Exploiting deadly terror attacks to spread hate

The UK suffered a series of terrorist attacks in 2017. One of these was the Manchester Arena attack that claimed 22 lives, the deadliest onslaught…

The UK suffered a series of terrorist attacks in 2017. One of these was the Manchester Arena attack that claimed 22 lives, the deadliest onslaught in the UK since the 7/7 London bombings. These attacks justifiably caused public anger but, worryingly, the British and international far right exploited them for its own benefit.

As part of HOPE not hate’s Islamophobia report, we conducted an investigation into the responses to these attacks on social media. We looked at social media accounts of prominent anti-Muslim and far right activists in the UK as well as abroad and observed that most of them grew significantly during the whole year. This is possibly a reflection of increasingly polarised debate in the wake of the US presidential election and Brexit, both campaigns having relied heavily on anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric.

More notably, these raised profiles did not grow at a steady pace throughout the year but in short bursts to gain new followers and increased resonance in the hours and days after the terror attacks. They were also consistently among the most mentioned and shared social media users on these topics.

Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), the former EDL leader and the most prominent anti-Muslim activist in the UK, almost tripled his number of followers during the year. Part of the reason for his increased exposure can be attributed to his move to Canadian far-right alternative media outlet Rebel Media and his distancing himself from earlier street activism which inevitably increased his respectability and exposure. But the career shift itself does not explain how he added as many as 40,042 followers just in the week after the Manchester attack.

The same pattern can be seen among other anti-Muslim accounts on Twitter. Terror attacks were followed by outbursts of anti-Muslim sentiment on Twitter and the activity of far-right accounts spiked along with their number of followers. The effect is easily observable in the graph below.

A graphic example of how activists like Lennon have perfected the tactic of exploiting people’s fear in the wake of attacks is the tweet below, one of his most retweeted posts of the year, published just hours after the Manchester Arena attack. The influence of the big far-right accounts on Twitter is easily seen in the case of the London Bridge attack. Out of the top 100 most shared tweets about the attack, 32 showed clearly negative sentiments about Muslims.

Notable among these were tweets shared by the largest anti-Muslim accounts such as those run by Paul Joseph Watson of the Infowars conspiracy site, alt-right commentator Brittany Pettibone, Raheem Kassam of Breitbart London, Rebel Media and the Voice of Europe. The effect of this impact is not to be taken lightly. With each increase in Twitter followers comes a larger reach for every single tweet and therefore a potential influence on public debate.


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