Notre Dame Fire Conspiracies Are Fuelling Islamophobia – And Social Media Companies Are Enabling Them

It would be easy to dismiss those spreading racial hatred as fringe actors if some were not rewarded with verified social media accounts, mainstream media appearances, or political normalisation.
THOMAS SAMSON via Getty Images

The natural response to any tragedy, be it collective or individual, is to express anguish, sorrow, and solidarity, but as the tragic fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral showed, some see tragedy as an opportunity to further Islamophobic conspiracies.

This tactic is neither new nor surprising. And, crucially, this weaponisation of grief is never about the tragedy itself, but how Muslims are viewed: as a cultural threat to the mythologisedJudeo-Christian” culture of Europe. Something, ironically, Muslims have always been shut out of because of what academics contend is a “radical form of otherness”. This othering of Muslims is born from racialisation, a byproduct of the violent imperial expansions of Christian Europe – a Europe, which also viewed Islam and its Prophet Muhammad, in a competing contradiction of reverence.

That’s why falsehoods about Notre Dame spread on Twitter within one hour of the news breaking.

This misuse of history has an important function: as it situates unconnected events in a grander narrative; of civilisational decline, of an impending clash of cultures, where the struggles of individuals have become larger than themselves. Fatalism and nihilism saturate this largely male driven rage. An example, of this historiography, was in the username of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) on Snapchat, which, before his banning was “trcensored1682”, invokes the Siege of Vienna.

It would be easy to dismiss such individuals as fringe actors if some were not rewarded with verified social media accounts, mainstream media appearances, or political normalisation. How did Islamophobia, a term which continues to be argued on semantic grounds, continue to gain so much mainstream traction?

Social media can also be used to challenge such normalisation, and hold individuals to account. Tell MAMA did so yesterday, by holding those of diverging political and ideological beliefs to account, for spreading conspiracies about Notre Dame or using the tragedy to propagate Islamophobia and false arguments about civilisational struggles.

A heavy emphasis on history is not limited to ideologues or the social media Islamophobia influencers. It’s a successful political tactic of radical and far-right parties in Europe. This, for academics, is a chauvinistic form of identity politics, and speaks to a form of thinking which is rarely directly addressed. This narrow interpretive lens serves a secondary function: to target certain demographics by placing their individual interpretations of memory within the body collective of society.

At the extreme end of the far-right, this chauvinism morphs into a form of narcissism, which Professor Sara Ahmed argues is a form of “narcissistic whiteness”. She argues that such individuals seek to invert racial hatred and violence into redemptive acts, born from the love of constructed notions of whiteness and the nation-state itself – acts that are innately exclusionary. The logic of their violent ideology speaks more to the arsons of Black churches in the United States.

It should, therefore, not surprise readers to learn that a quarter of white supremacist attacks in Europe in recent years have targeted Muslims and their places of worship.

Lone wolves are, after all, rarely so alone.

The growth of hyper-partisan “news” websites contribute to toxic public discourses and feed corrosive echo chambers online.

Years ago, despite its cynicism at mainstream politics, traditional forms of satirical news, which academics described as “fake news”, were grounded in an altruistic desire to further public engagement in politics as active and informed citizens. It sticks to traditional journalistic moral commitments that adhere to our democratic values. The desire was not to mislead or stoke Islamophobia and racial hatred.

One immediate solution is to hold social media platforms to account and to question how so-called satirical accounts of mainstream news outlets like CNN, mislead the public following the Notre Dame Cathedral fire. To question as to why individuals like Katie Hopkins, who boasts close to one million followers, continues to benefit from a verification badge, despite innumerate examples of her conduct falling far below what the platforms themselves deem acceptable. It should not take copyright infringements to remove such inflammatory and hateful content.

Another solution involves add-ons for web browsers which are designed to spot “fake news”. The bigger, wider, and transformative struggle is improving media literacy and critical thinking skills. The above solutions, can at least, in the short term, create counter-narratives.


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