti-Muslim normal in public opinion. They are using every tool at their disposal to do so, including false amplification, echo chambers, and visual disinformation.

But is the campaign working? To find out, we need to measure subtle shifts in public sentiment over a span of years, and then find out how to tie them to anti-Islam messaging campaigns. Of course, results are likely to be skewed by certain factors. One could be the mainstream British media, in particular the Express and Daily Mail, where coverage of all things immigration, refugees and Islam often teeters on the brink of disinformation, especially in the ways in which topics are spun. Specific incidents, especially of visual disinformation, such as the Muslim woman at Westminster, could be used as starting points to track associated sentiment online. Fearful knee-jerk reactions to terrorist attacks are to be expected, but broader long-term shifts in sentiment are harder to track. What’s more, they are far more insidious, corroding society from the inside out.

Who’s winning on the digital battlefield?

On the eve of the French presidential elections, there’s a sudden flurry of activity on social media. A candidate’s name – #Macron – is trending on Twitter. So what’s the news? A large stash of Emmanuel Macron’s private emails have been hacked and leaked online.

Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s happened before. You probably remember last year’s debacle about Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails. This more than likely contributed to her losing the election to Donald Trump. If nothing else, it created an air of public suspicion around Clinton that did irreparable damage to her reputation. I still think back to that hacking event and recall it as a haze of rumours and misinformation; I was never totally clear what the core of the issue really was.

And in light of this latest development with France, I begin to wonder if confusion is actually the goal in all this. Perhaps we give whoever is behind this too much credit by assuming they’re actually pulling the strings of public opinion. What would be easier, and perhaps just as damaging, would be simply to sow the seeds of mistrust. With everyone at each others throats, arguing bitterly about what is and isn’t ‘fake news’, there’s room for the malevolent forces to continue their underhand work of sabotaging democracy. When journalists digging deep to report the truth on something can so easily have their work discredited as ‘fake news’ by none other than the US president himself, we really are veering into a disturbing new reality.

Who is actually responsible for this mischief? Sources point to a Russian hacking group known, among a variety of other names, as “Fancy Bear”. It’s the same group said to be responsible for hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails last year. “The key goals and objectives of the campaign appear to be to undermine Macron’s presidential candidacy and cast doubt on the democratic electoral process in general,” said Vitali Kremez, director of research at Flashpoint, a business risk intelligence company in New York, in an interview with the New York Times.

We should not underestimate the abilities of Russia in this arena. Dmitri Alperovitch, of CrowdStrike, told the MIT Technology Review that Russia ‘gets the true nature of the battlefield’ in a way the West does not. “They’ve been thinking about this for a very long time,” he said. “It actually goes at least as far back as the Tsarist era in the 1860s, when they created one of the first modern intelligence agencies, the Okhranka.” So Russia has been doing this sort of thing for decades, but the rise of digital offers the perfect new landscape for even deeper subterfuge.

But there’s one ray of hope; and that’s in how the French media has responded to the Macron email leak so far; by not reporting on the contents of it. This seems a smart move. Part of French law requires candidates to stop campaigning between midnight on Friday to when the polls close at 8pm on Sunday. Candidates are forbidden to give media interviews or issue statements. The timing of the email hack was likely designed to coincide with this, in an attempt to release the emails while Macron was unable to respond. But denying the fake news trolls the oxygen of media publicity cuts the head off the snake; removing much of its potential to harm. The same goes for terrorist incidents. ‘Propaganda of the deed’ as terrorism was once known, relies on shock and awe to achieve its ends. In an ‘always-on’ digital society this effect is massively amplified and completely fake incidents can even be instigated, by anyone anywhere. If the media had denied the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to groups like Isis from the very beginning, the world might be less messy today.

The emergence of Isis fuelled the rise of the far-right, giving white supremacists and ultraconservatives the opportunity to rise up and gain power under the guise of ‘protecting’ the nation from threat. Of course that ‘threat’ is constantly portrayed as emanating from Islam and Muslims. And so the cycle continues. But the example of France is certainly a promising one. The election outcome will reveal if it actually worked. Perhaps going forward, these issues could be mitigated by a more scrupulous mainstream media, one that’s less desperate for ‘clicks’ to ensure its survival, along with citizen journalism collectives such as Bellingcat, to shed light on old issues and reveal new cracks in existing narratives.

