From Mainstream to Extreme: The Transmission of Harmful Messaging Online

Introduction

In today’s digital age, online spaces have transformed the way in which people communicate. The internet has been a sort of breeding ground for radicalization, often fostering echo chambers and hosting fringe communities. Exploring the dynamics of these virtual environments, this blog piece explores themes surrounding extremist messaging, information dissemination, and online spaces through speaking with Anna George, a scholar at the University of Oxford specialising in online political behaviours. We speak about fostering digital resilience in an era of misinformation    and disinformation and how online spaces can be both a place for mobilizing and minimizing extremism.

During my time at the DRIVE project, I was able to overlook the myriad way polarisation and existence on the fringes can drive exclusion and extremist views. How and why are people increasingly disenchanted with the world around them? How can online spaces specifically provide solace or further divide us?

Background and context

I had the opportunity to speak with and interview Anna George, a Social Data Science  scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute researching  online political behaviours and computational approaches to studying online harms. As she finalises her doctorate, her research has largely focused on the transmission of harmful messaging, online communities, alternative news, and extremist sentiments. Her ambitions rest on making the internet a safer space.

Mainstream social media and alternative spaces

We delved deep into our discussion, examining trends in low-quality news sources, the framing of COVID-19, the Ukraine war, climate change, and migration in extremist online spaces. What Anna’s research has been noticing is that as movements become more mainstream, they are more likely to mobilise offline. Online spaces allow people to meet other like-minded people. This can be as innocent as joining your local knitting club; however, due to the vast nature of the internet, it can quickly become more sinister. Extremist people and organisations both exploit and use the ease of the internet to broaden cross-sections of individuals who might share common views, facilitating radicalization or providing communities where extremist sentiments can be freely shared.  While individuals associated with extremist ideologies use and interact with virtual spaces for several reasons, such as the community and feeling of inclusion, Anna points out examples of when groups and lone actors can mobilise and move offline. With examples such as the attack in Charleston, USA, the Capitol Insurrection, and even her local environment of Oxford climate change conspiracy networks, we can analyse groups that used to be sparse becoming to morph together. Anna marks QAnon as a landmark turning point for rallying conspiratorial groups together, representing a conspiracist milieu lying adjacent to other extremist beliefs capable of violent goals, such  as the New World Order or the Great Replacement theories within white supremacist spaces. However, what is pointed out throughout our interview is the need to emphasise not only the capabilities of violence but also the detrimental effects of the dissemination of online disinformation through diverse supporters. What we can observe is the potentiality of conspiracy theories “going mainstream” through creating subcultures, boosting alternative media, persuading the masses, and proxy wars, all of which have political effects. 

Conspiracy narratives: trust, COVID-19, and anti-institutional extremism

As we continue our discussion, we land on a central insight in researching online spaces and why people are increasingly turning to extremist spaces: trust. Over the past 50 years or so, public trust in institutions and the news media has collapsed. The consumption, distribution, and production of news have altered thanks to the digital era and social media. This isn’t necessarily a phenomenon touching solely conspiratorial people; a lot of people are starting to lose trust in democratic governments. Anna emphasises this as a major gateway into foreign state entities playing into these claims, as at the core of extremist ideals, there is the perception that you can’t fully trust the government.  We discuss the effects that misinformation online has on undermining public trust. Anna continues in saying “it is political, because the topics that are discussed are political issues: lockdown, climate change,” stating the US to be the best example of this, while the trend is beginning to increase in the UK political sphere. The effects of this point to the weaponisation of topics.The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a feeling of alienation and mistrust in institutions. The uncertainty around COVID brought a lot of  questioning and fear, with corresponding measures taken by governments heightening anti-government  action in Europe. Low-quality news outlets and fringe movements used over-reporting on issues like vaccine hesitancy to spread anti-institutional sentiments, much of which spilled over onto mainstream social media. This environment was one that conspiracies could thrive in, as Anna points out that trends in conspiracies increase with uncertainty.  This provided an opportunity for extremist groups to spread disinformation, gaining exposure and recruitment benefits.

Accountability and Policy Initiatives: Turning Points and Lessons Learned

The topic delves into the incentives and stakes that actors and governments have in information sharing and online spaces. Anna contends that there remains a lot of confusion around this landscape and that the issue of online safety and its effects on the rise of domestic terrorism is a paramount policy avenue. We must continue to fund and research the impact of these movements, as well as the reasons why mistrust in governments and institutions is on the rise as extremist movements, populist movements, and foreign state media benefit from these narratives. She continues, calling for a multipronged approach among governments, social media companies, and civil society, drawing engagement from an educational standpoint in order to teach young people, in particular, the importance of online literacy and critical thought. In her own work, Anna performed a systematic review of computational approaches, offering methods and techniques social media companies can utilise in combating misinformation and disinformation. Interventions such as content-labelling (as true or false, trustworthy) or fact-checking videos can prime users into questioning the accuracy of content in order for people to discern for themselves the validity of sources. The UK government's Online  Safety Act (2023) is a great example of a government’s novel approach to enforcing measures to improve online  safety and the duties of internet platforms in managing harmful or illegal content.

