A honeycomb of echo chambers? Twitter’s response to the Munich attack

On the 22nd July an 18-year old man armed with a semi-automatic pistol shot and killed nine strangers outside a Munich shopping mall. The genuine motives in attacks like this can often be hard to judge, but some facts were immediately clear. The shooter never claimed to be a practicing Muslim or to have carried out the attack in the name of the Islamic faith. Instead, it seems to be a murky, complex mixture of mental instability, an obsession with mass school shootings, and anti-Turkish German nationalism. Religion didn’t feature.

Terrorist attacks, like lots of other important events, now have a digital aftermath to them. They provoke big reactions in the online world, as people share information about the attack, try to make sense of it, work out its causes, and what needs to be done. People are – understandably – angry and upset in the wake of seemingly senseless killings, and many also take to social media to find someone to blame, and blame them.

Naturally, this blame and anger can take a number of different forms; anger directed towards Islamic State, at the situation in Syria and Iraq, at the policies of a number of different countries, and, of course, towards the terrorists themselves are all common. But over the last few months, our work at Demos has also identified a large number of general attacks on the Muslim population in the wake an Islamist-inspired attack.

New research we published last month identified the highest volume of hateful anti-Muslim Tweets in July since the project started in March. The paper finds that terrorist attacks are one of the most common drivers of spikes of sometimes very hateful and derogatory descriptions of Muslims and Islam. Following both the Brussels and Nice terror attacks, the number of anti-Muslim Tweets flagged by our algorithms tripled in volume. Generalised hatred of Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks is a worrying kind of reaction; driving wedges between Muslims and the rest of us, fuelling suspicion and intolerance.

But the online reaction to the Munich attacks exposed another: hate directed at Muslim communities in the wake of terrorist incidents perpetrated by people who have nothing to do with Islam, even in their own eyes.

As news of the Munich Attack broke, the volume of abuse directed at Muslims swelled on Twitter. These Tweets were generally underpinned by two assumptions; that Islamist terrorist groups must be responsible for any act of terrorism in the news, and that subsequently the Islamic faith – including its adherents – were directly to blame for the resulting deaths. By 8pm that evening, Twitter users were posting one anti-Muslim Tweet every four seconds. Underneath the big numbers, here are some very nasty examples:

“@xxx What to do about all these terrorist attacks happening in Europe by Muslims? Close down every mosque and all sympathisers have to leave”

“@[MunichPolice] Stay safe and kill as many Allah Akbah-ing “peaceful” terrorist pigs as you can”

“Munich terrorist yelled Allahu-Akbar as he shot at kids – this is the true face of Islam”

The anti-Muslim backlash on Twitter to the Munich Attacks was not as substantial as those that followed Brussels and Nice. Despite the fact that the attacker was not a radical Islamist – but motivated in all likelihood by far-right ideology – managed to trigger an instant spike in anti-Muslim language demands probing. At the heart of the reaction was a knee-jerk equation of public acts of violence with Islam.

The number of hate crimes recorded this July, most of which were committed against visible minorities, was 58 percent higher than the equivalent period in 2015. And yet, racism and intolerance are not unique to this age. What is different this time, however, is the role that new and frequently misunderstood digital platforms play in fostering the torrent of abuse and vitriol.

At least in recent times, society feels like it’s getting more divided: hate crimes are increasing, as well as suspicion and intolerance between people from different religious and racial backgrounds.

Social media is partly to blame for this. The Twitter reaction to Munich reflected an attitude that Twitter had itself, in part, helped to create. Why? Because platforms like Twitter have the dangerous side effect of encouraging users to see the world through the prism of their own assumptions, rather than providing a space for those thoughts to be challenged.

Sometimes this tendency to reinforce the ideological unity of a group can have positive implications. It wasn’t that long ago that social media was heralded as the saviour of democracy – one of the digital era’s revolutionary triumphs, playing an instrumental role in liberating populations from oppressive regimes; indeed, in 2011, the fall of Mubarak’s thirty-year rule over Egypt in just eighteen days was attributed to Twitter.

In the past five years however, as social media has become more intrinsically involved in our daily lives, it has become apparent that it is not inherently twinned to any particular set of values – liberal or reactionary – and can give momentum to basically any populist sentiment. By making it easier for citizens to digitally connect with their like-minded counterparts, the Internet reminds people that they’re not the only ones dissenting from the mainstream, and makes them more confident to act on their beliefs.

During the Arab Spring this configuration may have empowered pro-democracy activists, but there is no reason why precisely the same mechanisms wouldn’t be engaged by a rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice.

For precisely the same reasons that social media can be a boon to democratic activism, it can also foster the spread of hateful and bigoted speech. The power to create and share information with the tap of a finger makes it easier for non-facts to circulate as truths and escape challenge as such. Receiving instant notifications as news events occur means that we are presented with unfolding stories whose gaps we are forced to fill, more and more, with our own unavoidable preconceptions and tainted assumptions.

The complete and total choice over what media we engage with also means that the people and groups whom we follow on Twitter or like on Facebook, and the algorithms that rank their appearance on our news feeds, may one day usurp the editors of national news organisations as the ultimate mediators of our perception of the outside world.

Collectively, these individual mechanisms can end up curating hyper-personalised digital experiences – creating what researchers call online ‘echo chambers’ – which shield their users from dissenting points of view. A recent study has demonstrated how aggressively false information can linger within Facebook echo chambers, and the World Economic Forum counts the resultant ‘digital wildfires’ of mass disinformation as one of the greatest threats faced by human society.

Relative to the total number of Tweets posted globally every hour, the number of Tweets seeking to blame the Munich Attacks on Islam or Muslims more generally was thankfully small. And yet, the Twittersphere’s response to the Munich Attacks proves that the Internet does not always leave us more connected – at least not socially. Unlike other media platforms, online communities are heavily insulated from mainstream political discourse, making it trickier to directly engage with them and challenge their misrepresentations through public debate. It’s why it’s possible for a narrative based on false assumptions, like that any act of violence committed by someone with a Middle-Eastern sounding name must speak to the essence of the Islamic faith, is able to spread like digital wildfire without any central coordination.

When the political mood sours, the Internet has the power to erode our sense of collective identity as much as it has to unite us.

It turns out it falls on all of us to stop the Internet from becoming a honeycomb of discrete echo chambers. We each have a duty to try and burst out of them, and help others burst out of their own echo chambers. This is never more important than amidst the confusion, panic and fear that immediately follows an attack, the moment when we need reasoned debate the most. It’s not enough to denounce prejudice from the editorial pages, radio waves, and political chat shows – citizens now have to challenge hate speech online as well. This means ensuring the things we share on social media aren’t only seen by friends who already agree with us, and likewise following and engaging with those whose views don’t necessarily align with our own. Ultimately, we all need to start taking digital literacy more seriously. We need to act in a way that keeps the Internet a place of lively digital debate, remembering that our moral obligation to call out hate speech when we see it online is just as strong as it is when we hear it in the office or on the doorstep.