Islamophobia versus places of worship: How one community fought back against disinformation 

6 February 2023  

By: Zahed Amanullah, ISD Senior Fellow

For the past two decades, mosques – particularly ones that are new or proposed – have increasingly served as focal points for Islamophobia in North America and Europe. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001 and subsequent attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005), nativist and far-right groups have mobilised with increasing fervour against Muslims (and immigrants more broadly) and the establishment of new houses of worship in countries with Muslim minorities.  

The most notable protest against a proposed mosque in the past 20 years was Park51, the “Ground Zero Mosque” in lower Manhattan (in reality, a community and event centre and prayer space modelled on the Jewish community’s 92nd Street Y). The controversy over Park51, which became a litmus test for politicians up to President Barack Obama, arguably “marked the moment a presidency like Trump’s became inevitable.” In Europe, subsequent legislative actions targeting Muslims included Switzerland’s 2009 referendum banning minarets and later bans on religious head coverings (France, Belgium, Netherlands) and ritual slaughter (Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Slovenia). 

First, let’s start with terminology. For the purposes of this study, the term Islamophobia is being used to explicitly refer to anti-Muslim hatred and not criticism and/or controversial discussions about Islam. A recent incident at Hamline University in Minnesota (US) where a professor displayed and was fired for a historic Persian depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in class illustrates why this can be problematic. Although a student characterised the incident as Islamophobic and the university’s administration concurred, national Muslim policy and advocacy organisations argued that this wasn’t the case.  

With regards to anti-Muslim hatred, ISD has noted trends spiking particularly before and during recent elections in France, Kenya, Greece, and the United States. Together with CASM Technology, ISD has used our Beam capability to analyse anti-Muslim online hate trends on a more granular level for cities like London and Melbourne. Capabilities like this give us a clearer picture of how and where online anti-Muslim hate discourse spikes.  

Figure 1: Sample Anti-Muslim Extreme Speech Dashboard from Beam for London, UK and Melbourne, Australia (courtesy ISD and CASM) 

Figure 1: Sample Anti-Muslim Extreme Speech Dashboard from Beam for London, UK and Melbourne, Australia (courtesy ISD and CASM). 

But with all the data in front of us, the question of how targeted communities respond to online harassment or worse remains. Prior to the 2020 US elections, ISD worked with several often-targeted communities (Jewish, Muslim, Latinx, and others), providing weekly trend analysis and coordinating strategies to push back against disruption and hate. The organisations then worked, independently or in coordination with each other, to produce messaging responses, adapt real-world events and meetings, flag terms of service violations or improve cybersecurity.  

Due to the breadth of attacks and responses across geographies and extremist ideologies, it’s difficult to chart a pattern of successful mobilisation by communities against online extremist mobilisation. However, individual case studies can highlight lessons that targeted communities can adapt for their own unique circumstances. 

 

Case study: A mosque in Harrogate  

Figure 2: Images from fundraising campaigns for Harrogate’s first mosque.

Figure 2: Images from fundraising campaigns for Harrogate’s first mosque.

One such example is the proposed establishment of the first mosque in Harrogate, an affluent spa town in northern England. Known for its springs, flowers and historic Victorian architecture, the Harrogate district covers an area the size of 1,300 km2 (or 500 square miles) and is home to over 160,000 residents. Unlike many other areas of Yorkshire, the largest county in the United Kingdom, Harrogate doesn’t have a mosque. 

A diverse group of Muslims began to settle in Harrogate over the past 15 years, including professionals in the medical and legal sectors, and key workers in the city’s sizeable hospitality industry. As their numbers grew, community members began raising funds for the purchase of a building to use as a mosque and community centre. The multi-year search ended in early 2022 with the purchase, subject to planning approval, of a 150-year-old derelict building of historical interest in the town centre. During its history, the building served as a hospital, a Masonic hall and a Home Guard club for war veterans and snooker hall, before becoming derelict.  

In deciding to put down roots in Harrogate, Muslim community members found the city welcoming and tolerant. However, it has also been the home of the former Chairman of the National Front for many years, and his base for further political activity as an MEP for the far-right British National Party. It was unclear how elements of the wider community would respond once a planning application for a house of worship was made public.  

