What do the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street have in common? Both are examples of movements orchestrated largely through social media. From Facebook to Twitter, these movements utilized the tools of the Internet to organize activism, gain support, and bring visibility to their cause. If there is one thing to learn from these examples, it’s that social media can be a powerful tool.
But it’s a tool with a purpose. Many organizations use social media with an intended purpose; CAIR-Chicago utilizes social media to reach out to the public and provide awareness and education on the Muslim-American community. It seeks to open dialogue between the Muslim-American community and the general public. It serves as a teaching tool and a door to open communication.
Unfortunately, some choose to utilize these tools to spread hate and hostility. And as a new study shows that an increasing number of Americans are using the Internet as a news resource, stumbling upon these biased web pages can be extremely damaging.
For instance, notorious Islamophobe Robert Spencer uses his website, “Jihad Watch” to spread generalizations and myths about the Muslim community in the United States and abroad. Some common accusations on his website include the theory that President Barack Obama is a secret supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and has operatives working in the government, rumors that the CAIR organizations are linked to militant groups such as Hamas and Al-Qaida, and that American mosques teach Islamic supremacism and violence. Instead of combating hate and bigotry, he propagates it and plays into the fears of an audience that believes Islam to be a global threat to humanity.
Pamela Geller, who co-founded the hate group Stop the Islamization of America along with Spencer, also employs a website to spread her message of intolerance toward the Muslim community. Her blog, “Atlas Shrugs,” includes ideas similar to “Jihad Watch” – that Obama is secretly a Muslim and that his birth certificate is forged, and that American Muslims pose a threat to the United State’s internal security.
People like Spencer and Geller are encouraged, and even supported financially by an interconnected network of Islamophobes intent on spreading anti-Muslim sentiment for their own agendas. David Horowitz, author of books such as Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left and organizer of “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” reportedly funds Spencer’s “Jihad Watch.” And according to a report published by the Center for American Progress, some notable contributors to Islamophobic organizations include: The Donors Capital Fund, the Fairbrook Foundation, the Russell Berrie Foundation, and many, many more.
Obviously, people such as Spencer and Geller, who are known for their radical and hostile views on Islam, attract a certain following of people who seek out and follow these blogs. But what happens when the attacks are more unexpected and invade the realm of social media that Americans use on an everyday basis?
In one such instance on the social networking site Twitter, a Muslim woman, upset over the immediate suspicion of Islamic terrorism in the Norwegian terrorist attacks, ironically created the hashtag #blamethemuslims. The results were problematic; while some recognized the sarcasm behind the statement, and others were outraged, some picked it up as a literal tag to spread Islamophobic remarks and rhetoric.
Comments included: “Islam has been at war with every other culture on the planet since the 7th century AD. #blamethemuslims”
“Christianity in the words of Christ is peaceful. Islam in the words of Mohammed is violent, retributive. #blamethemuslims”
Then there is the group known as the Jewish Internet Defense Force. Its website proclaims that it is dedicated to eradicating hate and violence on the web, yet hate seems to be the most prominent message they promote as seen on the group’s Facebook page.
A recent post shows a graphic picture of the 9/11 attacks with the disturbing caption: “What Islam is. And don’t you f***ing forget it.”
“To say it [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] was ‘radical islam’, shows ignorance,” the post continues. “Islam, by its very nature, is radical and extreme. This is not just about Islam vs. the Jews. It’s about Islam vs. all non-Muslims and about Islam vs. the West. Unfortunately, few learned the lessons of 9/11, which is why the next attack will be worse.”
The group claims that it has been responsible for the removal [often through unethical techniques such as hacking into sites like Facebook] of thousands of pages online that it deems anti-Semitic and “Jihadist.” It actively campaigns against the description of Palestine as a country, and objects to the listing of Palestinian villages destroyed during the formation of Israel on Google Earth.
Other examples of the JIDF’s online censorship include targeting Wikipedia authors who do not represent a pro-Israel stance, and editing the articles to remove any criticisms of Israel.
On its website, the JIDF posts articles from various news outlets and twists the content around by editing them to include offensive and hateful language:
In an article published by Maan News Agency, the writer wrote:
“The Palestinians walked out of direct peace talks three weeks after they started in September when Israel baulked at extending a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.”
The article was edited by the JIDF to read:
“The Palestinians continue to brainwash their children to hate and murder Jews and praise Islamic terrorism.”
Tactics of hate such as these only become more dangerous when on the web. The anonymity and easy accessibility of the Internet make it the perfect tool to hide behind when promoting a message of hate. Though there are many organizations that use social media to present a positive message on the web, it is obvious that when it comes to social media and the Internet, there is no filter. As a result, the cyber world has become a battleground between those seeking to promote a message of understanding and communication, and those working to cancel out that message through bigotry and hate.
So how can we combat this form of prejudice in the virtual world? Muslims must maintain a heavy presence on the web. For every negative and hateful website against Islam, we must counter with one more positive and informed blog, Facebook or Twitter account encouraging a more fair, accurate and diverse image of Islam. Websites such as The American Muslim, Muslim Matters, Muslimerican, and Islamophobia Today are all examples of online groups that seek to counter the hurtful stereotypes and myths about Islam that permeate the web. Whether it’s a post on a forum, a direct response to a hateful blog, or a Facebook page promoting religious awareness, every action we take to dispel the inaccuracies, stereotypes, and generalizations made by these anti-Islamic groups is a step forward in the cyber world.