Category: Propaganda

Troll farms and terrorism

In the wake of the Manchester attack, I noticed many angry, hateful and Islamophobic comments on Facebook. Many came from profiles that didn’t look human. On closer examination these profiles seemed designed to spew hate speech, mainly about Islam and Muslims. Once set up, the owners of these profiles insert their hateful remarks into relevant comment threads, seeking reactions from the general public – from the genuine ‘organic’ Facebook users.

As well as eliciting angry reactions these comments amplify hate and division in society. They change people’s perceptions, making them feel surrounded by fear and hate. Repeated themes pop up in comment sections, often including the same tropes about Islam (e.g. burkas are taking over, sharia law will engulf the UK, paedophile comments about the Prophet Muhammad, all Muslims sympathise with Isis, all Muslims hate the West, why don’t Muslims condemn Isis, etc).

Such repetition may plant ideas in the minds of susceptible individuals. The bandwagon effect is at work. People read Facebook comments sections, see a lot of hateful remarks about Islam and tend to agree without critique. In the wake of a dreadful terrorist attack, people may feel justified in doing this. Hence the seeds of fear and hate of the ‘other’ are sown within a society already made vulnerable by the aftershock of an attack, even more effective because it targeted children and young people.

The question is, what are these commenters trying to achieve? They may be bots, or real people managing an army of profiles at the same time, using persona management software of some kind. So many more questions emerge from this. Who is managing them? Who is funding them? What is their political goal? And what measures can we take to inoculate the people, especially the young, from reading and absorbing these comments without taking a critical approach. A fearful populace is so easy to manipulate.

The fact that children were killed further discourages any critical stance. It leaves the person publicly trying to understand the drivers behind the attack open to accusations of ‘sympathising’ with the attacker. That’s never a pleasant position to be in. It can mean that some who would otherwise have spoken out in support of a more nuance and critical response to this attack are afraid to do so, because they don’t want to be accused of sympathising with individuals or organisations who would murder children.

The Manchester incident has ratcheted up the stakes. Whoever is influencing this sideshow must be satisfied with the political and social response to the Manchester attack. It’s not far-fetched to surmise that these attacks and their responses could form part of a wider strategy. We need to ask ourselves questions such as: How does a terrorist group begin? What is it responding to? What are its end goals? Could the idea of Isis supporters wanting to build a caliphate be purely part of the fantasy narrative put forward by or on behalf of the group?

Perhaps the people who pull the Isis strings don’t care if a caliphate ever gets established. Instead the group is just a tool, a powerful and dangerous one. Its actions and its mythology tell a brutal yet compelling story. The story is manipulated by cynical strategists to effect political change on a global scale, by playing on negative perceptions and people’s deep rooted suspicions of the ‘other’, in this case Muslims. Making people band together with the familiar is easy in times of fear. It’s simply a self protection mechanism, part of human nature to exclude the stranger in order to protect the known.

It would be useful to have an easy way of telling when a profile has been set up purely for the sake of propaganda, and when its just owned by a real and hateful human being. Even people who hold racist, Islamophobic and anti-semitic views are unlikely to spend the majority of their time on social media mouthing off about these views. They would surely do other things on their profiles too, like share photos of family members, holidays, pets, work, life and so on. Even racists have normal lives. But for the trolls and bots, hate is the centre of their identity. Their social profiles reflect this, even when they try to appear ‘human’.

They have no other reason to exist except to spread hate. I’m convinced these profiles all share a set of common features, with elements that don’t quite ring true, perhaps related to the type of language they use to post the comments. Are there patterns in the choice of words? Do they tend to repeat the same tropes about Islam again and again? What are these tropes? Is the language that of a native English speaker? Or are there certain idiosyncrasies that point to a shared origin point?