Closing thoughts

While we covered a wide range of topics during our meeting, it is without a doubt an area of research that academics such as Anna George should push towards creating safer online and critical spaces. Topics of mistrust and disinformation regarding online spaces can aid us in gaining insight into the role of social exclusion and emotions regarding why individuals are attracted to these movements or exploited or recruited into movements through intersections of beliefs; perceptions are powerful. 

In recent years, the Netherlands has frequently been confronted with public incidents of Islamophobia. It is essential to address this issue by finding solutions that promote inclusivity and respect for diversity. This article aims to explore key aspects of Islamophobia in the Netherlands, introduce strategies to combat it and build a more inclusive society.

Dutch Islamophobia on Recent Display

In 2019, the Netherlands passed a law banning burqas and niqabs in public spaces, along with other face coverings traditionally worn by religious Muslim women. According to Dutch lawmakers, the law was intended to promote security and facilitate greater communication in government buildings, hospitals, and schools. If caught violating the law, citizens are subject to a 150-euro fine.

Though the law also prohibits garments like ski masks and full-coverage helmets, it clearly targets Muslim women and others wearing religious garments, who are already vulnerable to discrimination given their minority status in Western countries. Despite the fact that it has gone largely unenforced, people of faith have reported  higher incidences of discrimination, which is why international rights groups across the globe have criticized legislation of this nature.

The Dutch government does not register self-identified religious affiliations among its population. Even so, the European Network Against Racism estimates that 4.9 percent of the adult population in the Netherlands is Muslim. When surveyed, Muslims in Amsterdam voiced their concern that Islamophobia is “becoming increasingly normalized in Dutch society,” with the burqa ban serving as just one example of this. It should be a priority for the Dutch government, then, to ensure the safety of this especially vulnerable population.

Islamophobia has become far more prevalent following the events of September 11, which (unjustly) established for many the link between Islam and the risk of violence. Though scholarship on radicalization has existed for decades, it has become much more of a focal point following the events of 9/11. In fact, the UN reports that discrimination against Muslims sharply increases around terrorist attacks and the anniversaries of such attacks.

The Dutch History of Islamophobia

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Netherlands began recruiting labor from elsewhere, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, along with former Dutch colonies Suriname and Indonesia. Prior to this demand for labor, the Muslim population accounted for less than 0.1% of the Dutch population.

As the MENA region struggled with tensions and conflicts in the following decades, the Netherlands saw numerous waves of migrants, including laborers and asylum seekers. This was further amplified during the migration wave of 2015, which has impacted the way most European countries handle migration issues. The fact that many migrants come from nations where Islam is the most prevalent religion complicates the fact that 42% of discrimination reports in the Netherlands are (allegedly) related to migration rather than religion.

Since 2015, the European integration of migrants has become a significant challenge, often met with resistance from leaders on the right and many European citizens, including people in the Netherlands. Quotes like the following from Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch right-wing Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom), have been reiterated across Europe for the last two decades.

“Politicians from almost all establishment [parties] today are facilitating Islamization. They are cheering for every new Islamic school, Islamic bank, Islamic court. They regard Islam as being equal to our own culture. Islam or freedom? It doesn’t really matter to them. But it does matter to us. The entire establishment elite—universities, churches, trade unions, the media, politicians—are putting our hard-earned liberties at risk.”

Political Discourse and Discrimination

Political discourse plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, which is precisely why discriminatory and inflammatory rhetoric can be so harmful. Rhetoric like that of Geert Wilders has contributed to a climate of Islamophobia in the Netherlands, leading to negative opinions about minorities and increased discrimination against Muslims. For instance, he has referred to Islam as a "totalitarian ideology," called for a ban on the Quran, and advocated for the closure of mosques across the Netherlands.

According to a 2019 report by the Dutch Human Rights Institute, discrimination against Muslims in the Netherlands increased by 10% in 2018 compared to the previous year. The recent increase in hateful political discourse may be one key piece to understanding why Islamophobia is now more prominent within Dutch society.

The impact of political discourse on discrimination against Muslims is not limited to the Netherlands. Similar trends have been observed in other parts of Europe and the United States. For instance, in the United States, former President Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric contributed to an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, especially surrounding his executive order banning travel from parts of the Arab world in 2017. Though the speech of politicians may not directly incite discrimination or violence, increasingly repetitive hateful rhetoric has the power to transform public opinion, amplifying and exacerbating existing discrimination, especially targeting already vulnerable communities.

Media Depiction: Reframing Muslim Identity

The media also plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion and attitudes toward Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, in the Netherlands, media coverage of Muslims has often been stereotypical, negative, and sensationalized, further normalizing Islamophobia within society.

