Hate and Incriminate: The US Election, Social Media, and American Muslims

tow-whitepaper1-heroPhoto: Jeff Hutchens (Getty)

This paper is part of a series on journalism and terrorism that is the product of a partnership between the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Democracy Fund Voice.

Executive Summary

In the grim days following the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, news commentator and retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters appeared on Fox News, saying: “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but virtually all terrorists are Muslim.” Peters’s statement represents the sort of venomous rhetoric that has emerged all too often this election. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has put an immigration ban on Muslims at the core of his nativist pitch to voters, alleging that American Muslims and mosques are knowingly harboring terrorists.

While many Americans, including President Obama, have spoken out against Trump’s characterization of American Muslims as terrorists, there has been little opposition to the premise that all terrorists are Muslims. The prevalence of Islamophobia has been coupled with a selective definition of terror under US law, contributing to the belief that all terrorists are Muslims and hence that all Muslims be viewed with suspicion, justifiably hated, excoriated, and even banned. At the same time, amplification by social media reinforces hostile political rhetoric, making legislative reform that protects Muslims as effectively as the rest of the population more difficult.

Hate speech against Muslims is not simply tolerated and largely unpunished, but normalized into a valid political position.

This paper dissects the premise that terror is a particularly Muslim problem and analyzes the key role that social media is playing in this issue. The paper begins with a quantitative snapshot of both anti-Muslim and anti-Islamophobic Google searches and statements made on social media. It then moves to a qualitative analysis of the low rates of reporting and prosecution of hate crimes against Muslims, paying particular attention to differing standards of proof required for these prosecutions. The second section looks at terror prosecutions of Muslims, noting how speech—and especially online speech—is treated very differently by courts when it involves Muslim American defendants and the mere possibility of terror connections. In paying particular attention to prosecutions under the Material Support for Terrorism Statute, we note how concerns raised in the prosecutorial context of hate crimes (such as requirements of intent and purposefulness) are summarily discarded when they arise in relation to terrorism cases.


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