Three-D Issue 31: The dynamics of a counter-narrative against right-wing populism

This article outlines some of the findings from a British Academy small grant that examines the dynamics of a racialised hashtag, #stopIslam, following the Brussels attacks in 2016. The hashtag caught our interest when mainstream media organisations (e.g. BBC, CNN, Nigeria Newsdesk and Al Jazeera) reported that it was being used, contrary to its original intent, to defend Muslims. Conceived therefore as a project to study social media as a space for self-representation, in a context where Muslims are widely negativised in mainstream media, it soon came to light that its dynamics were more complex than they initially appeared. While the project was formulated prior to the UK’s EU referendum and the election of Trump in the US, it was clear that the findings speak directly to a political climate in which right-wing populism has gained heightened visibility.

We collected all tweets using #stopIslam for 40 days following the attacks on the 22nd March 2016, over half amillion, and used a mixture of computational methods, quantitative and qualitative content analysis to analyse them. What was instantly notable was the number of conservative actors, predominantly from the US, actively circulating the hashtag (for example, Tea Party, CCOT (Conservatives on Twitter), TCOT (Top Conservatives on Twitter). This was somewhat of a surprise to us given the European context (and the lower visibility of right wing populism at the time). As well as being used to attack Muslims (often tweeted inconjunction with hashtags such as #islamistheproblem, #bansharia, and #islamkills), it was combined with anti-Democrat rhetoric in an attempt to bolster Donald Trump’s campaign in the Presidential race,with links to #Trump2016 and #wakeupAmerica. The self-penned biographiesof these tweeters further revealed their politics, featuring the phrases and imagery of the alt-right: pro-life, pro-guns, pro-Israel, anti-feminism, combined with patriotic and Christian symbols. Network analysis showed the links between and to other conservative actors including anti-Muslim MP Geert Wilders and his PVV party.

However, in the 24 hours following the attacks, the majority of the most re-tweeted (shared) tweets were used to counterIslamophobia. A common meme used by those contesting the hashtag, for instance, stated “why are y’all tweeting #stopIslam when…” followed by images of white supremacist movements (see image below). This was retweeted 6,643 times, compared to the 1,500 times the top anti-Muslim tweet was shared (and that was the only anti-Muslim tweet in the ten most retweeted tweets). Many of these hashtags sought to negate any relationship between terrorism and Islam. Other positive Tweets asked: ‘Why is #StopIslam trending? It should be #StopISIS’ (shared 3,791 times), and ‘Educate Yourself..#StopIslam is pathetic! Terrorism has no place in Islam (shared 3207 times).We found similar cause for optimism when we looked at the most prominent twitter users who shared the tweets (in terms of the number of their followers), the majority of whom shared the counter-narrative. When it came to who was circulating counter-narratives we found a very geographically heterogeneous community of users, which was also diverse in terms of self-identified religious and ethnic identity. This heterogeneity and the loose ties or ‘ad-hoc communities’ formed in this instance, however, proved to be problematic in the face of the tightly organized strategic alliances of the right (Bruns and Burgess, 2011). As well as being circulated by supportive non-Muslim activists, the counter-discourse was often spread by celebrities and media institutions, which increased its visibility, but they were also less likely to engage any further in ongoing debates.

Although the counter-narrative was successful to some extent in terms of the numbers retweeting this, combined with its visibility in mainstream media, the original anti-Islam discourse demonstrated more longevity. When we looked at the comments beneath the tweets, it was clear how social media was being harnessed by right wing groups and individuals to close down oppositional discourse. Through a vociferous campaign using memes, statistics and links originating from far-right websites, users promoting Islamophobic opinions were ultimately able to silence more progressive voices with their persistence. Of course, it is possible that anti-racist activists feel there is nothing to gain by engaging in conflictual exchanges with the far right. In fact, this could well be an active choice to prevent the further circulation of this racist hashtag. Nonetheless, the deluge of content circulated by anti-Muslim voices demonstrates the strategic and instrumental use of Twitter by these racist far-right groups (Siapera et al. 2018).

There could be two interpretations of this, we could argue that the counter-narrative was more successful in gaining greater visibility whilst the populist voice could only be heard in its own echo chambers. Another interpretation is that the counter-narrative was too short-lived to have any long lasting impact given that the hashtag continues to be used following subsequent terror attacks (Manchester/London 2017) and alongside other events that can be used to demonise Islam.

There are several points of significance we can surmise from this; one of these being the importance of social media as a form of politically mediated communication but also its significanceinthe politics of race. This research alongside other studies of right wing populism suggests that the far right is using social media to normalize its position on race (see Siapera, this issue). Secondly, the findings demonstrate the contradictory characteristics of online interactions that are hard to disentangle; a highly unusual counter-narrative (for mainstream media) gained visibility in the public sphere due to the activities of right wing activists!! However, the difficulties of contesting right-wing populism online also became evident. Not long ago there was a disproportionate emphasis on left-wing digital activism, this is now being redressed. To further understand the possibilities for critical interventions to hate speech, it is essential to examine the dynamics of mediated populism and its relations to broader media ecologies.

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