To explore this question, we carried out a unique analysis of Twitter responses, in Arabic and English, to the Feb. 10, 2015, shooting of three Muslim American students in their Chapel Hill, N.C., apartment. Those killings, whatever their real motivation, sparked a furious online debate as to whether the gunman was motivated by hate. Within hours, the hashtag #ChapelHillShooting was used more than 900,000 times on Twitter and was trending in the United States, Britain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries – a similar Arabic hashtag for Chapel Hill was employed, but it only generated 33,000 tweets.
We then used the social media analysis firm Crimson Hexagon to analyze Twitter responses to these events, following a methodology employed for an analysis of anti-Americanism for a forthcoming article in the journal Perspectives on Politics. We first conducted a qualitative assessment, separately, of Arabic-language tweets from the Middle East and English-language tweets from the United States, followed by a quantitative analysis of key trends and themes.
Four key themes emerged from the qualitative analysis of Twitter discourse about the Chapel Hill incident. The first theme was that of sheer sadness and grief about the loss of life of three young students.
Second, there was a theme of anger and outrage generated by what was perceived as a lack of media coverage of the crime. This theme is evident in the development of the #Muslimlivesmatter hashtag (borrowing from the #Blacklivesmatter hashtag that emerged in response to events in Ferguson, Mo., in summer 2014). This reaction also included a perceived bias in media coverage because the media (and law enforcement) did not refer to the crime as a hate crime nor label the perpetrator a terrorist.
Third, there were calls for collective action that included vigils, protests and donations in support of the victims and projects they cared about – like Syrian refugee assistance.
Finally, only in the English, U.S. tweets, we found some negative posts against Islam and Muslims. Generally, these tweets argued directly or indirectly that Muslims deserved punishment or were hypocrites.
Based on this qualitative assessment, we then carried out a quantitative analysis of Twitter feeds in English and Arabic for the period of Feb. 9-24, 2015, encompassing all tweets with #ChapelHillShooting. We constructed four categories: collective action, mourning and tributes, bias and hypocrisy and news. In the English monitor, we added a fifth category that captured negative responses toward the victims or Islam.
To what extent were the English, U.S. Twitter responses diametrically opposed from the Arabic, Middle East ones? Not much at all. Instead, Arabic Twitter responses from the Middle East on the whole resembled English responses from the United States. Of Arabic tweets in the Middle East, 58 percent claimed that coverage of and reactions to the Chapel Hill incident were hypocritical and biased. A similar 56 percent of English, U.S. Twitter activity claimed the same. Eight percent of Arabic tweets expressed grief and mourning. This was only slightly more than the 5 percent in the English Twitter activity, but in both cases this response is a small percentage of the total. There is somewhat of a larger difference in calls for collective action: While 12 percent of the Arabic Twitter public called for collective action in response to the Chapel Hill shooting, only 8 percent of the English tweets did the same. Yet these percentages are still not dramatically different. There is a large difference, however, in that 8 percent of English, U.S. tweets communicated negative statements against the victims, Islam and/or Muslims, whereas our analysis found no such tweets in Arabic. See Figures 1a and 1b (below).
In other words, at least online, there does not seem to be an overarching, irreconcilable civilizational divide between the “Islamic” and “Western” Twitter publics. In general, the vast majority of Twitter activity in the United States and the Middle East revealed remarkable similarity in reactions to the Chapel Hill shootings.
There is one potential objection to the inference that these data demonstrate relatively little difference between the reactions of the American and Middle Eastern publics to the Chapel Hill shootings and the media coverage of them. To some extent, Arab and Muslim Americans may have been driving the levels of sympathy and outrage among the U.S.-based, English speaking Twitter public. Arab and Muslim Americans were vocal on Twitter during this period, and Twitter posts on this topic do not come from a representative sample of the U.S. public. But it remains that negative tweets constitute only 8 percent of all English tweets from the United States. It would be unjustified to conclude that there is a sharp civilizational divide in the Twitter universe. Assumptions about civilizational conflict may be driven by the strength and volume of negative voices, but they are not supported by data about the general English speaking American Twitter public.
Amaney Jamal is the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics at Princeton University as well as director of the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and the Workshop on Arab Political Development. Robert O. Keohane is a professor of international affairs at Princeton University. David Romney is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University. Dustin Tingley is the Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy in the department of government at Harvard University.