Hating Muslims Online

January 19, 2016

Are there any boundaries for what you can say online - or can you unleash your personal repulsions without further ado?

-  Muslims are barbarian! 

- Muslims are rapists and criminals!

- Muslims are filthy cockroaches that feed on us!

-  Let us get rid of Muslims once and for all!

- Die Muslims, die!

Kahlid Albaih - Creative Commons

Kahlid Albaih - Creative Commons

Spreading Animosity Online

The above comments are reconstructions of the types of comments you can read in all sorts of Norwegian online environments, from Facebook page discussions, to comments to online newspaper articles. Such views are not only expressed by individuals whose identity is unknown. Many people go on record with their real identity, expressing similar intolerant attitudes to Muslims. But, can you really speak your mind (or more precisely your hatred) freely online -without being held accountable or suffering legal consequences? 

An intense and at times violent hatred for Muslims features in many contemporary online debates and across multiple online platforms. Increased tensions appear to shape the online and offline debates in many European countries. The influx of refugees and migrants from predominately Muslim countries is likely to fuel the perceived threat of Islamic dominance of Europe amongst those who frequently express their strong depreciation of Muslims online. Still, professing anti-Islamic sentiments is not identical to disseminating hatred of Muslims. There is actually a distinct difference between critiquing Islam and/or Muslims based on: theology, ideology, rituals, or social customs (be they accurately or fictitiously perceived) and - characterizing Muslims via obscenities or – classifying all Muslims as say ‘cockroaches’ or ‘rapists’. The latter type of postulate is far more offensive and hence problematic. Vile comments of this type can be considered a ‘racialist attack’ in the sense that they attribute negative traits or highly derogatory characteristics to an entire group. Still, is this type of Muslim-bashing increasing, or is it simply being exposed more?

Haters Will Be Haters?

Haters do not stand uncontested. However, this may come at a price. An interesting byproduct of hating Muslims online, is that this may go hand in hand with unleashing hateful comments to those who argue against hatred, at times in equal measure.   Politicians, comedians, online debaters, researchers - whoever dissects  hateful commentary on Muslims, may become a potential target and suddenly find themselves enmeshed in hostility or even threats of violence.  Within this polemic worldview, unless you are Muslim (scum), you can either be with us or against us, you can either be a cherished Muslim-basher or an abhorred Muslim-lover. In this sense, detesting Muslims is an expansive pass-time; It extends from hating Muslims to despising ‘Muslim-lovers’, who by extension are considered national traitors who deserve to be punished by death or other violent acts, an example of which is the case of an online debater who pronounces death upon a prominent politician (discussed below). Another example is that of the Norwegian female comedian who in response to publicly condoning a more emphatic reception of Syrian refugees, received messages along the lines of: 'So you support refugees? Let’s check in with you after a pack of Somalis rape you. You deserve to be raped.’ There is a lot to be said about this type of antagonistic and aggressive comments. Here, I simply want to illustrate that anyone who publicly expresses a positive attitude to refugees, immigrants or Muslims runs the potential risk of being included in the target group of haters, and thus bombarded with hateful comments themselves

Giving Hatred a Name

Are there any boundaries for what you can say online? When is a hateful or Muslim-bashing comment something you can be held legally accountable for?

Some of the online loathing of Muslims is put forward anonymously, but anonymous online spaces are shrinking. Abhorrent comments about Muslims are therefore often posted by people who do not conceal their true identity. Faced with what appears to be a wave of online hatred in Norway, a number of journalists have cornered and confronted individuals with their hateful Tweets and comments from Facebook or online newspaper-comments. Some of those approached by journalists do not seem overly concerned about the consequences of what they have said online, and appear unperturbed at the prospect of giving hatred a name. This seems to be the case with several of those interviewed as part of an investigative journalistic project called Meet the Online Warriors published in the Norwegian daily VG. Giving hatred a name is perhaps more understandable in the case of the ‘reformed hater’ who when confronted with his previous Muslim-bashing commentaries expressed remorse and embarrassment over his previous comments. He went on to explain, how his views on immigrants and Muslims had become far more positive after a refugee reception center was set up close to where he lives. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a so-called 'online warrior' expressed absolutely no remorse when confronted with her comment stating that a named politician ought to pay with his life for his role in misguided immigration politics. Dedication to the cause, may in other words lead some online debaters to repeatedly go on record with their hateful comments.

Many of those who profess their hatred of Muslims do so without concealing their identity. But, do they always understand the consequences? Going on record with hostile comments about Muslims may at times have to do with perceptions of privacy. That is, many debaters may consider themselves in a private space, because they are expressing their views in a closed Facebook group of likeminded thinkers (or haters). An example of this is the case of a young woman who expressed herself freely in a closed Facebook group called ‘Norway is Ours’ this autumn, only to be shocked that her derogatory utterances about Muslims were considered public, and leaked to the news.

Blurring the Lines of Privacy and Accountability

Scientific studies about online forums suggest that many of those who participate in online debates consider themselves to be in a private, or semi-private environment, even if the group is in fact public and accessible to anyone interested. This is why most internet researchers abide by strict ethical codes that take into consideration the blurry lines between private and public spaces in the imaginations of those who share their views online. In consequence, internet researchers will often only quote from online forums after obtaining informed consent from the person who made the comment. However, in Norway, journalistic guidelines on how to quote from online spaces differ from the ethical guidelines of researchers conducting research online. In fact, journalists can quote and report from online environments that are classified as ‘closed’, in ways that researchers cannot. Let’s revisit the example of the Facebook group ’Norway is Ours’. My contention is that the fact that ’Norway is Ours’ is defined as a 'closed group’ on Facebook may (mis)lead participants into believing that they are expressing themselves in a private space. However, for journalistic purposes, the inference that online debaters view the space as ‘private’ is less relevant than the fact that the group has more than 3000 members, which changes the definition of the group to public. By extension, everything uttered in an online group of that size (and in fact groups much smaller) is quotable in media reports. It is unlikely that all those who participate in Muslim-bashing online are aware that they may be held publicly accountable for their views. It is also worth noting that the legal aspects of expressing hatred online are gaining attention.

Hating Online - a Public Offence?

The legal interpretation of Norwegian Criminal Law on 'hateful utterances' (Chapter 20, § 185) now includes online utterances in the definition of ‘public', if it is likely that the utterance has spread to many people. Closed online groups with thousands of members or participants fall within this definition of public in a legal understanding. This means that hating online can be considered a public offence and can be punishable by law with up to 3 years imprisonment.

Hence, hating online in the legal and journalistic sense is seldom a ‘private' endeavor which you cannot be held accountable for. Now that you can potentially be tried for your online utterances and held accountable way beyond a phone call from a determined journalist, will this change online spaces? So far, the shift from anonymous comments to comments with full name in connection with Norwegian newspapers does not seem to have stirred those who wish to share hateful comments in any noteworthy way. People with a fully disclosed identity continue to express derogatory comments about Muslims in online newspaper comments and debates, and elsewhere. Do online debaters still subconsciously think they are in an anonymous space, much like the blurred lines between private and public described above?  Are haters still being dictated by previous online practices when the technology to a larger degree allowed for haters anonymous?

Recently, we have seen a rise in the legal prosecution of online hatred, the effects of which are too early to determine. It remains to be seen whether the new realities of legal punishment will gradually curb online practices and modes of hating Muslims, or whether the most dedicated haters will continue to give hatred a name.