One common stereotype in the media is the portrayal of Muslims as intolerant and dangerous, as the media often focuses on acts of terrorism or radicalization. Muslim voices are often absent from public discourse, but when they are featured, they are portrayed as perpetrators or victims of violence.

Additionally, Muslim religious practices/beliefs are depicted as incompatible with Dutch values and norms. This portrayal creates a climate of fear and suspicion among non-Muslims in the Netherlands and elsewhere, marginalizing and stigmatizing Muslim communities and creating a sense of alienation and exclusion.

To address this issue, media organizations should be more inclusive and representative in their coverage of Muslims. Journalists should seek out diverse perspectives and voices, presenting a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of Muslim communities in the Netherlands. Media organizations should also be held accountable for spreading false or discriminatory sentiments about Islam and Muslims.

Additionally, it is essential to acknowledge consumers’ role in the issue, as they should be aware of the potential biases and prejudices in media coverage and seek out a variety of information sources. Tis is precisely why education is a crucial component of addressing media coverage of Muslims. Educational institutions should promote media literacy and critical thinking skills, encouraging young people to analyze media coverage and identify biases and stereotypes. By promoting more accurate and unbiased media coverage, we can equip ourselves to combat Islamophobia and foster a more inclusive and tolerant society in the Netherlands.

Prioritizing Intersectionality

People in the Netherlands and other Western nations face numerous sorts of prejudice based on the intersection of their identities including race, gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, physical ability, and more. These identities are relational rather than distinct from one another in the context of discrimination.

While adjudication of discrimination often considers single-issue prejudices, discrimination more often takes place on the basis of multiple factors like race and gender, for example. In other words, people experience discrimination differently depending on their overlapping identities.

The term's use has drawn opposition from conservatives all over the world because they typically feel victimized by it. American political commentator Ben Shapiro, for example, considers it a “hierarchy of victimhood,” in which white men would rank at the very bottom. This becomes a problem for those who fear losing their current ranking or status within society.

Instead, society should focus on empowering and uplifting those who need it most, those whose identities overlap, creating what researchers have called a “cocktail of oppression.”  When combating the prevalence of Islamophobia in society, intersectionality must be central to the discussion.

Dismantling Stereotypes, Facilitating Interfaith Dialogue, and Promoting Inclusion

While there are certainly ways to minimize the prominence of Islamophobia in society, it is essential to understand that unconscious biases will always exist in modern society. We can work to be more aware of them, challenge our pre-existing beliefs, and surround ourselves with diverse perspectives. The road ahead is long, but there is no doubt it is worthwhile. The following steps are just a few of many that can be taken to address Islamophobia in the Netherlands.

The first is to increase the representation of marginalized communities in the media and popular culture and to listen to Muslim voices. Ideally, these voices should represent a diverse set of beliefs and perspectives, making Muslims feel seen and understood while simultaneously helping non-Muslims. understand cultures, beliefs, and practices that differ from their own. Media representation can provide a more complete and nuanced understanding of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

It is also important to collect and analyze data in a more nuanced manner. The Netherlands does not collect data on religion in particular, but it should be careful about generalizing those who migrated from the MENA region. Danish policy, for example, openly collects data on all “non-western” immigrants. The act of separating data in this way risks increasing discrimination within society. The UN Committee criticized Denmark’s efforts against discrimination as their data collection methods marginalize non-natives from particular regions of the world, sweeping them into a general “other” category. While the Netherlands does not make a distinction between Western and non-Western migrants, there is room for improvement. The Netherlands can learn from the Danish example by collecting data on varying populations equally.

Dutch society must also make an effort to accommodate Muslims in everyday spaces, so practices like prayer or fasting no longer seem strange or particularly novel. One way to do this is to incorporate prayer spaces in workplaces, schools, and other frequently visited buildings. This enables Muslims to steadfastly practice their faith in a setting where their peers support them. It may also be helpful to educate students or employees during the month of Ramadan so their Muslim colleagues feel supported and empowered if they choose to fast. Intercultural education promotes mutual understanding and respect between different cultural and religious communities.

Interfaith dialogue plays a key role in exposing groups to other cultures and, more generally, facilitating a peaceful European integration process. There are numerous initiatives throughout Europe that aim to promote dialogue among groups that are traditionally misunderstood or in conflict with one another.  The Hague Peace Project is one example of this, as they host a Turkish-Kurdish work group among others that have created a steady flow of projects and events stimulating interaction and peaceful dialogue between these diaspora groups in the Netherlands. Their work encouraging dialogue about human rights and diversity as part of the Muslim identity has undoubtedly created change in the city.

Final Takeaways

As a final note, it is crucial to make the distinction between equality and equity, considering actionable plans to achieve each in a variety of settings. Equitable actions help achieve long-term equality in society. Equal opportunity and access to resources are often not enough for a society with a history of colonialism and inequality. There is no doubt the Netherlands has a complicated history and has been tasked with new challenges in the twenty-first century, but these actions would set the country on a path leading to greater inclusion and understanding of cultures.

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