Let’s consider this from a public relations perspective. What would be the most emotive targets for terrorist attacks? Of course children, the most innocent of targets. That would be certain to generate the most intense possible public reaction and outcry, as it did in Manchester. Timing is also important, so the attack needs to be tied to current events. In the UK that could be the upcoming general election and the start of Ramadan. Tensions between different groups in British society are already running high, thanks to the Westminster attack a few weeks earlier. Although far fewer people died than in Manchester, the public was further primed for holding negative and hateful views about Muslims in general.

Once the shocking event has been carried out, the next step is to implement the social media strategy. And this is where tools like troll farms and bots become very useful. They, or their operators, wade into the comments sections of relevant articles on social media and/or the mainstream press (probably finding these articles through brand discovery tools or Google Alerts). They then post repetitive comments, memes and supposed ‘debunking’ videos designed to show everyone the so-called true nature of the ‘barbaric’ Islam. Over the long term, this causes an overall shift in perceptions of Islam in the minds of real humans reading these comments and soaking up their negative sentiment.

In this social media age it’s easy to build long-term, wide-ranging and multifaceted PR and content strategies to influence entire swathes of populations. From fake videos and doctored images, to armies of commenters posting fake opinions on social media, it all creates a climate of fear and uses it to shift perceptions of certain groups. This is perfectly plausible. I aim to explore the practical aspects of how this is achieved, in order to devise ways to neutralise it. Perhaps we can somehow prepare the minds and world views of young people so they face the digital world with more critical eyes. We should educate them about the presence of trolls and bots and show them how to spot real human opinions.

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.

Inciting the Interwebs: A short history of ISIS propaganda

ISIS is becoming old news these days. Recent coverage of the group talks about reclaiming its territory, freeing its captives, or the implications of its dwindling supply of funds. One gets the impression that the group’s very survival is now on the line. To an extent, ISIS has lost some of its former potency. Written from the perspective of a content strategist, combined with insights from academic experts on terrorism, this article will explore the various elements of ISIS propaganda; how they work together to promote the group’s goals; the ingredients of its success; and how ISIS might maintain its brand in future, in the light of recent territorial losses.

Many of horror: viral videos 

Not long ago, ISIS was shocking the world on a regular basis with its barrage of blood-drenched videos, gory tweets and declarations of violence against the West. At the time, there seemed no limit to the group’s barbarity. I remember travelling to Amman in early March 2015, just weeks after ISIS released a video showing the immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. The Jordanians I met on that trip were sombre yet enraged. They wanted to wipe ISIS out immediately, and the government responded to public sentiment without hesitation; promptly executing ISIS-linked prisoners and launching warplanes against ISIS targets within a matter of days.

Kasasbeh’s murder displayed a shocking new angle of ISIS brutality, which had already been established via previous videos showing the beheadings of Western captives. At the time, these videos were the most visible aspect of the group’s strategy vis-a-vis Western audiences. The intention was to incite fear and provoke responses, both of which worked very well. The videos initially gained traction from widespread sharing across ISIS social media accounts. Social media companies targeted and shut down these accounts en masse, but the videos had already gained such notoriety in mainstream media that many people sought them out nevertheless.

Goals, target audience and ‘customer’ personas

The foundation of a good content strategy is knowing who it’s for and what their problems are. Using that knowledge for guidance, content can be produced to address those problems and offer helpful solutions. In the case of ISIS, the intended target audience is large, consisting of Muslims the world over. ISIS wants to convince its audience that restoring the caliphate and building a ‘brave new world’ is their religious duty. But of course, not every Muslim is susceptible to this narrative; in fact, most don’t support ISIS at all. So ISIS went a step further and segmented its target audience to focus on those with more specific grievances. Perhaps some parts of the target audience were angry at the humanitarian situation in Syria. ISIS offers them a solution: come join us and fight against Assad, freeing the Syrian people (fellow Muslims) from tyrannical and secular rule. ISIS also offers a compelling narrative of friendship and belonging, which is undoubtedly appealing to those who feel they don’t fit into Western society. Apart from violence designed to intimidate the enemy, ISIS propaganda also includes ‘fluffier’ images of its members eating chocolate and playing with kittens (a nod to the Prophet Muhammed’s fondness for cats). A sense of religious duty forms the overarching ‘grand’ narrative, drawing on themes from the Qur’an and various Hadiths (sayings of Muhammed) to create credibility and imbue ISIS content with indubitable religious overtones.

