How Michigan 2018 candidates experienced Islamophobia through social media

Rashida Tlaib | Andrew Roth

Michigan made history during the 2018 midterms with a record number of Muslim Americans running for local, statewide and federal offices. But a new report shows that these candidates faced a hostile political climate online fueled by President Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

The report, titled “#Islamophobia, Stoking Fear and Prejudice in the 2018 Midterms,” reveals how social media negatively impacted the 166 Muslim American candidates, 29 of whom were running for offices in Michigan. 

The study was authored by professors and researchers at Washington State University, Columbia University, Western Washington University and Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers specifically looked into the experiences of four Muslim candidates from Michigan: now-U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn), 11th Congressional District Democratic candidate Fayrouz Saad and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed.

Tlaib has been in the national spotlight for months, as Trump has hurled a number of insults at the freshman congresswoman, including urging Israel to no longer allow Tlaib and her colleague, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), to travel to the country. 

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In November 2018, Tlaib and Omar became the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

The report says that much of the hate speech was amplified during Trump’s 2016 campaign when he “normalized the vilification of Muslims and other minority groups.”

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks as reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

“More recently, he has made the targeting of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — and fellow congresswomen of color Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — a cornerstone of his 2020 reelection bid,” the authors of the study wrote. 

According to the report, of the 12,492 tweets that referenced Tlaib, 33% included overtly anti-Muslim or xenophobic language. El-Sayed’s accounts are frequently tagged in the same anti-Muslim tweets as Tlaib.

“While many Muslim candidates reported limited encounters with Islamophobia among their constituents,” the authors wrote. “We found a social media narrative of manufactured outrage that was disproportionately Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic.”

The report says the hate speech spread “like a virus on social media” through both human-run accounts and bots. 

On Twitter, a small group of these accounts had a large reach and influence in the 2018 election, which the report says poisoned “the political narrative, drawing in both like-minded and unsuspecting individuals, and disproportionately amplifying — and, for some, normalizing — the message of intolerance.”

Fayrouz Saad
Fayrouz Saad | Twitter

Saad, who lost the nomination to now-U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), said her experience on the campaign trail “was typical.” Saad said when she made her campaign announcement, she was sent social media messages “from far and wide” that “covered the gamut of Islamophobia.” 

She told the report’s authors that the discrimination was “never blatant, to my face.” 

“People would say things like, ‘I think so and so,’ who just happens to be a white male, ‘is the most electable or the most likely to win.’ It felt like it was an attack on either my gender or my race or my ethnicity. It wasn’t explicit, but it very much felt like that was the implication,” Saad said. 

Of the 166 Muslim candidates, 71% said they ignored the online attacks and 35% deleted Facebook comments containing Islamophobic language or hate speech. 

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Saad explained she did not give the hateful comments and messages the attention they were looking for. 

“Overall, the strategy is just to ignore them, right? Not let them take you down the rabbit hole,” She said. “I shouldn’t be responding to people who are accusing me of raising Muslim terrorists.” 

Abdul El-Sayed at town hall, March 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Most candidates who responded to a survey from the researchers said they had similar experiences to Saad and did not experience much explicit discrimination on the campaign trail, but Twitter analytics tell a different story.  

“Twitter operates on a global level, so these high-profile candidates drew the attention of domestic and international anti-Muslim/xenophobic elements, though they still represented just a tiny proportion of the overall Twittersphere,” the researchers wrote. 

While not every Muslim candidate experienced Islamophobic hate speech in their 2018 campaign, the report said the rhetoric exists on social media and tells a narrative of a “toxic undercurrent of American society, ready for exploitation by those with an agenda and an algorithm.”