Anti-Islam statements are often paired with references to ethnicity, gender, and politics. Figure 2
represents a word cloud of the terms that are most frequently used in the tweets, excluding those that are not relevant for the analysis (such as prepositions and conjunctions). Each term indicates a semantic area, for example “migration” includes references to migrants and immigrants, too. As the figure shows, many tweets—combined, 21% of the dataset—refer to migration or refugees, which are usually negatively talked about as causes for the growth of Islam. There are also frequent mentions to politicians, found in 31% of the dataset: the majority of these tweets talk about Donald Trump, but there are also references to Muslim London mayor Sadiq Khan, then US president and presidential candidate Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and German chancellor Angela Merkel. These references show that the tweets discuss politics globally, often identifying left-wing politicians as Muslim allies, and praising right-wing politics for being anti-Islam. Islamophobic discourses in the tweets are further enhanced by numerous mentions of terrorism, radicalism and rape, generally used to connote Islam as violent and backward. In so doing, many tweets perpetuate closed views against Islam, as in the Runnymede Trust’s definition (Runnymede Trust 1997
5.1. Internet-Based Views of Islam
The aforementioned definition of Islamophobia elaborated by the Runnymede Trust includes eight views of Islam. While the definition does not mention the Internet and was written before the creation of Twitter, these eight views can be found also in the analyzed sample of post-Brexit tweets. I here provide examples of tweets in relation to each of the eight views as a starting point to show some of the predominant themes and broad patterns in the dataset. This way of presenting data follows the structure of the Runnymede Trust report, which considers the views in turn and provides examples for each of them. However, it is important to keep in mind that the views often overlap: as previously mentioned, they are not meant to be used individually, but rather they feed off each other. The analysis reveals indeed that most of the tweets could be considered as expressing several of the views, if not all eight.
The first view is that Islam is monolithic
, and therefore unable to change or adapt to new contexts. This view is often expressed in the Islamophobic tweets analyzed in this article, because they tend to picture Islam as a totalizing religion and to use the term “radical” to describe it, as shown in Figure 2
. A tweet, for example, says “Death penalty for apostasy, adultery, homosexuality…is not radical…it’s Islam! #Brexit.” (25 June 2016). The tweet claims that Islam needs to be rejected because it necessarily holds an intrinsic violent character, being unable to accept certain behaviors. This view implies that Muslims should be banned—arguably, through Brexit—because there is no such thing as a “non-radical Islam.” It refuses to acknowledge the inner heterogeneity of Islam, and starts from the (false) premises that no Muslim would ever accept “apostasy, adultery, homosexuality” because of the unchangeable character of their beliefs.
Islam is also considered as being separate from other cultures. According to this view, which echoes the idea that Islam is monolithic and unable to adapt to different contexts, Muslims do not share anything in common with non-Muslims. A tweet says in this respect “Secular democracy is not a suicide pact. Islam is simply incompatible with Western civilization. Bravo for #Brexit” (25 June 2016). This tweet, as many others do, implies that Brexit is a necessary measure to stop a Muslim “invasion” (which would lead to “suicide”) because of the incompatibility between Islam and the West. Therefore, European Muslims are framed in negative terms only, and no attention is given to their personal stories, ideas, and behaviors. The possibility of Muslims living in the UK in a peaceful way and adapting to European culture is not considered.
The alleged incompatibility between Muslims and European values is justified by a view of Islam as being inferior
to the West. For instance, Muslims are deemed unable to respect gender equality, as shown by the references to rape and women (Figure 2
). Often, tweets perpetuate these discourses by invoking the need for protecting Western women from Muslims, framed as following “primitive” and irrational sexual impulses. An example of this view can be found in the tweet “In the EU I see bombs in France & Brussels then Muslim refugees attacking women on German Streets #Brexit” (23 June 2016). The tweet employs terrorist attacks (with references to bombings occurred in France and Belgium in 2015 and 2016) and episodes of sexual harassment (mentioning the happenings in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016) as proof of the “barbaric” character of Muslims. By implying that Muslims always behave in a backward and violent way, the tweet claims that Brexit would protect the UK against Muslim-led actions that supposedly happen only in continental Europe.
Because of its alleged inferiority, Islam is portrayed as being an enemy
of the West. This view stresses the supposedly violent character of Muslims, who are often seen as engaged in a “clash of civilization” against the Western world and propagating terrorism, as can be seen from Figure 2
. From this perspective, Brexit is a strategy to prevent an open conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK. For example, a tweet says “By the looks of it #brexit is a vote against Islamic immigration to UK. Will the west go to war with islam in the near future?” (24 June 2016). The tweet suggests that there is the possibility of a conflict between Islam and the West. While it is not clear what the circumstances of this presumed “war” are, this type of Twitter narrative further reinforces the idea that Islam can never be part of British and European culture.