Varied mediums, consistent messages

ISIS first become notorious via its shocking videos, along with the resulting press coverage and wider discussion they generated. If anything, the mainstream media was the most important vehicle for spreading these videos around the world, helping ISIS establish its brand and gain infamy. We can link this effect directly to the 21st century media business model that relies on clicks to earn its money. But that’s a topic for another article. Most content strategists these days like to put video at the forefront of their campaigns, as it’s emotive and generates much attention, with YouTube alone receiving billions of hits every month. ISIS doesn’t just make videos of blood and gore. The group also makes a whole range of propaganda videos full of positive sentiment, displaying life inside the ‘caliphate’, promoting the ‘duty’ of jihad, and showing testimonials from the group’s foreign fighters.

Apart from video, ISIS leverages a number of other mediums to spread its message and achieve its goals. Twitter was a key element in the early days, with ISIS supporters using techniques such as hashtag hijacking to make sure the content reached wide audiences. For example, during the Brazil World Cup in 2014, ISIS supporters ‘imaginatively hijacked hashtags such as #Brazil2014, #ENG, #France and #WC2014 to gain access to millions of World Cup Twitter searches, in the hope that users would follow links to the group’s propaganda video.’ (Farwell, 2014)

On top of smart moves like the above, the group’s armies of supporters would be constantly tweeting pro-ISIS messages in both English and Arabic, praising victories and challenging opponents, while offering tantalising glimpses of the attractions of life inside the Syrian ‘caliphate’ in Raqqa. After Twitter and Facebook started mass takedown campaigns of jihadist accounts, ISIS supporters were driven underground into the dark recesses of the ‘deep web’, and also onto encrypted channels such as Telegram. But for those who want to find it, ISIS content is never far away, and has firmly established itself on a number of regular channels outside the reach of the authorities. And by now it hardly matters, as the brand of ISIS has been built and has acquired the desired resonance, as well as, some might claim, the desired geopolitical effects.

Reshaping perceptions: Dabiq

The magazine Dabiq is another core element of ISIS content strategy. Produced in English, with slick and professional design, Dabiq is a cut above the jihadist magazines that came before. According to a 2016 analysis by Haroro J. Ingram, Dabiq has two goals: 1) to convince its target audience to travel to the caliphate, and 2) to convince them to conduct acts of domestic terrorism. It does this by offering its audience an ‘alternative perspective’ of the world that drives their radicalisation, while also using diverse messaging to create a ‘broader system of meaning’ (Ingram, 2016) that resonates at a deeply emotional level with its audiences. Good content marketing is all about engaging with emotions, which accounts for much of the success both of Dabiq and of ISIS content strategy as a whole. The Ingram analysis is particularly interesting, because rather than simply attributing ISIS’s success to its sophisticated content production techniques, Ingram delves deeper and explores the group’s attempts to shift the perceptions of its readership using carefully crafted messaging that resonates at fundamental levels.

Louder than bombs: the mainstream media

For ordinary content marketers, coverage in the mainstream media is one of the best forms of publicity available. Every day, companies spend a lot of money on PR activities to get their brand in front of journalists and featured in the news. As a terrorist organisation, ISIS also understands the power of the mainstream media and has harnessed it to devastating effect; ‘louder than bombs’ according to Charlie Winter’s recent Media Jihad report.

Based on Winter’s analysis of an ISIS-produced strategy document entitled Media Operative: You Are a Mujahid Too, the report details exactly how ISIS constructs its highly coherent and carefully planned media strategy. One prong of the strategy involves the mainstream media, which the document calls the ‘media weapon’. The below quote in particular shows how ISIS aims to use this ‘weapon’.

