According to Siapera et al. (2015), the information flows that characterise online narrative and counter-narrative formation are propelled by affective investment. There has been a growth of interest in ‘digital affect culture’ (Evolvi 2019, 4; Wahl-Jorgensen 2019; Papacharissi 2015) and, in particular, the relationship between mediated emotional politics and the rise of populism and nationalism, evidenced by political shocks such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Multiple studies show how hashtags can be used as an ideological and organising tool for harnessing collective power (#BlackLivesMatter, #Ferguson, #Baltimoreuprising, and #myN-YPD) to raise the visibility of alternative narratives in relation to marginalised groups. However, again, the combination of affective engagement — or ‘collective affect’ (Abdel-Fadil 2019) — and the tightly clustered networks described earlier have also advantaged right-wing groups. Several studies note how the emotional tenor of Twitter is dominated by ‘rage’ (Sills 2017; Evolvi 2019). According to Wahl-Jorgensen (2019), for instance, right-wing populist groups use anger strategically (and performatively) to mobilise support through discursively constructed grievances as well as enemies, forming ‘affective frames’ for their arguments (Jackson and Foucault-Wells 2019). Some individuals, defined as ‘stokers’ by Jackson and Foucault-Wells (2019) in their analysis of the networked publics circulating #Baltimoreriots, are especially influential in this respect.
Muslims have been a particular target for this kind of hostility (see Poole 2016) and while, as outlined earlier, Twitter has opened a degree of space for anti-Islamophobic counter-narratives, it has also enabled the spread of hate speech. Drawing on Moufle (2013), for instance, Evolvi (2019) argues that Twitter engenders ‘antagonistic’ interactions that limit democratic participation by seeking to exclude Muslims rather than include them in debate. Her studies of #Islam-exit (Evolvi 2018) and #Brexit (2019) demonstrate how Muslims avoid confrontation with Islamophobic users.1 This was also evident in our analysis of #stoplslam, in which any attempts at rational debate or even defensive communications by Muslims or ‘would-be allies’ were worn down by the tactical interventions of the right.
Discursive strategies and tactical interventions
Providing alternative frames is a key strategy for digital activists, as a number of studies have found, notably Jackson and Foucault-Welles’s work on racial justice hashtags (2015, 2016, 2019; see also Jackson with Freelon et al. 2018). In the case of #Baltimoreuprising, #Ferguson, and #myNYPD, they argue that a key strategy of networked counter-publics is to shift mainstream debates about racial politics using collective power (i.e. ‘network framing’). In their case studies, some of the discursive strategies used by activists (from different political positions) in the face of conflict included retweeting posts in line with their own ideologies to ‘crowd out’alternative views, engagement to reconcile difference (though this was more limited), and appropriation, particularly in the case of #myNYPD.
In our own work, we suggest that the approaches used by key actors in mediated activism often serve as ‘tactical interventions’ (Giraud 2018; Poole et al. 2020), wherein users attempt ‘to interfere in complex communication ecologies by modulating the affordances of particular media, a sort of digital weapon of the weak intended to counteract the growing power differentials in this realm’ (Lezaun 2018, 224). In the case of #stoplslam, for example, activists were able to circumvent power-law effects that tend to give prominence to already well-connected actors and hegemonic opinions, but, again, populist groups used similar tactics and, indeed, were often more successful. Schradie (2019) argues that having a single message about freedom, along with more hierarchical structures, enables the right to be more effective and consolidate power (whereas we found that the topics of counter-narratives tended to be somewhat more diverse).
In the case of #stoplslam, for instance, although the most prominent retweets circulating with this hashtag were counter-narratives (supporting Muslims), the way they were framed generated tensions that undermined their aims (Poole et al. 2020). Most of the counter-narratives used generalised criticisms of hate speech to contest #stoplslam, defending Muslims and Islam and criticising Islamophobia, often using memes to underline their points, including quotes from the Quran. However, this approach left openings for self-identified right-wing Twitter users to undermine them with more specific counter-evidence. This approach (using ‘alternative facts’ often sourced from influential right-wing websites) and the frequency with which the right responded to the counter-narratives had the paradoxical effect of the counter-narratives contributing to the greater circulation of the hate speech they sought to contest. In this case attempts to appropriate right-wing propaganda (#stoplslam) were, in turn, ‘hijacked’ by the right to reinscribe representational inequalities.
It is also important to note that participation in counter-narratives was not equally open to all; some of these counter-narratives were circulated by (self-identified) Muslims, although they were less visible than other voices (15.8 percent of 4,263 retweets examined through manual quantitative analysis). This could be strategic, given the hazards attached to making identity claims online; these tweets received more flak than others, and so most Muslims did not attempt to engage with any Islamophobic responses (also, potentially, to curtail further circulation). However, there was evident of support from Muslims for some counter-narratives, particularly to those posted on celebrity accounts, with many Muslims offering thanks for this. Eckert et al. (2019) suggest that Muslims constitute ‘hyper differential counter-publics’ precisely because they have to navigate difficult and shifting environments, creating ‘hyper-situational responses’.
Responses to counter-narratives (in the form of comments) were much more likely to be in line with the original intention of the hashtag, with minimal interaction from more progressive voices. Right-wing actors used tactics that included disputing, dismissing, and refuting the claims of counter-narrative tweets, as well as defending their own ideological positions. Additional tactics included appropriation, affirmation, and sarcasm to disrupt the counter-narrative hijacking of their hashtag. Affirmation through volume was a typical response; sharing memes using sarcasm and humour is a well-documented characteristic of Twitter content and often functions to complicate and legitimise racist discourse (Brock and Brooker cited in Sharma and Brooker 2016). The appropriation of international news items to reinforce agendas also contributes authority to the right’s ‘evidence-based’ approach. The dynamics of this hashtag demonstrate the tensions generated in trying to counter right-wing activism online without further reproducing existing inequalities by opening up avenues for further disinformation to be propagated.