Does Twitter bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide or make it worse?

Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Jan. 2. (MOHAMMADREZA NADIMI/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric on Jan. 2 sparked a sectarian firestorm across the Arab world. Protests erupted, a Saudi embassy was ransacked and several Sunni Arab states have severed diplomatic ties with Iran.

As the aftershocks of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr’s death reverberate across the region, sectarian tensions have flared on social media as well. From fiery sermons to diplomatic spars, Twitter is abuzz with derogatory anti-Shiite and anti-Sunni rhetoric. According to data I collected at New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab, almost 900,000 Arabic tweets containing anti-Shiite slurs and 30,000 containing anti-Sunni slurs were sent across the Arab Twittersphere in the two days following al-Nimr’s death.

Tweeting sectarian hate speech may seem inconsequential in the face of mounting regional crisis. But mainstream use of dehumanizing rhetoric threatens minority populations, breeds domestic instability and lends credibility to extremist narratives like those advanced by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Arab and Iranian political elites and clerics have long used divisive sectarian language to discredit opposition and shore up domestic support. But in the age of social media, these messages can now spread virally and reach across borders to global audiences.

Following the escalation of the Syrian civil war in 2012, clerics and political leaders began to adopt the derogatory language used by militia leaders and fighters in Iraq and Syria. Today, sectarian hate speech is disseminated by these trusted religious and political elites online. As their messages reach millions of followers on social media, they gain unprecedented traction. In this climate, language that was once limited to fringe extremists has become mainstream.

Results of a recent study that I conducted for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace using data from NYU’s SMaPP lab, reveals the role diverse actors play in the proliferation of sectarian language—particularly in the aftermath of violent events. Using big data to study sectarianism in the Arab Twittersphere gives us new perspective on how popular hate speech spreads.

An analysis of more than 7 million Arabic tweets containing sectarian rhetoric suggests that a wide variety of Twitter users influence the spread of derogatory sectarian language online, including prominent clerics, Shiite militia leaders, supporters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, influential Gulf businessmen, popular media outlets and average Arab “tweeps.” Hate speech becomes especially widespread when levels of sectarian fighting escalate. The Carnegie study shows that upticks in violence — most notably in Iraq and Yemen — play a key role in driving the use of derogatory language on Twitter. The figures below show the daily volume of Arabic tweets containing anti-Shiite and anti-Sunni rhetoric between February and August 2015 (the period of analysis in the Carnegie paper).

It seems diplomatic crises and mass protests can have a similar effect. In the days following al-Nimr’s execution, sectarian hate speech has spiked dramatically as #The King’s Blood for al-Nimr’s, and other violent hashtags have gone viral.

In the Gulf Arab states, as influential clerics, politicians, media outlets and prominent citizens drive the popularity of sectarian rhetoric online, they also stoke fears in marginalized Shiite populations. This threatens domestic political stability in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, where restive Shiite populations face varying degrees of repression and subjugation under Sunni rule. ٍIn Iraq, where Sunni mosques were just attacked in apparent retaliation for al-Nimr’s death, violent sectarian rhetoric is similarly troubling.

The spread and endorsement of anti-Shiite hate speech by mainstream Arab elites and average citizens also lends credibility to the extremist ideology of the Islamic State, which has gained unprecedented success online, disseminating its messages and luring recruits.

Social media is now engaged in a war of narratives. The continued spread of intolerance and religious hatred through Twitter and other new media bolsters the Islamic State’s claim that it is the only viable option to prevent the murder and repression of “true”—read, Sunni—Muslims.

Sectarian rhetoric on Twitter is not confined to the Arab World. Tweets containing derogatory sectarian language also come from the United States, Europe, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Given the Islamic State’s success in recruiting foreign fighters — an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 have traveled to Iraq and Syria since fighting broke out in 2011 — the transcontinental popularity of sectarian rhetoric (shown in the map below from the Carnegie study) seems particularly dangerous.

Sunni and Shiite clerics and political elites alike frequently assert that they are committed to defeating the Islamic State. However, when a government affiliated Saudi cleric with millions of Twitter followers spreads violent anti-Shiite rhetoric or Iran’s supreme leader calls for “divine revenge” on the Saudis, violent sectarian rhetoric is normalized.

Despite these rather grim trends, social media has also provided valuable opportunities for communication and cooperation across religious and ideological lines.

As the Arab Spring protests swept the region in 2011, Sunni and Shiite activists in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia tried — albeit unsuccessfully — to use Twitter and Facebook to bridge religious divides and unite in opposition to their respective regimes.

More recently, following attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait last spring, global online campaigns condemning sectarian violence emerged. As the Carnegie study suggests, calls for cross-sectarian cooperation were particularly common in the immediate aftermath of these attacks. For example, in the aftermath of the bombing of a Kuwaiti Shia mosque on June 26, 2015, the viral hashtag #Before_you_blow_yourself_up was used to mock suicide bombers and to call for national unity.

The ongoing “You Stink” protests in Lebanon, which began in late August and were largely organized online, have also taken on a strong counter-sectarian flavor. As activists have joined together across religious lines to protest corruption and a lack of social services provided by the Lebanese government, social media has helped them gain traction and international recognition.

While social media is often criticized for producing echo chambers that amplify extremist voices, the Carnegie study also shows that people tweeting sectarian and counter-sectarian messages actively engage with one another online. By providing opportunities for heated debate among diverse religious communities, social media opens up new lines of communication. Even in the aftermath of al-Nimr’s execution, as Sunni-Shia tensions soar both on and offline, we still see calls on Twitter to end sectarian discourse.

Today, as the region faces its highest levels of sectarian tension and violence in decades, understanding the factors that drive and mitigate the use of derogatory sectarian rhetoric online is particularly important. When sectarian narratives are propagated on social media by trusted religious and political leaders and gain mainstream acceptance—particularly in the aftermath of violent events—discriminatory attitudes can become more deeply entrenched and extremist ideologies gain more traction.

In largely nondemocratic Arab societies, where ruling families and religious leaders have often used sectarian narratives to weaken their political opponents and potential challengers, the popularization of sectarian attitudes can have significant consequences for authoritarian durability, political reform and support for extremist groups.

Although the emergence of cross-sectarian dialogue in the online sphere is promising, as long as sectarian violence backed to varying degrees by Sunni Arab states and Iran continues to rage in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and as long as Gulf leaders continue to see sectarian divisions and national threats as politically convenient means of suppressing opposition, sectarian narratives will likely retain a great deal of power.

While addressing these root causes of sectarian tension in the Arab world is a monumental and likely generational task, gaining a better understanding of how sectarian discourse escalates and spreads over time may be a useful place to start.

Alexandra Siegel is a graduate student researcher in the New York University Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab and a PhD candidate in Wilf Family Department of Politics at NYU.

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