Taken moments after the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge in London where 6 people were killed and 49 injured, the photo is simple: a person lay injured on the sidewalk, surrounded by other bystanders who attempt to help. A woman is walking in the foreground, looking down at her phone. But there’s another factor: she’s wearing a hijab. It quickly went viral amongst conservative communities online — a perfect image to promote an identitarian narrative: a brown, hijab-wearing, Muslim woman walks by light-skinned victims of Islamic extremism, and is more concerned with gazing into her cellphone than attending to those suffering. Propaganda of this sort is a ripe opportunity to create the conditions in which a tribal mindset thrives by fulfilling biases, increasing site traffic, and inciting dramatic calls for justice against an imagined and homogeneous enemy.
As nationalism narrows the definition of group membership, identity becomes sedition.
At the mercy of emotions, ideology reduces people to an abstraction of who they are — it becomes easier to ignore the human consequence of a decision. Paul Joseph Watson, editor-in-chief of the popular and conservative conspiratorial media outlet PrisonPlanet, took to Twitter as one of the foremost figures of the right to promote the image and narrative of a Muslim indifferent to terrorism and human suffering. Like his peers, when proven incorrect, he lightly withdrew the statement and avoided further elaboration.
To be fair, there is footage of the Muslim woman on her phone who currently features in a million memes actually helping victims. pic.twitter.com/kpMikRwrSc
— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) March 23, 2017
As the image continued to spread, both the woman it featured and the photographer who took it released public statements to clarify the context: she had been helping victims and was calling her family. The allegedly indifferent facial expression was in fact one of shock and concern. She had not been a terrorist sympathizer or sociopath, but was one of the many human beings trying to go about life when chaos enveloped the world around them. As more facts emerged and continued to contradict prejudiced narratives, the conservative media channels and right-wing pages that profited from it offered steadfast indifference in response. The motive was obvious: the facts hadn’t mattered all along — what did, though, was the irresistible depiction that could embody every myth and fear of the invasive Muslim.
— TellMAMAUK (@TellMamaUK) March 24, 2017
With even the slightest inclination towards empathy, it would be clear to anyone viewing the photo that this was a moment of vulnerability and crisis for every person that it captured, independent of one’s presumptions regarding their faith or otherwise. But political fundamentalism can’t account for nuance. Identity-driven prejudices provide a simple but compelling framework for political action and ideologies. Much of the modern right is dependent on this intersection of nation, religion, and racial identity: conservatives throughout the West and greater Europe require a constant portrayal of Christian civilization at war with the archaic culture and values of the invasive, militarized Islamic faithful.
Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, and other populist figures would be even more useless without the tribalist narrative. One population’s suffering is another’s campaign strategy, and those without clear solutions to more challenging policy issues will always cling to the low hanging fruits of identity politics. And thus the greater reaction to this image highlights the crux of a global, binary belief system: to exist as a Muslim is to invoke immediate suspicion and distrust. The ongoing political maneuvering of the Trump administration and similar entities have already taken steps to further institutionalize this mindset. As nationalism narrows the definition of group membership, identity becomes sedition.
Internal bias functions like both a drug and virus, turning the individual into a conduit of an ideology that grows further blind to anything in opposition to it.
A rising post on subreddit r/The_Donald. It features a meme of the photographed woman against the backdrop of a terrorist attack.
Cyclical propaganda, volatile prejudice
Digital propaganda is a communal process of dehumanization that allows one group to further define what separates themselves from another. Online forum and subreddit r/The_Donald is the digital nexus of Trump’s support base and a direct window into the evolving right-wing of America and beyond. Following the attack, its user base created and popularized memes of the woman with mocking references to 9/11 and other acts of terrorism. This process is how the subreddit — and the many communities it resembles— exclusively responds to acts of Islamic extremism. The plots and murders of white and conservative militants are ignored. The content reveals the focus: to intensify the divide between Muslims and society at large, each post propagating the sense of a greater enemy.
Critical thinking won’t reveal contradictory information if it never happens.
“Off to pray to Muhammad my task in London is complete,” one post was titled.
The image was edited to show the woman against a backdrop of gore and violence. Other posts mocked her as indifferent, complicit, cowardly.
“Disgusting woman,” one user wrote.
But another was quick to correct them: “Disgusting people.”
An opposing force can bring individuals together from a broad spectrum of viewpoints, independent of nuance, by anchoring their collective identity to a shared sense of struggle — the negative traits of the targeted opposition, real or imagined, are magnified in place of any alternative perspective. In the case of the right, reinforcing a violent, threatening image of Muslims and other groups creates an essential, existential threat that believers can use to excuse empathy and competing viewpoints.