‘Pre-bunking’ to build resilience to disinformation 

Figure 3: Efforts to ‘pre-bunk’ expected attacks based on planning concerns. 

Figure 3: Efforts to ‘pre-bunk’ expected attacks based on planning concerns.

Though Muslim communities in the West have become familiar with attempts to curtail the establishment of mosques, they have not always been successful in confronting them. Planning applications, particularly when made to convert the use of an existing building to a house of worship, are open to public comment and have become notoriously combative in the United States, Canada, Australia and England. Opposition, though often laced with openly Islamophobic rhetoric, is often successful due to arguments made on planning and legal issues such as noise, parking, and architectural design. 

Expecting this, Harrogate’s Muslims began a ‘pre-bunking strategy for the building in question, where anticipated arguments were addressed on social media immediately upon the planning application being made public. Pre-bunking is an attempt to get in front of disinformation by pre-emptively addressing and refuting the arguments made to a target audience before attempts are made to sway their views.  

In the case of hate speech, pre-bunking can be used to challenge explicit negative tropes. Here, it was used to challenge not only these negative tropes (e.g. grooming, disrespect for British heritage), but also legal strategies to subvert the right to a place of worship during the planning process. “A Practical Guide to Prebunking Misinformation,” recently published by the University of Cambridge, BBC Media Action and Jigsaw, is one useful resource on pre-bunking available to communities and practitioners. It highlights some of the strategies used here.  

The arguments used in this case included:  

  • Parking: Most applications fail on this technicality, pre-bunked by showing a multi-storey car park, only 50m away, empty at the time of Friday prayers, when the largest crowds would attend. 
  • Noise: Concerns about noise were addressed by declaring that no amplified sounds will be requested or allowed on site and that double-glazed windows would be installed to sound-proof the building from sounds generated inside. The entrance, where many worshipers would congregate, would be relocated to the opposite side of a neighbouring primary school for privacy, avoiding the optics over ‘grooming’ common in anti-Muslim narratives. 
  • Heritage: Concerns about insensitivity to a heritage asset were addressed by promising (in the planning application and publicly) that the building’s exterior would be restored to heritage condition, with heritage plaques on display and the existing “Home Guard Club” sign remaining intact. No minarets would be built. 
  • Community use: Concerns that the building would be for the exclusive use of a small segment of Harrogate’s communities were pre-bunked by pledges to keep the building open to the public and used for wider community services, such as assistance to the homeless and public events. 

Following this campaign, members of the public were encouraged to state their support for the application on the council’s website. This consultation process provided an evidentiary framework for decision-making by the council, which had the option of staging public hearings later. Providing a course of action such as this is otherwise known as ‘active’ pre-bunking and contributed significantly to increasing public support during the planning consultation process. 

Challenging online attacks 

Figure 4: Excerpts from a 17-minute YouTube video outlining attack strategies on planning application, including ‘dog whistle’ references to Adolf Hitler.

Figure 4: Excerpts from a 17-minute YouTube video outlining attack strategies on planning application, including ‘dog whistle’ references to Adolf Hitler.

As expected, soon after the planning application was made public, a well-known British solicitor and anti-mosque activist posted a 17-minute video to YouTube addressing the pre-bunked issues, encouraging members of the public to voice their opposition. Although his advice focused on the legal opposition addressed by pre-bunking, he clearly labels himself as an anti-mosque activist and employs dog whistle techniques against Islam and immigrants to motivate opponents.  

This primary narrative offered alleges disrespect for the Home Guard, an armed citizen militia supporting the British army during World War II. Veterans of that war and Home Guard members used the building from the 1950s to the 1980s and “would be disgusted to see their clubhouse surrendered so tamely to another invasion,” that of Muslim immigrants (according to the video), and that it shouldn’t “fall to the enemy.” References are also made to grooming, lamenting that this is “another mosque application right next door to a primary school. Why do I keep seeing that?” 

