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Intolerance on social media: #refugeeswelcome and the Paris terrorist attacks

It is now a fairly uncontested fact that racism and intolerance characterise a significant portion of the content shared on major social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. From the United States to Europe, the spread of hate speech has been witnessed by ordinary users as well as journalists, politicians, celebrities and activists.

Digitally-mediated death threats have become the “new normal”. For example, last summer, an Italian man denounced via social media discriminatory behaviour against Roma travellers on a regional train in Lombardy. After Italy’s vice-president and interior minister Matteo Salvini polemically shared the story with his Facebook followers, the man received more than 42.000 messages with insults and threats. Comparable episodes of social-media-diffused intolerance towards minorities and civil rights supporters have been reported not only in Italy, currently governed by the populist 5 Star Movement and xenophobic League, but also throughout the world, and especially where right wing populist parties have risen to power.

Is this social media’s fault? Shall we blame social media platforms such behaviour? The common-sense answer is probably “yes”. Facebook, Twitter and other social media have certainly made social intolerance more visible and, as a consequence, more legitimate, and contributed to the acceleration and disintermediation of (undesirable) public opinion processes. Nevertheless, the roots of ubiquitous hate-speech lie elsewhere.

In order to illustrate this argument, I will briefly discuss the results of an empirical study authored by Mauro Barisione (University of Milan), Asimina Michailidou (ARENA Centre for European Studies) and myself, published in Information, Communication & Society. In this research paper, we analyse the evolution of the public debate around the popular hashtag #refugeeswelcome on Twitter, from September 2015 – when this “digital movement of opinion” went viral – to mid-November 2015, right after the Paris terrorist attacks. This story suggests that events exogenous to social media are the raw material through which intolerance is politically-constituted and digitally-reinforced.

The rise and fall of #refugeeswelcome

In September 2015, the public and political debates about migrants in Europe looked very different than they do today. A strong wave of support toward refugees was shown both physically and digitally. The powerful photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdî’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach were ubiquitously circulating on both traditional and social media. A general climate of empathy influenced, in turn, national and EU political leaders’ declarations and policies – as witnessed by the welcoming attitudes of Merkel’s Germany and Cameron’s Britain toward Syrian refugees.

In this context, #refugeeswelcome reached an unprecedented peak of volume on Twitter. On the single day of September 12, we counted more than 74,000 tweets featuring the hashtag. As one might expect, the Twitter debate was unanimously in favour of migrants. ONGs and celebrities were leading the discussion, and their solidarity messages were heavily retweeted by almost 40,000 users (see Fig. 1). The following is a largely popular tweet by music band One Direction’s singer, Harry Styles: “Take a stand with us & @savechildrenuk: help make #RefugeesWelcome”.

RefugeesWelcome retweet

Figure 1: Visualisation of the #RefugeesWelcome retweet network on September 12, 2015. Labels show the 20 main hubs, their sizes being proportional to the number of times they were retweeted. Colour blue indicates pro-refugee users.

We continued to monitor the same hashtag, and explored what happened on November 14, 2015 – the day after the infamous Paris terrorist attacks. By that time, the configuration of the Twitter discussion about #refugeeswelcome had entirely changed.

The debate was smaller (about 12,000 tweets). More surprisingly, almost half of the most retweeted users argued against refugees and their supporters, portrayed – respectively – as terrorists and accomplices in crime. “We tried to warn you. #refugeeswelcome blood is on your hands”, tweeted the British far right leader Tommy Robinson, collecting 370 retweets in few hours. Today, the same politician is considered “one of a new breed of entrepreneurial activists who are bringing extremist myths into the mainstream”.

RefugeesWelcome retweet2

Figure 2: Visualisation of the #RefugeesWelcome retweet network on November 14. Colour blue indicates pro-refugees influencers and their re-tweeters, while colour red highlights anti-refugees ones.

An exogenous event was exploited by far-right political activists, and immediately used as a symbolic weapon for hijacking #refugeeswelcome and attacking its supporters. After a short revival of the hashtag on November 19, mainly fostered by US-based users, the following months basically saw a constant decline in usage on Twitter.

It is hard to say that Paris terrorist attacks constituted a turning point in European citizens’ attitudes towards migrants – findings on this issue are, for the moment, contradictory. This empirical example does show that, after the far-right politicization of an unrelated tragedy, the same hashtag that at first allowed a large and nearly unanimous emotional wave of empathy toward refugees had rapidly become the stage for thousands of intolerant messages.

Hate, platforms and politicization

Within few hours after the mass shooting at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, #refugeeswelcome had already become something else. The seeds of intolerance, injected by few extremist politicians and activists, were spreading fast. Twitter was the medium, but hardly the cause.

The acceleration and disintermediation of communication brought by social media cannot be neglected. Surely, this mutated information ecology is likely to contribute to public debates’ increasing polarisation and volatility. Nevertheless, I believe that we should not blame platforms for the diffusion of hate speech, but the irresponsibility of opportunistic mass media and political actors instead.

The roots of social intolerance have always been lying in the ways salient events – e.g., economic crises, peace treaties, migration flows, everyday tragedies – have been framed for contingent political purposes. Social media are the stage where the cynical politicisation of news stories is systematically enacted and, then, amplified by click-baiting media outlets.

Three years after Paris terrorist attacks, cases like #refugeeswelcome are more and more common. The demolition of EU is currently the major aim of European populist leaders like Salvini, who successfully exploits social media not only as key communication channels, but also as real-time sources of data about political opinion trends. Social media can be used to promote social and political change, as the recent case of #metoo and the early phase of #refugeeswelcome witness. If they often don’t, it is because the industrial production and distribution of hate is a major political business in our unequal and datafied societies. Understanding how to repair the rigged game of democracy in the age of populism and online platforms is, therefore, an urgent priority.

Massimo Airoldi, emlyon business school

I am a sociologist and professor at emlyon business school, Lifestyle Research Center. My main research interests are: social media platforms, algorithms, taste, consumption, digital methods.

More information on Massimo Airoldi:
• His CV online
• His ResearchGate page
• His Academia page


Further readings…

  • Barisione M., Michailidou A., Airoldi M. (2018). Understanding a digital movement of opinion : the case of #RefugeesWelcome. Information, Communication & Society, forthcoming. DOI 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1410204.
    Read abstract online

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