Images of Islam: How fake news drives public opinion about Muslims

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”

– George Orwell

Through misinformation to political change

Misinformation about Muslims (including refugees, immigrants and ordinary citizens) has been used to construct harmful narratives, reinforce existing Islamophobia and, arguably, create a fertile environment for enacting profound social and political change. Although the role of Islamophobia in the media has been explored in depth, less research has been done into social media, especially the role of social media images. These images are highly susceptible to manipulation when taken out of context, or attached to wholly fake news. They can be used to promulgate certain political agendas, heighten divisions in society, and cause actual harm to vulnerable groups.

In March 2017, shortly after Khalid Masood attacked Westminster, a certain image began circulating on social media. It depicted a young woman wearing a hijab. She had a distressed expression, clutching her phone as she walked across Westminster bridge. Behind her, one of Masood’s victims lay on the pavement, surrounded by concerned passers-by. The image went viral across Twitter, Facebook and a range of anti-Islam blogs.

The intense discussion it generated focused on the recurring narrative of the woman showing ‘disdain’, which degenerated into intense Islamophobic stereotyping. Some users implied that the woman had sympathies with the Westminster attacker. Others posted tweets and comments in her defence but the damage had already been done. It seemed as if yet another layer had been added to long-standing negative public perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

Going viral: Islamophobia online

There are many studies on the portrayals of Islam and Muslims in the print and television media. However, the social media realm remains relatively under-studied in this regard, in relation to its size, prevalence and increasing influence upon shaping social attitudes. Research suggests that negative attitudes towards Islam and Muslims remain frequent in the social media context (Törnberg and Törnberg, 2016).

Users commonly perceived Muslims as ‘a homogeneous out-group embroiled in conflict, violence and extremism’ (ibid., p.133). In general, Muslims and Islam are regularly portrayed in the UK media in a variety of negative contexts, such as being a ‘threat to security’, a threat to ‘our’ way of life’, and positioned as being perpetually in conflict with mainstream ‘British values’. (Moore et al, 2008).

Moreover, media coverage of Muslims seemed to have ‘gained its own momentum’ (ibid., p. 10) over time, starting with 9/11 and growing since then. It suggests the presence of innate Islamophobia, where journalists do not question the dominant narratives of Muslims but simply perpetuate them. In terms of images, the research found that the most dominant images were those of lone Muslim males, particularly in police mugshots, suggesting associations with terrorism, extremism or deviance (for example, the hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza was frequently featured).

Subjects of images were commonly located outside police stations or law courts. In addition, Muslims depicted in media images were most often found in prayer, preaching, or in protest groups. This indicated a primary focus on themes either of terrorism or of cultural/religious differences, among the majority of media images depicting Muslims (ibid., p. 28).

Poole (2002) reinforces these findings, claiming that topics commonly associated with Muslims and Islam have included ‘terrorism’, politics and reactions to the war in Iraq. News coverage tends to link Muslims to global events, creating strong associations between Islam and situations of conflict and violence. Where there is domestic coverage, it tends to highlight situations that ‘focus on social tensions’, ‘raise questions over loyalty and belonging’ and consistently cast Muslims as being in opposition to ‘traditional British values’. Deep-rooted perceptions of Muslims as ‘the other’, combined with suspicion around their loyalty to ‘British values’, and ‘our’ way of life, could ignite feelings that spur users to believe negative fake news in relation to Muslims, and share images and stories that support their beliefs without engaging in critical analysis.

In recent years a fresh series of newsworthy incidents related to Muslims, such as the murder of Lee Rigby, various ISIS atrocities, and attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and London, have encouraged members of the public to express their opinions about Islam and Muslims on social media. People have also become more likely to share images associated with Muslims without stopping to check their veracity.

Muddying the narrative: fake news 

This has led to the spread a number of ‘fake news’ stories, where images of Muslims have been linked with certain news events, taken out of context, or used to create entirely fake news. In these cases, it is not merely the mainstream media to blame. Members of the public can easily create and share fake news, contributing to reinforcing negative perceptions of Muslims and perpetuating an ongoing narrative that has the potential to do harm.

Online narratives can also cause harm in the real world, as explored by Imran Awan (2016) in his research linking a rise in hate crimes against Muslims to a corresponding rise in Islamophobic content being shared on Twitter and Facebook. Awan argues that a large proportion of comments posted on social media about Muslims possessed an ‘extremist and incendiary undertone’. He offers a typology of Facebook Islamophobia in an attempt to explain what compels people to post and share such content (ibid., p. 8).

