Political developments in core countries of the Global North, such as the UK and the US, have been accompanied by a significant rise in incidents of violence against people of colour and migrants, clearly documented in reports by NGOs and think-tanks such as Tell Mama (2017) and Demos (Bartlett et al., 2014). These take not only the form of physical violence but are also expressed in digital platforms in the form of racially toxic posts, using racial slurs, demeaning and polarising language.
In regulating the digital sphere, social media corporations have developed their own terms of service (Twitter), or ‘community standards’ (Facebook), which remove contents deemed unacceptable. These include contents that attack people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease. In this, they rely on existing legislation, such as for example the EC 2008 Framework Decision on xenophobia and racism. Platforms have made clear that they do not want organised extreme political groups and that they take down their accounts, pages and contents associated with them. But at the same time, they also allow certain racially toxic contents to circulate under rules governing freedom of expression and public debate. In this manner, we obtain a dichotomy of what effectively constitutes ‘acceptable racism’ and what is deemed unacceptable or even illegal.
It is therefore important to understand the differences, if any, and the connections between the everyday, banal, ‘ambient’ digital racism (Essed, 1991; Sharma, 2017) and the organised and/or extreme kind that is typically associated with the far right in Europe and the US. Essed, writing in the 1990s, in the post-civil rights world where racism was seen as something of a past era, pointed out the importance of everyday encounters as a crucial locus for the reproduction of racism. Similarly, Lentin (2016) makes a distinction between ‘frozen’ and ‘motile’ racism, whereby the first is clear to all, but the latter becomes the subject of discussion, denial and questioning. In the everyday context, racism becomes ‘banal’, is experienced in a fragmented manner as a set of micro-aggressions (Sue, 2010), it becomes elusive and consistently questioned and denied (Titley, 2016). On the other hand, organised, frozen, overt and explicit racism is seen as unacceptable and an aberration.
However, when empirically trying to identify the line separating racial toxicity that comes from organised groups and the type that circulates as ‘common sense’ things become somewhat more complex. I have tried to empirically study the separation between organised or quasi-organised racial toxicity and the ambient variety in digital media. The case study focused on a stabbing incident that took place in Dundalk, a small town in Ireland. On January 3rd, 2018, an 18-year-old man of unknown nationality attacked and stabbed three men, killing one of them, 24-year-old Yosuke Sasaki. While the nationality of the accused is still not determined, and he is currently found mentally unfit to sit through a trial, there was almost immediate speculation that the attack had terrorist motives. This was firstly reported by the media and within minutes seized upon by extreme right-wing accounts on Twitter. We analysed 1905 original tweets focusing on those that could be linked to these accounts and their followers. We then harvested comments left under the Facebook page and the website of , the most popular online news outlet in Ireland, 215 and 409 comments respectively left on Facebook and the Journal website. While not all of these contents were racially toxic as some posts were directly calling out the racism of other posts, the analysis focused on the former.
In terms of the organised racism on Twitter, we found that the racially toxic contents were not only expressing hate but were directly politicised and connected to political agendas. Specifically, this part of the story begins when a pseudonymous Twitter account tweeted a link to an RTE (Irish PBS) article referring to the suspect as of Syrian nationality using the hashtag #migrantcrisis. When other mainstream media began to refer to the suspect’s nationality, two things occurred: the first is that accounts linked to nationalist-identitarian politics began to tweet links to mainstream media references to the Middle Eastern origins of the suspect, then purported to be Syrian, speculating on a potential terrorist attack, while secondly, accusing the mainstream media of a cover up. In explicitly referring to and speculating on the suspect’s origins before any motives for the attacks were really known made the media complicit albeit unwittingly to furthering the extreme right-wing political agenda.
