Analysis of Anti-Muslim Images and Text on Facebook

Decent people everywhere are still reeling from the tragic, senseless violence of Christchurch massacre. It appears that the accused killer was a product of the violent, hateful meme culture of the radical right online. Furthermore, he chose to livestream his rampage on a favorite platform used by anti-Muslim extremists: Facebook.

Unfortunately, for many of us who study right-wing extremism, the violent white power ideas espoused by the alleged shooter in his manifesto and online are nothing new. That he directed his grievances at Muslims and immigrants, and chose Facebook as the delivery medium, is also – sadly – not surprising. I recently completed a large study of several hundred Facebook groups across ten different hate ideologies and found that members of overt white power groups also joined anti-Muslim and anti-Immigrant groups in alarmingly high numbers.

In a follow-up study, I am now expanding my research to examine the images and text that accompanies anti-Muslim groups on Facebook. Between June 2017 and March 2018, as part of a larger data collection effort, I collected group names and textual descriptions for 202 US-based anti-Muslim groups on Facebook. I then wrote software to generate frequency distributions for keywords in the group names and descriptions, and worked with an expert panel to merge thematically-related topics together. We sorted the themes by frequency of occurrence, retaining only the 17 most commonly-occurring and coherent  themes.

Some of the themes were obvious (Islam, America), but other themes were much more disturbing. For example, one theme we called “Against/Versus” consists of concepts that have been put in conflict with Islam (e.g. Freedom Against Islam, Infidels vs. Islam). We also detected a “Violence” theme, which included descriptions of Muslims or Islam as ‘violent’, ‘terrorists’, ‘criminals’, ‘dangerous’, and the most sickening of all, ‘rapists’. We also had to create a standalone category we called “Purge Enemies,” which – more worryingly – included text encouraging violence to Muslims or extermination of them, using words like purge, war, rage, enemy. Example groups included: “Proud enemy of Islam”, “PROUD MOTHERF****RS AT WAR WITH ISLAM”, “Rage against the veil”, and “PURGE WORLDWIDE (The Cure for the Islamic disease in your country)”.

Some groups exhibited language from multiple themes in a single name or description. For example, a group called “Infidels Against Islamic Lies” would represent four themes (Islam, Against, Infidel and Lies). Table 1 shows the counts of groups representing each theme in its name, its description, or both.

171 of the 202 anti-Muslim Facebook groups also included cover photos. I decided to analyze the images present in each anti-Muslim Facebook group cover photo to understand how visual rhetoric was being used to advance Islamophobia on the platform. Again working with my expert panel, we used the 2018 Runnymede Report on Islamophobia to assess the cover photos for evidence of “Open” versus “Closed” viewpoints about Islam.

Depressingly, Table 2 shows that 55 of the 85 cover photos relied on symbols and visual rhetoric that portrayed “Islam as the Enemy”. Images classified under the “enemy” viewpoint included those that portrayed the religion as inherently violent, aggressive, terrifying, or threatening. For example, cover photos showed bearded Middle Eastern men holding machine guns, scowling men in turbans wielding knives, an airplane dropping bombs with the caption “Islam is the cancer”, a pistol-wielding American man captioned “Who wants to play cowboys & Muslims?”, a nuclear mushroom cloud captioned “Mecca was here”, and so on.

The second-highest Closed viewpoint expressed in the cover photos is that “Hostility toward Islam is normal”. Facebook cover photos in this vein feature soldiers with ISIS flags and machine guns shooting rows of prisoners underneath a verse from the Qu’ran that reads “Killing unbelievers is a small matter to us.” Another image co-opts the COEXIST bumper sticker, this time showing a crescent moon and sword slashing through the symbols of the other religions (See Below). Superimposed over the image are the words, “Foolish Infidels. Sura 4:89 ‘seize them and slay them wherever you find them’.” These images perpetuate a myth that Islam is inherently violent and thus “deserves” violence in return.

The perpetuation of such myths and the normalization of these attitudes on a mainstream social media platform is unacceptable. Images and text like these scaffold the construction of an online environment defined by retaliation and revenge, in which “their” violence naturally begets “our” defensive violence.

Especially in light of the senseless attack on the two mosques in Christchurch, it can be quite shocking to see the amount of anti-Muslim vitriol allowed to persist on a mainstream platform such as Facebook. It is my sincere hope that by quantifying the scope of this problem on Facebook, users and platform providers will be able to recognize and confront Islamophobic language and imagery when they see it throughout the social media landscape.

Professor Megan Squire is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Professor of Computer Science at Elon University in North Carolina, USA. See her profile here.

© Megan Squire. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).