Incubating Hate: Islamophobia and Gab
Islamophobia has become a digital rallying cry for white supremacists and other extremists online. Xenophobic, derisive, and disinformative content appears with regularity in conversations about Islam on the fringe social media site Gab – a platform that bills itself as “the free speech social network” but that researchers argue features high levels of hate and conspiracy in comparison to Twitter, which it is modeled upon (Zannettou et al., 2018). We provide an overview of Islamophobia online, detailing prior research that describes the integral role that sites like Gab, 8Chan and Voat play in spreading harmful and defamatory content to larger publics on Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter. Then, in collaboration with the social media analytics firm Graphika, we describe results from a quantitative analysis of Gab. Pulling from the complete database of all Gab messages assembled by Pushshift.io, we focus in on four months of data from the Summer and Fall of 2018. We then search the set for Islam-relevant hashtags, derogatory terms, and the names of Muslim U.S. political candidates who ran in 2018 – in the end compiling a set of 188,763 posts. We find that a significant proportion of the material about Islam and Muslims is derogatory.
The most cited URL in our dataset is YouTube.com. Users on Gab consistently link to YouTube in order to share conspiratorial and disinformative videos on the platform. Qualitative analyses of the top 100 linked YouTube videos reveals that many contain graphic and patently false rumors about Islam and topics like pedophilia and violence. Twitter is the second most cited URL in the dataset, suggesting that Gab users also use this larger micro-blogging platform for reference in anti-Islam conversations.
After YouTube and Twitter, the websites most linked to in the dataset are: jihadwatch.org, breitbart.com, barenakenislam.com, gellerreport.com, creepingsharia.wordpress.com, kek.gg, voiceofeurope.com, dailymail.co.uk, bitchute.com, gab.ai/.com, infowars.com, foxnews.com, and streetnews.one.Two of the top ten most cited URLs in the set are jihadwatch.org and gellerreport.com (3rd and 6th most cited, respectively), sites linked to active anti-Muslim hate groups documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2015). Jihad Watch is run by Richard Spencer. The Geller Report is run by Pamela Geller. The two are the co-founders of Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA). Two of the other top ten most cited URLs in the dataset, barenakedislam.com and infowars.com (5th and 13th most cited, respectively), have been categorized by Stanford researchers as clear purveyors of disinformation (Allcott et al., 2018).
We believe that fringe platforms including Gab are important to watch as they will likely to be instrumental to the spread of Islamophobia online, and to the ecosystem of political divisiveness and manipulation more broadly. The content on fringe sites often serves as a harbinger, a signal of what is to come, for problematic and divisive communication across mainstream social media platforms. As we continue to grapple with the effects of disinformation in our democracy and another Presidential election approaches in 2020, researchers, civil society groups, and others should watch content on Gab to help generate early warnings for forthcoming “information operations” and computational propaganda campaigns that may migrate to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
This paper contains several key findings:
Four of the ten most cited domains in our Gab dataset of Muslim-related content contain links to anti-Muslim hate-groups or sites that have documented records of disseminating disinformation.
A quarter of users in the dataset use terms coded as derogatory. Additional initial qualitative analysis of the dataset reveals that even when messages in this set don’t make use of specific derogatory terms, instead referring simply to “Muslim” or “Islam,” they nonetheless tend toward defamation and demonization of this community.
The second most used hashtag in the dataset was #BanIslam.
YouTube is a key node in the promotion of conspiratorial, Islamophobic disinformation on Gab. The most frequently cited domain in the Gab dataset was YouTube. Twitter is the second most cited domain in our dataset – suggesting a connection between discussions of Islamophobia on Gab and use of larger social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter as resources and references.
The 15th most cited domain in the Gab dataset, streetnews.one, was a sensationalist website active only in the months leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Qualitative assessment of the behavior of the Gab profiles spreading links to the site suggest that they made use of promotional automation. It is possible that this could be an example of a targeted information campaign during the election.