New Delhi: A new study by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Warwick examines the link between President Donald Trump’s tweets and rising anti-Muslim sentiments in the US.
The research has evidenced that social media has the power to influence the “perception of people with pre-existing prejudices about which beliefs about minorities are socially acceptable”. To think lightly of the power of influence would be foolish, but the extent of it is astounding.
Given the presidential seal, prejudiced individuals feel free from civil restraint. For instance, a broadly-shared prejudiced tweet by Trump signals potential perpetrators of hate crimes, one metric of Islamophobic sentiments, that their actions are less heinous than they really are.
Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar has even linked tweets by Trump targeting her Muslim faith to “an increase in direct threats on my life – many directly referring or replying to the president’s video”.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) describes hate crimes as “criminal offences that are motivated, in whole or in part, by an offenders bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity”.
The study used data on US hate crimes recorded from the FBI between 1990 to 2017 and analysed the effect of casualty through the data on the South by South West (SXSW) Interactive Festival and Conference in March 2007.
The SXSW is widely regarded as the “tipping point for Twitter’s popularity and an important early-stage catalyst for the site’s success.” The locations of Twitter’s initial users from the event further served as a substantial predictor of county-level Twitter usage in present-day and acted as the source of a quasi-random variation to confirm the patterns in the raw data.
Over 27 years, the number of hate crimes, predominantly in the form of vandalism, against Muslims in the US reportedly increased in areas with higher social media usage and with pre-existing hate groups and Republican majorities.
A potential driver of these anti-Muslim sentiments: Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
“Around the start of Trump’s presidential campaign, the home counties of the early Twitter adopters saw a clear upward shift in anti-Muslim sentiments. The rate of hate crimes, as well as hashtags such as #stopislam and #banislam all, went up,” Carlo Schwarz, a doctoral student at the University of Warwick in the UK, said.
“Their estimates suggest that one standard deviation higher social media use was associated with a 38% larger increase in hate crimes against Muslims.”
In fact, according to the report, the weekly figure of anti-Muslim hate crimes has doubled since Trump’s presidential campaign. More specifically, “the median number of weekly hate crimes committed against Muslims under Trump is twice as high as under Obama and 50% higher than under George W. Bush”.
“50% higher than under George W. Bush.”
This finding was especially shocking because, under the Bush presidency, there was a temporary ten-fold increase in such crimes following the 9/11 terror attacks – the largest increase since the initial FBI records in 1990.
For the study, the high correlation between Trump’s tweets about Muslims and anti-Muslim hate crimes was investigated through a difference in difference approach and an instrumental variable strategy that highlights the fact that Trump tweets more about Muslims on days when he golfs.
“It is difficult to pin down what causes what,” Karsten Müller, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, acknowledged. “But one cue comes from the president’s golf habit, which appears to affect his behaviour on Twitter.”
Interestingly, on days when the president golfs, his tweets include fewer references to daily politics and concentrates more on minorities, particularly Muslims. “This is at least suggestive that social media might indeed affect offline behaviour” Müller explains.
Another similar but slightly weaker pattern was observed for hate crimes targeting Hispanics, the other minority group often in Trump’s verbal crosshairs.
The president’s tweets about Muslims also lead to a higher frequency of anti-Muslim hashtags appearing on Twitter, higher broadcasting of Muslims by national news stations and an increase in Muslim hate crimes.
The relationship of orchestrated Trump tweets with television mentions seems to be principally driven by the president’s most reliable news network, Fox News and further reveals that Trump’s Muslim tweets may impact the news cycle, which could be a “possible trigger point for potential perpetrators of hate crimes”.
The findings of the study, therefore, indicate social media’s consistent role in propagating anti-minority sentiments. While social media does not necessarily change people’s beliefs, it triggers existing negative attitudes, more specifically toward Muslims.
One concern regarding the study, however, is that the results are limited to the year 2017, making them a relatively short sample period. “Of course, we do not claim that President Trump or Twitter are directly responsible for hate crimes,” says Schwarz. “Our reading of the evidence is that social media, especially when used by powerful individuals, can enable changes in what people think is socially acceptable.”