In the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, social media reaction was immediate and deafening. Millions of people added a French flag transparency to their Facebook profile pictures. Thousands of people shared a drawing by the French artist Jean Jullien.
And a whole lot of people immediately began pointing fingers at Muslims and immigrants — in the U.S., anyway.
These are the findings of a study published yesterday by two computer scientists at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, a nonprofit research center that works with Google and Microsoft, among other U.S. firms. The researchers collected 8.5 million tweets sent about the Paris attacks in the 50 hours after they occurred, then narrowed that pool down to English-language tweets that referenced refugees and migrants.
After analyzing a representative sample of the tweets, the researchers conclude that pro- and anti-refugee messages are roughly equal. But while pro-refugee tweets came from all over the world and were generally apolitical, the anti-refugee messages frequently invoked religion, were sent on partisan hashtags like #tcot and #impeachobama — and originated, overwhelmingly, in America.
In fact, of the anti-refugee tweets after Paris, 68 percent were sent from the U.S. The country with the next highest share of anti-refugee tweets was the U.K., at a mere 7 percent.
What does this tell us, exactly? Well, at least a few things we already knew: Anti-Muslim sentiment is unusually high in the U.S. (according to one recent poll, as high as 55 percent) and conservative Americans are particularly vocal and active on Twitter (last year, #tcot was the top political hashtag on the social network).
But the study also complicates the fantastically uncomplicated, feel-good picture we have of so-called “social media solidarity”: the waves of goodwill memes and #prayersfor___ that follow most major tragedies. And that’s, well — kind of depressing! There are precious few times when the Internet feels like an unfractured community: a group of people consciously sharing the same space, and not merely coexisting on the same online platforms out of necessity.
There is some good news in all this, at least: While the study found that anti-refugee and Islamophobic tweets were generally pretty bottom-up — in other words, more tweets were sent, but by fewer people — it also found that the top pro-refugee tweets were retweeted by far more Twitter users. Of all the tweets about refugees sent after the attacks, in fact, the paper finds that this one by Dan Holloway circulated farthest:
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