This type of online mobilisation, which clearly targets a religious minority to deprive them of rights but does not contravene existing laws, is a grey area when it comes to a platform’s terms of service. It’s also unclear if the UK’s proposed Online Harms Safety Bill, which has undergone many years of debate, could be adapted to include it. Social media platforms, in general, have wide latitude to ban content or accounts they consider “legal but harmful” – as in the case of accounts banned by Twitter and Facebook over the years, but the farthest legislation is likely to go is to fine platforms if they don’t enforce their own rules. And, of course, any bans can be reversed. 

Videos similar to the one against Harrogate’s mosque targeting other communities across the UK have remained on YouTube for many years. If content such as this has not yet breached existing terms of service, it would unlikely be removed in future despite the clear targeting of a minority community.  

This shifts the burden of response onto the community itself. 

Offline response and earned media 

Figure 5: News coverage, private communication, and social media posts following a leaflet campaign coordinated with online anti-mosque activists.

Figure 5: News coverage, private communication, and social media posts following a leaflet campaign coordinated with online anti-mosque activists.

Within weeks, many of the opposition strategies outlined in the aforementioned video found their way into an unsigned leaflet distributed across the city. Members of the public who were aware of the pre-bunking campaign and motivated by it contacted the Muslim community offering their support and copies of the flyer to share with the press.  

The leaflet campaign soon became a catalyst for media coverage across local television, radio, and newspapers. As such, it became a media opportunity to boost a counternarrative to the claims of mosque opponents. Most of the lines used for pre-bunking were reiterated during this coverage and media-trained members of the community were chosen to deliver them through interviews. Clips of this coverage were then widely shared through the community’s social media channels. 

Before the leaflet campaign against the mosque, most messages received by the council were opposed to the planning application. Following the publicity from earned media, supporters ultimately outnumbered opponents by almost 60%. By the time this happened, the 17-minute video and social media references to it vanished (though it has since returned along with a 3-minute video lament that the planning application was approved). 

Coordinating with allies and supporters 

Figure 6: Messages of support from local religious and community organisations.

Another key strategy employed by the community was to rally support from local Christian and Jewish religious and community organisations. In reality, these relationships had been nurtured for years, with local churches offering their facilities for congregational prayers. Given the publicity from anti-mosque activism, they all felt it was time to offer public support before the planning application process was closed. 

“We believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to worship,” said a statement from 22 local religious leaders supporting the establishment of a permanent Muslim house of worship. “We believe that the time is right for the creation of a permanent mosque to serve the needs of Muslims who live and work in our community.”  

Once again, all interfaith engagement was posted on social media extensively. 

FIgure 7: Social media posts outlining a former Home Guard Club member’s support.

FIgure 7: Social media posts outlining a former Home Guard Club member’s support.

Similarly, the media coverage coaxed a former Home Guard Club member to contact the community and offer his advice and assistance in renovating the building. A former architect, this member provided archival drawings and photos which the community agreed to put on display in the building once renovation was complete.  

This support became a key counternarrative to opposition claims of disrespect for English heritage and the Home Guard Club members themselves. It was heavily promoted on the community’s social media channels. 

When content moderation works 

Figure 8: Attempted protest on 5 November 2022 with posts published on Twitter and YouTube through new accounts, each suspended within 48 hours.

Figure 8: Attempted protest on 5 November 2022 with posts published on Twitter and YouTube through new accounts, each suspended within 48 hours.

In the months following the building’s purchase and planning approval, while community members were conducting emergency repairs to the building, a new protest was announced on recently created Twitter and YouTube accounts for 5 November 2022 (Guy Fawkes Day) in Harrogate’s city centre. The accounts appear to have been set up exclusively to publicise the protest and included pictures of flyers to be distributed across town and a picture of a masked individual holding the flyers in front of Harrogate’s bus station. 

A preliminary investigation by ISD determined that it was likely that this campaign was coordinated by no more than 1 or 2 individuals. There were no links to mainstream far-right accounts (particularly those opposing the application process) and very little amplification of the posts relative to the previous campaign over several days. 

With this in mind, the community and supporters appealed to Twitter and YouTube to suspend the accounts while also discouraging press coverage and counter-protests in order to avoid the “Streisand effect,” or unintentionally amplifying information. Community members again rallied privately to pull the leaflets down, with one neighbour “literally walking the dog round town with cutters in my pocket.”  