In the context of the Brexit debate, Islam is often seen as a political ideology rather than a religion. Its manipulative
character is allegedly found in a global conspiracy that seeks to foster the growth of Islam. As previously mentioned, many tweets blame politicians such as then US President Barak Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for pushing the secret agenda of helping Muslims to “invade” Europe and the West in general. This “conspiracy” is often deemed “globalist agenda,” as shown by a tweet: “The expansion of #Islam in the West is critical to #EU globalist agenda! Citizens of the #UK wised up to this scheme #Brexit” (26 June 2016). From this perspective, people voted to leave the EU because they understood that there is a “conspiracy” behind the growth of Islam, described as a manipulative ideology supported by global political elites. It is for this reason that, as shown in Figure 2
, one of the most frequently used words in the analyzed tweets is “global.”
Many of these Islamophobic narratives also rejects Muslim criticism of the West. Muslims are not granted agency to articulate and diffuse their own opinions, especially when they include any form of criticism against non-Muslims. In the case of Brexit, Muslims are often blamed for supporting the Remain position. “The fact that Islam is so mad about #brexit should be an eye opener to Brits on how bad you stumped their invasion” (24 June 2016): this tweet frames Muslims’ vote to remain in the EU not as a genuine political ideology, but rather as part of a general hostility against the West. This type of tweet sometimes targets self-identified Muslim individuals for expressing pro-EU opinions, often re-tweeting Muslim users with Islamophobic comments.
In expressing Islamophobic statements, many tweets also defend discrimination
. The exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society is indeed seen as a necessary precaution against Islam, and seldom recognized as being problematic. This view is expressed by the tweet “Islam isn’t a race. Who cares about their feelings? They are invading foreigners #DeportAllMuslims #Brexit” (24 June 2016). This tweet, which clearly displays an illiberal type of Islamophobia, dehumanizes Muslims and claims that they should all be deported because of their religion. Muslims are often considered “other” to the West and confused with migrants (as shown in Figure 2
) in a way that conflates religion and race. However, the tweet justifies anti-Muslim measures on the basis that Islam is a religion—and, therefore, something people willingly embrace—rather than a race. This distinction permits Islamophobic users to provide a justification for the harassment of Muslims while claiming not to be “racists.”
The distinction between Islamophobia and racism often provides justifications to see Islamophobia as natural
. While racism is negatively framed because people cannot choose their race, Islamophobia is justified as it targets religious belonging. This perspective refuses to acknowledge Islamophobia as a form of cultural racism, as previously discussed. For example, a tweet claims “It’s not ‘racist’ to desire to protect your country and culture from Muslim takeover & destruction…Islam is NOT a race. #Brexit” (27 June 2016). The tweet justifies the perpetuation of anti-Islam narratives because of the alleged choice that Muslims make in being violent. It does not only stress the incompatibility of Islam and the West, but it also normalizes Islamophobia by distinguishing it from racism, which is also a term that frequently appears in the dataset (Figure 2
). From this perspective, Muslims supposedly invite Islamophobia because of their unwillingness to accept Western norms. Once again, these tweets dehumanize Muslims and perpetuate Islamophobia by failing to recognize different facets of Islam.
By looking at the Runnymede Trust’s eight views of Islam, it is possible to see how Internet-based Islamophobia is largely an enhancement of discourses that already exist in offline spaces. While the eight views are by no means exhaustive and need to be considered as entangled with each other, they are useful to provide some examples of anti-Islam narratives produced on Twitter. By analyzing them in relation to the context of production of the tweets—the rise of xenophobic and Islamophobic discourses in the aftermath of the British Referendum—it is possible to consider them not only as simple indicators of Islamophobia, but as composite signs of nuanced discourses that target various aspects of Islam. There are, however, some peculiar characteristics of Twitter—and the Internet in general—that influence the ways these discourses are created and circulated.
5.2. Specific Characteristics of Internet-Based Islamophobia
Online Islamophobia is expressed through verbal violence that considers Islam as incompatible with the West, and dehumanizes Muslims by claiming that they should be removed from society. While these discourses have sadly been circulated long before the Internet, there are some ways social networks might further enhance their diffusion and modify the ways they are expressed. According to Brown
), online hate speech is characterized by anonymity, lack of physical presence, easy access, and instantaneousness. These characteristics largely apply to the dataset of post-Brexit tweets, which arguably rely on the anonymity of the platform and represent an immediate and impulsive reaction to the referendum. However, this does not only regard online Islamophobia, as Brexit resulted in a spike of anti-Muslim offline aggression as well (Tell Mama 2016b
). The data analyzed in this article suggest that specific characteristics of online Islamophobia are rather linked to three other elements: the global connections allowed by the Internet, the proliferation of certain actors (“trolls” and “bots”), and the circulation of so-called “fake news.”
The Internet helps people to connect with like-minded users and fosters global
exchanges. Anti-Islam groups can reach national and trans-national audiences, as for example the German Islamophobic movement Pegida quickly diffused in other countries and gained international attention (Dostal 2015
). This spread is arguably facilitated by the Internet, which helps the circulation of narratives in a relatively fast and cheap way. The global connections of Islamophobic ideas can be found in the dataset of post-Brexit tweets, where users often mention contexts other than the UK. While the referendum only involved British citizens, some consider Brexit as the victory of a certain type of political mentality diffused in many Western countries. The majority of the tweets, indeed, mention political personalities both from the UK—such as the aforementioned Nigel Farage—and from outside the UK.