None of the aforementioned studies, however, specifically explore the role of images on social media. Images can be powerful, even more so than words, and they dominate the contemporary media landscape. Digital technology has opened up new avenues for ordinary users to create, edit, and doctor their own images. Images on social media therefore play an important role in constructing fake news and driving the narratives that fulfil political agendas. This is a significant area worthy of further exploration.

Bored of selective outrage

When I first heard the news about yesterday’s incident at Orly Airport in Paris, my first thought was ‘I hope he’s not Muslim’.

I’m not Muslim. So why do I care?

Because I’m bored of the constant stream of outrage. I dislike how people on Twitter and Facebook revel in lambasting all Muslims because of one more incident that supposedly ‘proves their point’ – that all Muslims are part of some dastardly global terrorist plot. It feels as if these commenters are watching and waiting, ready to pounce with their vitriol as soon as news of an incident breaks, no matter how minor.

I can’t subscribe to any view of Muslims being innately prone to terrorism because of their religion. Part of that inability comes from my being a reasonably intelligent and cosmopolitan human, but otherwise it’s because this outrage is selective, misdirected and full of holes – and that bothers me.

In fact, it infuriates me.

Can’t mentally ill people and criminals be Muslims too? Or are those categories reserved for white people? Can’t the two things be mutually exclusive, rather than religion being treated as the sole defining factor?

Why is it always the same old story every single time? Couldn’t a random guy, prone to criminality, perhaps suffering from mental illness (but who just happens to be from a Muslim background, with a Muslim name and brown skin) one day decide to attack people in an airport?

Anyone can claim their deeds in the name of Allah. It doesn’t necessarily make them part of a wider terrorist plot. With the constant public hysteria surrounding ‘Islamic terrorism’, widely reported, it’s not hard to imagine someone latching onto it as support in their criminal mission, even if they aren’t religious at all. It’s part of the bandwagon effect.

Out of interest, I compared Google results for the Orly incident with the recent Canadian mosque shooting. In the former incident, only the perp died. Arguably, he brought it on himself by trying to grab a soldier’s weapon in an airport. And he was already an experienced criminal known to the police.

But in the Canadian incident, six innocent mosque-goers were murdered by a white man with a gun. He had no criminal background whatsoever. There would have been no way to predict the attack. I find that terrifying.

The first page of Google speaks for itself. The Orly would-be attacker, once his identity emerged, was immediately labelled ‘radicalised Muslim’, and his attack (which killed no-one except himself) described as being ‘treated as a possible act of terror’.

Whereas Alexander Bissonette, the mosque killer, is described as a ‘student’, a ‘suspect’, and perhaps, in one of the more critical headlines, a ‘mosque shooter’. Even worse, an innocent witness of Moroccan background was mistakenly thought to be the shooter, before the real one was identified.

Al Jazeera describes Bissonette as ‘a French-Canadian university student known for his far-right views’. The word ‘terrorist’ is suspiciously absent from most of the coverage.

Yet this guy murdered six people because of their religion. He was driven by extreme right-wing, white supremacist political views. He killed for the sake of those views. Is that not the very definition of terrorism?

Terrorism has been around for a long time. It was around in the French Revolution, where Robespierre and the Jacobins conducted their ‘Reign of Terror’.

It was around in imperial Russia, where disgruntled students became ‘radicalised’ and committed public attacks – ‘propaganda of the deed’ – designed to create fear and bring down the ruling regime.

And terrorism was very much around in the late 20th century when the Irish Republican Army conducted attacks across the UK. These groups are only a few of the thousands of armed resistances that have existed throughout history; there are many more, spanning a wide range of cultural contexts.

They have cropped up wherever inequality and injustice are found, in a misguided attempt to somehow ‘redress the balance’ and achieve a ‘better life’ for themselves via the cause they represent, despite the warped methods they choose to get there.

The point is: terrorism is not specific to any religion, race, nationality or culture. We need to stop treating it as such.

It would help if we could put terrorism into perspective. But that will remain difficult unless the language we absorb from the media every day is adjusted to portray a more balanced picture of what’s really going on in the world. Although in this era of clickbait for revenue, perhaps that’s just a futile dream.

Nevertheless, we can do our part to help by thinking critically beyond the headlines and continuing to call out selective outrage whenever and wherever it occurs.

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and perceptions of it soon became embedded in the American psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast. It’s still considered as such today, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

Reconfiguring reality

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at the disposal of propagandists? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement – white supremacists and extremists.

This extremist movement seemed to emerge from nowhere, but fast became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House on a swell of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, on the other side of the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit.

Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search.

It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense.

And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, an apparent straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it’s really just a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is really running the show?