Social media has advanced at an alarming rate: people can now access their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages on their smartphones, wherever they are. For many, one of the biggest attractions of social media is that it is not limited by geographical location – you can contact anyone, anywhere in the world. However, social media has a dark side. Islamophobia is now rampant on social media with many users hiding behind a cloak of anonymity to spread this hate. The ability to contact anyone, anywhere means that if an individual does not have their profile set to private, they are vulnerable to receiving Islamophobic abuse from people all over the world. In 2016, Tell MAMA reported that 74% of Islamophobic incidents now occur online. Individuals such as Donald Trump, who recently retweeted Islamophobic videos by far-right group Britain First, and Katie Hopkins, who is known for expressing Islamophobic views, escalate the problem.
This was something I chose to explore in my dissertation, after seeing an overwhelming amount of Islamophobia online. My dissertation focused on the attack on the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park in May 2017, a right-wing extremist attack that exclusively targeted Muslims. Darren Osborne is currently in court facing charges of murder and attempted murder. I chose to examine the comments on Facebook posts of news outlets relating to Finsbury Park Mosque, and the results revealed a concerning picture.
Nearly half of the sample saw the attack as an act of revenge and appeared to identify with the attacker, with many even describing him as the ‘normal guy on the street’ who had been ‘pushed over the edge.’ This was supported by comments claiming he had ‘seen red and snapped’ and the attack was ‘nothing to do with terrorism, just revenge’ suggesting the attack was revenge for previous terror attacks and was justified in some way. What made these results more shocking was the consensus in these posts that the attack was deserved due to previous ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks, despite the victims being innocent and not linked to terror in any way. The homogenisation of British Muslims became evident; these comments suggested many hold the wider Muslim community accountable for the actions of violent extremists, with few expressing any concern or acknowledgement of the victims of the attack.
Revenge was the most prevalent theme in my sample, but a further quarter of the comments claimed that violence was advocated by Islam and Muslims. Many posts displayed the belief that Islam was fundamentally the problem rather than Muslims. Commenters claimed to have ‘expert knowledge,’ often referring to verses from the Qur’an to support their point. These verses were devoid of context and interpretation; instead, commenters stated that ‘all Muslims believe it.’ These comments can be seen as particularly dangerous: although many will realise they are picking and choosing texts to argue their point, those with very little knowledge of Islam may be more susceptible to being taken in by these views, which spreads the negative, stereotypical view of Islam that is arguably becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society. No comments in this theme expressed any sympathy or concern towards the victims, suggesting many saw the attack as something that was deserved – something that Muslims had ‘brought on themselves’. This paints a highly concerning picture of attitudes towards Muslims in Britain.
The Facebook users discussed in my dissertation demonstrated a disturbing level of identification with the attacker and appeared to justify and rationalise the attack. The prevalence of the claim that the attack was an act of revenge suggested a sentiment that the victims of the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque had brought the attack on themselves due to previous terror attacks inspired by ISIS-inspired militants and out of context extracts from the Qur’an. The expression of this sentiment and hostility online has the potential to reach a substantial audience. The Facebook Pages of news outlets have thousands of followers, all of whom could be exposed to these views. There is also a risk that the spread of online Islamophobia may result in its manifestation in ‘real life’ and an increase in verbal and physical attacks. The findings in my dissertation highlighted the need for tighter regulations on social media sites to limit hate speech, particularly as it is so easy to share and reach a wide audience. It also suggests to me the need to educate more people on the true nature and beliefs of Islam. Those who are educated are less likely to be taken in by prejudicial and inaccurate views. While social media has many positive features, the ease of spreading Islamophobic hate is not among them. This issue needs to be addressed and regulated.
Kate Hodgson completed her MA Islam in Contemporary Britain in 2017/18 at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University. She tweets at @_KateHodgson_