The greatest trick trolls and bots ever pulled was convincing America that it’s more Islamophobic than it actually is, according to a study co-authored by Penn State faculty members.
Titled “#Islamophobia: Stoking Fear and Prejudice in the 2018 Midterms” and published by the Social Science Research Council, the report examined the campaign experiences of Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and other Muslim candidates who ran in the 2018 midterm elections.
Shaheen Pasha, assistant teaching professor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, helped write the study. For the project, Pasha and her team interviewed the Muslim politicians and analyzed their Twitter feeds.
The researchers noted a discrepancy between the more toxic online landscape and the calmer experiences these politicians faced on the ground.
”The vast majority of negativity and Islamophobic vitriol came online, over Twitter, and was aimed at female candidates,” Pasha said.
This “vitriol” was especially pronounced among female candidates who chose to wear hijabs, such as Omar, according to the study. Pasha contrasted this hatred aimed at headgear with the hatred faced by Tlaib, which resulted from anti-Palestinian bigotry toward Tlaib’s ancestry, according to the study.
The study found these smears frequently targeted both Omar and Tlaib as anti-Semites.
Pasha said that a few “thought leaders” and other high-profile individuals who based their careers on Islamophobia were responsible for creating most of the anti-Muslim content. Bots, which are online accounts often created to spread misinformation, amplify these messages to the digital world by “liking” and sharing them, Pasha said.
“When you have bots retweet Islamophobic content by these powerful people, it creates this illusion that there’s a massive anti-Muslim sentiment,” Pasha said.
This illusion never spread to real-world encounters with constituents, according to the interviews conducted by Pasha. Voters expressed mild skepticism or curiosity about Islam, but these discussions never devolved into the outright negativity marking online forums.
“They were curious about the religion, but then they changed focus to student loans or other issues,” Pasha said.
According to Pasha, the report also “outlined the responsibility social media has in examining the rhetoric it spreads.” Though the researchers didn’t suggest concrete solutions, they posed questions about clamping down on content that’s “not only wrong but bigoted.”
Maha Marouan — associate professor of African American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies — works with Muslim girls attending high school. She compared the increased harassment faced by politicians who wear hijabs to the students she serves, many of whom have decided to take off their hijabs to avoid exposure and violence, according to Marouan.
“Young girls are bullied for their religion,” Marouan said. “They’re called terrorists and told to go back to their countries, even when their grandparents are fourth or fifth generation Americans.”
Marouan herself has noticed similar trends in her own life.
”I’m a Muslim woman,” Marouan said. “I don’t wear a hijab and I don’t get exposed to the same level of violence.”
Marouan said President Donald Trump’s travel ban “complicated the reality of Muslim Americans” and sent the message that Muslims aren’t Americans.
Despite these attempts to “de-Americanize” Muslims, Marouan said she’s hopeful that the next generation of Muslims will persevere by “reshaping Islam within their own communities and wider American society.”
She said she is especially impressed by the activism of younger Muslim women.
“There are so many incredible young Muslim girls working overtime to change this image,” Marouan said. “They look at all different forms of oppression and offer critiques of racism and sexism in their interpretation of the faith.”