Muslim political candidates face a toxic online environment polluted by a small number of users that succeed in disseminating hatred through a web of automated bots and sock-puppet accounts, new research led by a Washington State University professor shows.

#Islamophobia: Stoking Fear and Prejudice in the 2018 Midterms was published this week by the Social Science Research Council, which funded the project, and its Media & Democracy program.

In the study, Lawrence Pintak – professor of communications in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication – and his team examined more than 113,000 tweets posted in the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term election mentioning then-congressional candidates Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Omar Qudrat. Omar and Tlaib, both Democrats, were elected to represent Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, while Qudrat, a California Republican, lost his bid for Congress.

At least half of the tweets mentioning Omar, who immigrated to the United States when she was 12 years old, contained overtly Islamophobic or xenophobic language or other forms of hate speech. Around one in three tweets mentioning Tlaib, a United States-born Palestinian American, contained similar language. Qudrat’s status as a conservative and former U.S. military terrorism prosecutor in Afghanistan didn’t prevent him from being similarly harassed online.

Closeup of Lawrence Pintak.
Lawrence Pintak

The most striking finding concerned the fact that much of the anti-Muslim narrative was driven by a small handful of accounts. Their tweets were disseminated through throngs of automated bots and sock puppet accounts that conceal the true identity of their owners. The fact that more than 10 percent of accounts in Omar’s and Tlaib’s networks were suspended for violating Twitter’s standards or were deleted less than a year after the election underscores the online presence of anti-Muslim actors.

“These findings demonstrate that Islamophobia is not a widespread national sentiment, it’s a form of manufactured outrage to which social media gives a vastly outsized voice,” said Pintak. “Heading into the 2020 election, it’s critical for the mainstream media to recognize that to avoid becoming tools of the extremists’ toxic agenda.”