In particular, many connect Brexit with Donald Trump, who was at the time campaigning for the US presidential election. A tweet, for example, says “#Brexit shows, thanks to Islam, Right is winning all over. Next up is America! Go Donald Trump!!” (24 June 2016). In this case, the tweet seems to consider Brexit—also framed as an anti-Islam vote—as part of a larger spread of a certain right-wing and racist mentality. This idea is expressed in many tweets quoting the hashtag #MAGA (Make America Great Again, Donald Trump’s slogan). Even if global connections of political and ideological movements existed also before the Internet, platforms such as Twitter undoubtedly help to spread and legitimize certain populist claims. People with similar ideas can get in contact with each other and share their opinions, and probably see themselves as part of an international political movement. In the aftermath of Brexit, Twitter helped Trump supporters in the US to reach a global audience by connecting their claims to those of UK voters, likely reinforcing also their Islamophobic views. The analysis of tweets suggests that Brexit gave some of these supporters the feeling they could freely express racist and Islamophobic views, and celebrate Donald Trump for publicly doing the same.
The type of interactions people experience on Twitter—short messages that can be circulated by many users—also favors the emergence of certain actors
: the so-called “trolls” and “bots.” Trolls are users that intervene in online debates with the aim of creating conflicts with inflammatory messages for the purpose of their own amusement (Maltby et al. 2016
; Sanfilippo et al. 2018
). Trolls often target an individual or a group to provoke a reaction or prove a point, such as the importance of free speech (Golf-Papez and Veer 2017
). Bots are computer programming that mimic human behavior, but are actually generated by an algorithm (Jones 2015
). Therefore, certain Twitter accounts might not be controlled by actual human beings, but generate automatic responses with the aim, for example, of increasing views on social networks or try to influence results in political elections. Bots had a relevant role in the debate preceding Brexit, especially in generating content in favor of the Leave position (Howard and Kollanyi 2016
The presence of these actors on Twitter likely influences existing debates and contributes to the diffusion of hate speech. In the case of tweets sent in the aftermath of the British referendum, many users display trolling behaviors by sending a series of anti-Islam tweets. These tweets are often derogatory, and they seem to be written only to circulate abusive language that would upset other users. In observing the spread of Brexit-related discourses and creating my dataset, I came across many tweets that were likely produced by algorithms. For example, a tweet says “#Brexit #ISIS #Islam #Obama #United States Good Show #Brits !! #Globalism #HillaryClinton” (24 June 2016). It is sent from an account that displays neither a personal name, nor a picture or any information about the user. The fact that the tweet shows support for Brexit mainly repeating hashtags might be a symptom of a non-human actor, or of a trolling behavior. The presence of trolls and bots perpetuating Islamophobic narratives is a characteristic of social networks and risks decisively contributing to the visibility of anti-Islam discourses. These actors might be partially responsible for the high number of Islamophobic post-Brexit tweets, and their messages can influence the perception of Islam of all Twitter users that do not recognize them for trolls and bots.
Twitter-based messages are also characterized by the diffusion, operated by bots and humans alike, of the so-called “fake news
.” Currently an overused term by certain political characters, “fake news” in this article indicates news that is known to be false by their creators, and nonetheless circulated. According to Douglas
), fake news tends to be more prominent in the US and among right-wing people. They also have a connection with religion: fake news is often directed at Christians, in particular Protestant fundamentalists, and tend to mention religious content. For example, during the 2016 US presidential campaign, a high number of fake news reported an alleged involvement of candidate Hillary Clinton with ISIS and Islamic terrorism.
Many of the tweets sent after Brexit perpetrate fake news about Muslims. For example, a tweet says “Muslim imam says non Muslims r worse than dogs and pigs including president of USA #Brexit” (27 June 2016). The tweet contains a link to a Facebook page that appeared to be offline shortly after the publication of the tweet. There seem to be no reliable sources for the news, and it is likely that the Twitter user invented it, or that it comes from a Facebook page that spreads fake news. Nevertheless, it is quoted as a legitimate source. Similarly, many other tweets report news that comes from openly Islamophobic websites or conservative news outlets that do not provide proofs for the authenticity of the news. In this way, people seem to provide legitimation for their anti-Islam ideas, but they actually contribute circulating false stories with the only aim of perpetuating Islamophobia.
Global connections between right-wing individuals and movements, the proliferation of trolls and bots, and the creation and diffusion of fake news are only a part of social media interactions, and they do not condition all Internet debates. However, it appears that they played a role in post- Brexit Twitter exchanges, and they likely influence the creation of Internet-based Islamophobic discourses. Therefore, online Islamophobia can be conceptualized as a type of narrative connected to offline actions and discourses, but that has nonetheless some peculiar characteristics of diffusion and consumption.