A series of upvoted posts from the popular subreddit that appeared following the Westminster Bridge attack
Rigid political ideologies have a way of reinforcing themselves in order to deflect cognitive dissonance. Like an algorithm, the person makes a presumption to confirm a bias, it emboldens their prejudice, and then becomes the basis of future presumption. These distortions calcify, gradually chipping away at the ability to suspend judgment and critically assess events and ideas in the real world. In the absence of critical thought comes a servile mob mentality that eagerly demands for witch hunts, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, and various human rights violations to be carried out on one’s fellow human beings immediately upon viewing an image without context or depth of thought. This servile mindset may not prompt an individual to directly pursue violence against their perceived enemies, but — as the collective response demonstrates—will certainly call for its celebration and approval were it to happen.
Indifference incubates extremism
Events like the attack on Westminster Bridge are a floodlight that bring forth the rawest expressions of fear and emotion that compel people to withdraw into tribalism. It also demonstrates the diversity of opinion within right-wing communities online and the problem of collective indifference towards extremist views. Trump supporters and members of the identitarian right of the United States and greater Europe may eschew allegations of racism, sexism, and provincialism from leftist critics and otherwise. But one thing is certain: even if these views are indeed not at the core of many members, they are objectively both encouraged and allowed to thrive within right-wing spaces.
“After thousands of years of putting their genome in a blender can they even be considered human?” a user asked in a discussion.
r/The_Donald is a pioneer in accommodating a diverse range of prejudices, creating a safe space where outright racism receives more upvotes than a reasonable critique of their paternal namesake. The subreddit is heavily moderated, meaning that post removals and content standards are deliberate and intentional. And why permit, with such regularity, the presence and proliferation of these authoritarian ideas, unless, ultimately, the goals and values of a white nationalist or racist militant are more tolerable than the lightest criticism from both leftists and fellow conservatives? Free speech — the routine mewl of the right — is an empty and shallow defense that can’t account for context, content, or impact.
It would be incorrect to suggest, for example, that the entirety of these users closely and consciously identify with right-wing extremists; the issue is nuanced. Motivated perhaps by intellectual convenience and perceived necessity, communities like r/The_Donald provide coverage for the most toxic conservative viewpoints that can then thrive within seemingly standard political discussions. The language and rhetoric of white supremacists, for example, can be easily converted to fit the nationalist, anti-Muslim, nostalgic narratives that one finds propagated in such a subreddit. Like an intellectual disease, extremist views are gradually normalized, tacitly accepted, and then at times adopted to become guiding principles. By the time they’ve been recognized for what they are, it’s too late.
Nationalism is most potent when combined with race and religion.
Consider the gravity of poor judgment: people with no conclusive evidence or reliable information were content to condemn their fellow human beings and call for persecution, all due to being bound by bias at the onset of their thinking process. The situation unfolding on Westminster Bridge was fresh in news feeds, yet many viewing the photograph had already concluded that the woman was complicit in extremism, a terrorist sympathizer. It ultimately becomes okay for the biased individual to conclude that the Muslim woman is likely complicit in the act of terrorism happening around her, because that’s what those people do anyway. Critical thinking won’t reveal contradictory information if it never happens.
Rare voices of dissent on the subreddit.
Media figure Milo Yiannopoulos was one of many right-wing voices to eagerly seize upon the subject with memes and outreach. In a since-deleted Facebook post regarding the London shooting from the page, a discussion emerged in the comments that embodies the problem conservatives and the stagnant right must face:
“[Once] enough blood is spilt things will change. These immigrants don’t realize the fire they’re playing with,” a user explained in a top comment with hundreds of likes. “History shows us that once ‘white people’ get started, it’s hard to stop them.”
Where individuals are complacent with militancy, extremism and its horrors find refuge. Emerging from beneath the surface of the right-wing is the enduring and inescapable threat of violent and prejudiced fundamentalism. And nothing indicates an impending wave of self-awareness and responsibility for these believers. Every piece of Muslim-targeted propaganda contributes to a calculated cycle of narrative building: these aren’t human beings or peers; they’re a threat.
And if it turns out — like in the case of this photograph — that your narrative is unfounded and entirely baseless? No issue — the outcome is the same.
The facts never mattered.
Like so many others who have yearned for the suffering of alleged enemies, reason and nuance are further excused in place of assumption and consequence, until the self-proclaimed anti-fascists at last resemble the monsters they imagined.
A user comments on a now deleted Facebook post from Milo Yiannopoulos on the London shooting