“Anyone who knows the Crusaders of today and keeps track of that which infuriates them understands how they are angered and terrorised by jihadi media. They – the curse of Allah the Almighty be on them – know its importance, impact and significance more than any others!”

ISIS strategists know how to manipulate the mainstream media for the group’s own ends. In today’s clickbait world, the more shocking the story the more airtime it gets. As a result, the deeds and hence the group responsible for them attract even more attention; analysis, critique, anger, hatred, disgust, and sometimes, inspiring love and obsession.

Media ‘jihad’, as ISIS calls it, has ‘ “far-reaching potential to change the balance in respect to the war between the Muslims and their enemies” and, for that reason, “is no less important than the material fight.”. Not only does it offer a way to “intimidate and threaten the enemy with violence,” it can make adversaries act irrationally by “infuriating them” and ensnaring policymakers into ill-conceived knee-jerk politics’ (Winter, 2017).

The latter is precisely what has happened. The world’s media has responded predictably to every piece of ISIS propaganda, disseminated it far and wide, and in the process made the group legendary for its brutality. In the short time since ISIS emerged the world’s mood has shifted. We have become more suspicious of strangers, more fearful, and less compassionate. Hatred and distrust between Muslim communities and non-Muslims has reached a fever pitch, culminating in major political shifts that gave us Brexit and Trump’s presidency. Those campaigns gained momentum by playing on people’s deep-seated fears of the ‘Other’, in this case Muslims. Without the fearful propaganda of ISIS writ large in the minds of Western populaces, perhaps matters would have turned out differently. Sowing discord was always part of the strategy, and it’s working. The question is now, how to reverse the tide?


References

Haroro J. Ingram (2016) An analysis of Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine, Australian Journal of Political Science, 51:3, 458-477, DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2016.1174188

James P. Farwell (2014) The Media Strategy of ISIS, Survival, 56:6, 49-55, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2014.985436

Charlie Winter (2017) Media Jihad | http://icsr.info/2017/02/icsr-report-media-jihad-islamic-states-doctrine-information-warfare/

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?

Fearful milieux: Perceptions of Islam in an age of Trump

Muslims living and working in the United States are being forced to reconsider their futures in light of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, announced this week.

Citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Somalia will be denied entry for 90 days while the new Trump administration “tightens” already draconian visa laws. The move has been widely lambasted, with critics comparing it to the atmosphere of 1930s Germany that led to the Holocaust. In a sick irony, Trump announced the refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There are many implications arising from this ban, all of them worrying. But rather than causing us too much speculation on an uncertain future, the US Muslim ban offers a pressing opportunity to explore the social and political attitudes that have created a zeitgeist where this ruling could emerge. What kind of narratives has the public absorbed to lead large swathes of it in a direction where a Holocaust-esque move could become socially acceptable? Fear is somewhere at the heart of the matter. But how did it get there, take root and flourish?

Researchers have traditionally used focus groups, polls and interviews to analyse social attitudes. Pew polls and YouGov surveys give a useful indication of generalised attitudes to certain topics. But people are less likely to offer their true opinions in a formal research situation. Instead, they may sanitise or edit their responses to appear more acceptable to the researcher. One of the more objective ways to capture true social attitudes is by analysing what people say and do when they think no-one is watching.

Shaping the online narrative

Rhys Crilley and Raquel da Silva take this exact approach in their recently published research, ‘Talk about Terror in Our Back Gardens’,  which examines attitudes among the British public displayed online, in relation to British foreign fighters joining ISIS in Syria. They argue that the views of ordinary members of the public, as well as media and elites, play a key role in shaping and generating the discursive environment, through which people filter their opinions on foreign fighters and terrorism, and form views on Muslims and Islam as a whole.

