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Study: Online hate toward Ilhan Omar is 'manufactured outrage' that predates Trump

A new study suggests there's more behind the Twitter rancor than Trumpian politics -- and breaks it down by the numbers.

A new study suggests there's more behind the Twitter rancor than Trumpian politics -- and breaks it down by the numbers. Associated Press

President Donald Trump can’t seem to stop talking trash about Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

In July, he told her and three other Democratic congressional freshmen to “go back” to the “corrupt” countries they came from. During his October rally, he called her an “America-hating socialist” and a “disgrace.” In September, he retweeted a video and a conservative rant falsely insinuating Omar was out celebrating on 9/11—a move she claims “put [her] life at risk” because of the resulting backlash.

Each of these attacks prompted a significant wave of anti-Omar ire online, mostly focused on her Muslim faith and her history as a Somali refugee. But a new study published this week by the Social Science Research Council indicates Trump is just a symptom of all the internet rage, not the cause.

“In fact, our research found that Omar and [fellow Muslim congresswoman Rashida] Tlaib were in the crosshairs of the Islamophobic community long before Trump elevated them in his tweetstorms, and likely before they were even on his personal radar screen,” the study says. “This is particularly true of [Omar].”

The report dug in and broke down all that vitriol against Muslim candidates for public office by the numbers, mapped out the nodes of prominent Twitter users and news media as they tagged the congresswoman, and tried to find the source of most of the hate that popped up in the 2018 midterms. A few data points jumped out from the rest.

For one, hijab-clad Muslim women—like Omar—were disproportionately targeted. In the months leading up to the 2018 election, 40 percent of all 90,000 tweets mentioning Omar had a definite “Islamophobic/anti-immigrant” slant. But even though they were both the subjects of internet rancor, Omar attracted more than twice the level of trolling than Tlaib, a U.S.-born Palestinian Muslim who doesn’t wear a hijab.

For another, only 33 percent of tweets that mentioned Omar were from people who did not also post hate speech about Muslims and immigrants. A “large percentage” of the other two-thirds appeared to be either bots or “human-mediated automated ‘cyborgs’” designed to pump out either hate or false narratives about her.

Quite a few people on Twitter have also criticized Omar for her previous comments on Israel, like a 2012 tweet in which she claimed the country had “hypnotized the world.” (She has since apologized for invoking age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes.) These tweets, according to the study, were not automatically counted as hate speech, any more than other honest criticisms on her domestic policy.

But a percentage of those criticisms also contained outright derogatory comments toward Muslims (about 10 percent)—stuff like referring to her as a “muzzrat” or a “sack of Mohammad sh!t”—and those definitely did count.

There’s a reason for diving deep into what is by many standards one of the more unpleasant sides of Twitter. The authors of the study worry that the misinformed or malicious online comments of a few have an outsized effect on how we as a nation talk about Muslim candidates. And it is truly a few, in the grand scheme of things. The study found that “more than 24,000” individual Twitter accounts “viciously trolled” four Muslim congressional candidates in 2018. But:

“Even if all those accounts are U.S.-based,” the report says—which, it assures, is an “unlikely assumption—“they represented just 0.0391 percent of the 69 million Twitter users in the U.S.” It doesn’t, the report says, accurately reflect what’s going on in the real world, or how candidates like Omar relate to their constituents. It doesn’t even accurately portray what’s being covered by the media.

“In fact, there are these other obscure accounts that are tweeting out vastly more content about Omar than your news organization,” lead researcher and Washington State University professor Lawrence Pintak told MPR News. “This isn’t a grassroots movement against her. It’s a manufactured outrage that is created by a handful of people and sent out through automated means.”

It all paints a dim picture of how our internet discourse is going, but there is a point to it. The goal of the study was to “better understand” the scope of the challenges facing Muslim candidates—not just now, but in the future. For example, Nadia Mohamed, a newly elected St. Louis Park City Council member who also happens to wear a hijab, is already facing a similar pattern of abuse and unfounded allegations online.

“As more Muslims enter politics, they draw more attention, and, it is sadly inevitable, more attacks,” the study says. Unless we train ourselves to see patterns in this chaos, the study says, we may find ourselves giving undue credence to a “dangerous national—and international—narrative.”