These political goals were three fold: (i) to attack the Irish political establishment but also assumed ‘leftists’ and all those considered ‘responsible’ for accepting refugees; (ii) to involve foreign personalities known for nationalist or extreme right wing views, such as Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson (InfoWars), Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, building up transnational links; and (iii) to push a xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda within the Irish public sphere, while at the same time trying to push the whole public sphere to the right. The main gist of these tweets was that ‘uncontrollable’ immigration has allowed ‘undesirables’ to come to Ireland and ‘terrorism’ is the inevitable conclusion. Tweets sought to make clear the ‘incompatibility’ between Islam and the ‘West’, and to highlight the alleged failures of multiculturalism. The ultimate point of this agenda was rendered clear in the following tweet: “If you want to know what political party in Ireland wants to act to prevent future events such as what happened today in #Dundalk, join @NationalPartyIE”.
The public discussion took place under the same media articles that speculated on the nationality of the alleged perpetrator. The main themes of the discussion revolved around: (i) the purported laxness of relevant policies in Ireland; (ii) the moral character and culture of foreigners, especially Muslims; (iii) calls to deport or otherwise exclude undeserving foreigners; (iv) and links to broader political issues, specifically Brexit and the hard border with Northern Ireland, Trump, and EU politics. Finally, (v) a number of comments were concerned with definitions of racism, and with determining what is racist and what isn’t.
This analysis of user comments shows the similarity between the tropes used by those pursuing a specific political agenda and some commenters who appeared to merely mobilise ‘common sense’ discourses. While there is no way of knowing whether some of the comments were written by members of organised or quasi-organised racist/identitarian groups, the discourses used represent the ‘common sense’ around security, a purported incompatibility between European/Christian and other cultural and religious values, and a justification of the kinds of politics associated with Brexit, Trump, and European populist identitarianism. That such discourses and their specific vocabulary were triggered and readily used by both organised accounts and ‘ordinary users’ in Ireland shows at the very least a transnational contagion of racist and supremacist discourses. Such discourses and their circulation as ‘common sense’ in Ireland, point to the fact that if ever there was a moment to effectively distinguish between organised and ambient forms of racism, it has now passed. While the direction or flow of such views is not entirely clear, Mudde (2010) suggests that instead of viewing right-wing views as pathological or perverse, it may be more appropriate to view them as gradations of the same mainstream attitudes that are widely shared; this is a case of ‘pathological normalcy’ in which the populist right expresses mainstream views against foreigners, elites, Islam and so on, taken to their logical extreme.
The implications of this blending and emergence of a supremacist common sense throw into question the moderating practices of social media platforms and specifically their tendency to allow the circulation of some discourses as debate but the removal of what they consider as direct attacks and hate speech, as both ambient and organised/ extreme forms co-exist and mutually reinforce one another. Organised groups appear to take what circulates as common sense and to direct towards specific political movements and parties.
Bartlett, J., Reffin, J., Rumball, N., Williamson, S., (2014) Anti-Social Media? Available at: https://www.demos.co.uk/files/DEMOS_Anti-social_Media.pdf?1391774638
Essed, P., (1991) Understanding everyday racism: An interdisciplinary theory (Vol. 2). Sage.
European Commission, (2008) Framework Decision on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law, available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=LEGISSUM%3Al33178
Lentin, A. (2016). Racism in public or public racism: doing anti-racism in ‘post-racial’ times. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(1), 33-48.
Mudde, C. (2010). The populist radical right: A pathological normalcy. West European Politics, 33(6), 1167-1186.
Sharma, S. (2017) Theorizing Online Racism: the stream, affect & power laws, paper presented at AoIR conference, 19-21 October, University of Tartu, Estonia.
Sue, D.W., (2010) Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons.
Tell Mama, (2017) Tell MAMA 2016 Annual Report A Constructed Threat: Identity, Intolerance and the Impact of Anti-Muslim Hatred, available at: https://tellmamauk.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/A-Constructed-Threat-Identity-Intolerance-and-the-Impact-of-Anti-Muslim-Hatred-Web.pdf
Titley, G., (2016a). The debatability of racism. Networked participative media and postracialism. Rasismista ja rajoista. Available at: https://raster.fi/2016/02/17/the-debatability-of-racism-networked-participative-media-and-postracialism/