Crilley and da Silva analyse a range of online comments from social media, forums and newspaper comment sections. What they discover is problematic and disturbing, but unsurprising in light of recent developments. This research is important because it indicates how the stage has been set for the ramping up of racism, intolerance and division that has now become part of official government narrative, embodied in the figure of Trump and his administration, delivered to the masses through harsh policies that would have once been inconceivable. Although this particular research focuses on a UK sample, I strongly believe that US results of a similar study would reflect a related range of troubling views. The process seems to unfold something like this:

  1. Filtering down of certain narratives from elites/media to the masses
  2. People reproduce and reinforce (and sometimes challenge) those narratives through means of online discussion (‘echo chambers’)
  3. Narratives then become part of the social ‘milieu’; as a result society becomes fearful, divided and more likely to back repressive policies such as Trump’s Muslim ban. This sense of victimisation could also feed into the variety of factors that push certain vulnerable individuals into violent extremism

Religion seen as key driving force

In analysing the online comments, Crilley and da Silva focus on, a) the motivations people attribute to foreign fighters, as well as, b) their views on suitable government responses. The most striking feature of a) is that the most commonly-held view (51% of the sample chose it), that foreign fighters ‘are pursuing their own religious beliefs’, is one that has been consistently disproved by counterterrorism experts and behavioural psychologists alike. In contrast, just 2% of respondents chose the option that foreign fighters ‘seek adventure or excitement’, although that is probably a more common driver than religion.

So far, the conclusion is clear: British public opinion still believes religion is a key driving factor for foreign fighters, despite expert research showing the contrary. This fixation on blaming religion (specifically Islam) carries disturbing implications about the nature of British social attitudes towards the country’s Muslim community, and towards Islam in general.

Cruel and exceptional

Things get worse in the second part of the research, which focuses on the public’s views of suitable ways to deal with foreign fighters returning to the UK. The majority of comments (38%) want to ‘forbid them [foreign fighters] from returning’, while 32% of comments suggest foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Only 5% of comments suggest a view to ‘allow them to return to the UK’.

Let’s unpack the possible sentiments behind the first two responses. Forbidding foreign fighters (who are British citizens) from returning to the UK would mean rendering them stateless. For starters, this is illegal under international law. But more than that, the fact that such a large proportion of the British online public suggests stripping away the citizenship of foreign fighters, points to an innate belief that British Muslims are less than ‘British’.

This raises questions such as: Would forbidding return still be as often suggested if the people in question were non-Muslims, specifically white Britons? Does being Muslim make them ‘less British’ in people’s minds? I suspect the answers to these questions would be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively.

The second most popular response was that foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Types of punishment discussed usually fell into the ‘hard’ category, such as deportation (without trial), life imprisonment and even death. The latter suggestion is particularly disturbing as some see it as the ‘only thing that will stop British Muslims fighting in Syria’ and the ‘only way’ to silence their ‘vile inhuman ideologies’. This, mentioned in conjunction with the singling out of British Muslims, suggests a high level of contempt for their human rights.

In fact, many of the comments recommend cruel and exceptional punishments, implying a ‘state of exception’ that puts British Muslims outside of the law. It dehumanises them, reducing them to a status better suited to ‘savage and wild animals’. Attitudes of this kind emerge in the mainstream media and filter downwards into the general population largely by means of online commenting.

Fear, propaganda and the online world

Terrorism inspires such primordial fear that it has become an effective tool for manipulating public opinion. These views drive the zeitgeist and, leveraged in certain ways, can propel societies into situations such as the Holocaust. We haven’t learned from history, despite many illusions of progress. Those illusions have now been shattered by the election of Trump and what has followed.

The power of the online world must not be underestimated. Harnessed effectively, it’s probably the best propaganda tool the world has ever seen. As we’ve now seen, it can shape the outcomes of elections and shift global opinion in startling directions. Critical thinking is the solution; but, as the work of Crilley and da Silva shows, much of society remains quick to jump on the bandwagon, targeting certain groups without pausing to analyse the facts.