Online, both the Twitter and YouTube accounts were suspended within 48 hours due to violating rules against hateful conduct. No subsequent attempts appear to have been made to replicate the accounts. Similarly, all known posted leaflets were removed and disposed of within the same timeframe. Although there was great interest in counterprotesting by those angered by the campaign, all were discouraged from discussing the matter further. Local press were also discouraged from reporting on the story. 

It is unclear whether subsequent attempts to publicise this planned protest were made on alternate social media platforms or if additional leaflets were distributed. But in this case, disrupting the mass potential audience reach of Twitter and YouTube and local mobilisation appears to have been sufficient.  

On 5 November 2022, no one showed up to protest. 

Communication strategies 

Figure 9: Positive impact on members of the public, with one tourism director calling the outreach a “masterclass in community engagement.”

Figure 9: Positive impact on members of the public, with one tourism director calling the outreach a “masterclass in community engagement.”

In sum, responses to extremist online mobilisation depended on a communication strategy that crafted a narrative about Harrogate’s Muslims that was resilient to accusations against them. Mainstream media training and marketing strategies can be helpful, but here are some additional observations:  

  • Fill the gap: With Twitter, YouTube, Facebook/Instagram and TikTok, there are more ways than ever to fill the narrative gap that is exploited by extremists. Harrogate’s Muslims used clear, timely, and objective information in text, audio and video formats in the “pre-bunking” process to ensure that few questions would remain unanswered. One observer called it a “masterclass in community engagement.” 
  • Don’t feed the trolls: Most attacks online are intended to provoke a response. By focusing on the activities that can produce positive outcomes, such as informing the public or building collaborative relationships, you can increase resilience to extremist mobilisation. Any responses can be made without referring to (or amplifying) accusatory posts. Observers were impressed with the “dignity” and “measured and calm responses” from community accounts. 
  • Humour: Given the right circumstances, a careful dose of humour can shock supporters and opponents alike. The most shared and liked social media post from the community’s accounts was a response to a prolific and influential far-right account poking fun at Harrogate’s affluent image. It was retweeted by the same account that attacked in the first place. 

Observations 

This case provided opportunities to respond to two kinds of online mobilisation: “harmful but legal” content and “harmful and illegal” (according to a platform’s terms of service). Each opportunity allowed us to test responses that balanced on- and offline strategies to protect a targeted community.  

However, the online landscape is rapidly changing. It is unclear, for example, whether targeted harassment by suspected extremist groups or individuals would violate the terms of service for Twitter under its new management. But this case highlights a demonstrable positive benefit of enforcing current rules.  

The recent decision to drop the “harmful but legal” clause from the UK’s proposed Online Safety Bill puts the onus on social media platforms to determine the red lines for implicit and explicit targeting of communities and individuals, without fear of punitive action from a regulator. This discretion will depend on case studies such as this which demonstrate clear offline consequences to allowing such content to remain online.  

The EU’s Digital Services Act, which entered into force last November and will have enforcement mechanisms in place this year, goes a step further and requires public reports and transparency on content moderation where cases like this will have to be addressed. Although this will be limited to the European Union, the market size and potential fines could allow it to become a benchmark. 

Aside from legislation, the importance of clear, coordinated public communication is paramount. Extremist groups rely on filling narrative vacuums for targeted communities and countering this requires a coordinated understanding of online trends, technologies, and offline communication and marketing strategies. Additionally, the US-based Institute for Policy Research and Understanding (ISPU) has published a guide specifically for anti-mosque opposition with useful tips. 

With the data we’re now able to collect on the use of social media platforms to target hateful or threatening messages to specific communities, we now need to build response frameworks and resources that those communities can use and adapt for their particular circumstances. These solutions need to also be implementable in as close to real-time as possible. Finally, we need policy recognition of this targeting as a problem. Despite calls for this to happen, and promises that it will be done, it is still lacking. 

By testing the applications of – and interplays between – forthcoming legislation by governments, content moderation by social media platforms, and counternarrative responses from targeted communities themselves, we can all work toward an equilibrium where human rights are protected, and disruption and harassment – and potentially violence – minimised. 

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