Westminster Bridge attack, 2017
Our second case study focuses on a single photograph taken by freelance photojournalist Jamie Lorriman in the aftermath of the Westminster Bridge attack. This photograph shows a Muslim woman wearing hijab walking past a group of people gathered around an injured person on Westminster Bridge. The woman holds her left hand to her face while looking at a mobile phone held in her other hand (Figure 19.2). This photograph was one of a series uploaded by Lorriman to the picture agency Rex Features, which then supplied it to the New York Daily News to illustrate its report on the attack. From here the photograph was appropriated for circulation on social media. The case study is specifically concerned with the uploading of this photograph to Twitter by the user @SouthLoneStar, along with the accompanying message: ‘Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #Pray ForLondon#Westminster#BanIslam’. This tweet was retweeted thousands of times and widely reported in the UK press. This press coverage reported on the negative responses of other social media users to the Islamophobia of @SouthLoneStar’s tweeting of Lorriman’s photograph. This coverage was underpinned by the assumption that @SouthLoneStar was the account of an actual North American holding overtly right-wing and Islamophobic views. This assumption was reasonable at the time, given that @SouthLoneStar’s profile photograph depicted a young white man wearing a Stetson hat, with an accompanying profile description that stated ‘Proud TEXAN and AMERICAN patriot’. However, this matter was complicated in November 2017, when it was revealed that @SouthLoneStar was a fictitious user operated by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) for the purpose of spreading disinformation to Russia’s international benefit. This further development in the story of @SouthLoneStar’s tweet was itself widely reported in the UK press.
Taken at face value, @SouthLoneStar’s tweet of Lorriman’s photograph appears to be a straightforward example of racist disinformation. The tweet explicitly directs the viewer to interpret the photograph as showing a Muslim woman’s indifference to the violent aftermath of a terrorist attack and to understand that the woman is indifferent because she is a Muslim. @SouthLoneStar’s tweet is also easy to identify as intentionally misleading. Lorriman’s photographs of the Muslim woman walking past the group of people around a victim on Westminster Bridge on the Rex Features website are all captioned ‘Sequence frame showing a woman visibly distressed passing the scene of the terrorist incident on Westminster Bridge, London’.’ This reveals a clear disjunction between what Lorriman himself presumably wrote about his photograph and what @SouthLoneStar asserts that it shows. However, as with the ‘Breaking Point’ poster, analysis of @SouthLoneStar’s tweet as an example of disinformation should not stop here. There is a need not only to examine how @SouthLoneStar’s tweet misrepresented Lorriman’s photograph and how this misrepresentation was informed by Islamophobic ideas but also to contextualise the tweet in terms of IRA disinformation practices.
The IRA has operated on Twitter since at least 2012 (Farkas & Bastos 2018), enabling them to develop a sophisticated framework for sowing disinformation, which involves both automated and human-operated accounts (Dawson & Innes 2019). These accounts align with highly partisan beliefs and engage both with genuine users and with each other, simulating fabricated conflict to generate artificial divisions. The IRA targeted the UK especially heavily in 2017 (Howard et al. 2018), with its disinformation campaigns being focused on the series of terrorist attacks that occurred that year, starting with the Westminster Bridge attack. Innes (2020) has observed that IRA accounts specifically targeted the immediate aftermaths of these attacks with ‘right-wing, anti-Islam’sentiments with the aim of sowing ‘antagonism and anxiety’ (12). In relation to this context, Innes also specifically discusses @SouthLoneStar, noting that this account and several others were ‘constructed around overtly politically right-wing, Southern state, President Trump supporting’personas (12).
The point about these personas is that they were manufactured out of already-existing rightwing identities and existing chauvinistic and racist discourses. @SouthLoneStar’s tweet of Lorriman’s photograph in particular tapped into long-standing media tropes about Muslim women that frame them in terms of fundamentalism and terror (Ahmed & Matthes 2017; Bullock & Jafri 2000; Werbner 2007) and identify female Muslim practices of head covering and ‘veiling’ as forms of ‘Islamic aggression’ (Perry 2014, 83). The latter is significant because it was the presence of the woman’s headscarf in Lorriman’s photograph that enabled the image to be refrained in Islamophobic terms. Coming from an IRA-operated account, @SouthLoneStar’s tweets were not sincere expressions of an authentic right-wing populist identity. Nevertheless, these tweets mobilised sentiments shared with actual right-wing populists, meaning that they involved a kind of fabricated sincerity that is difficult to distinguish from genuine expressions of a rightwing subjectivity. This fabricated sincerity was essential to the function of @SouthLoneStar’s tweet as disinformation and for the IRA’s objective of sowing political division. It was this tapping into existing Islamophobic constructions of racial difference and the political antagonisms to which they relate that enabled @SouthLoneStar’s tweet to become highly visible on social media and, from there, to gain extensive mainstream media coverage, significantly increasing its reach. It is also important to note the @SouthLoneStar’s framing of Lorriman’s photograph, and thus the event that it represents, also continues to be highly visible in search engines. It is these multiple reframings and complex online and offline journeys of the image across various mediums that complicate any analysis but are crucial to emphasise before this chapter concludes.