"My student just sent 500 of his closest friends and me an e-mail that says Obama is a radical Muslim only pretending to be a Christian. He wrote that if Obama becomes president, our country will be run by a terrorist. How should I respond to his e-mail?" This was the last question -- the stumper -- in a long and grueling interview. I hardly had an answer to the question at the time; more has become discouragingly clear since.
At the time of my interview, then-Senator Obama was running for president and engaging in online organizing as no candidate had done before. Supporters could donate to his campaign at the click of a button, after watching motivational speeches that reverberated across YouTube, and then sign up to volunteer at a local campaign office. Obama was inaugurating new online campaigning strategies -- and the responses to his campaign were a similar portend for what lay ahead: hateful e-mails and blog posts and the use of social media to create rumor-mills.
While many groups and individuals have fallen pray to the scathing "echo-chambers" created in chatrooms, blogs, and Facebook communities, a disproportionate number appear to be Muslim or, like our president, those arbitrarily called "Muslim," as though it were a term of denigration. Whenever a bomb goes off or a round of shots is fired -- even if by a Basque Separatist, Hindu Nationalist, atheist, Christian, or Jew -- the blogosphere fills with venom about Muslims. "Could it be a Muslim?;" "She must be a Muslim;" "Islam teaches hate ... go figure;" "let's kill the Muslims before they kill us."
The ideas reverberate and reverberate, confirming people's preexisting prejudices. By the time the bloggers and their online communities have exchanged blog posts about an event or idea, everyone is convinced of their bigoted perspectives.
A classic example of this took place this summer. Some witty journalist decided to affix a new label to the Muslim community center set to house the same group that had been gathering in lower Manhattan for 25 years. It was no longer just a community center -- it was now the "WTC Mosque." The name then bounced to another part of the blogosphere, landing on the screen of a prominent blogger who re-labeled it "Monster Mosque." A few bounces later, and the name "Ground Zero Mosque" stuck for good.
A reporter and some glib bloggers transformed a legal question (the right of the religious community to use property zoned in a particular way) into a distorted, nightmarish question about whether we as Americans could let "terrorists" claim "victory" "at" the World Trade Center. It became instant national news -- and reverberated in the blogosphere overseas, confirming the unfortunate perceptions of those who never thought Muslims would have a fair chance in America anyway.
None of this would have been possible without the large, growing, and raucous blogosphere and the critical mass of Islamophobes who inhabit it. Unlike Internet skeptics ever predicted, the blogosphere now has profound consequences for politics and the public perceptions that underlie it.
So, getting back to the interview, what can be done? Or, more pointedly, "How should I respond?" Finally, years later, I have some thoughts.
The first is countering misperceptions with fact. When someone spits venom or generalities about Muslims online to thousands of their closest "friends," factual, reliable information is a potent antidote. Cite sources, quote experts, and establish the information you do provide as more credible. In the world's first era of "too much information," credibility is a kingmaker.
The second is presenting that information in an engaging way. It is bland (at least by Internet standards) to note that "Senator Obama has demonstrated his Christian faith repeatedly, and there is no credible evidence to suggest that any terrorist organization has established ties with him." Readers will already have clicked on to another site by the time they get halfway through that sentence. By contrast, an exclamation can say it all: "How many times has a guy gotta convert before he's a Christian?!" Intermingling these exclamations with more careful statements of fact are the strongest combination of all.
The third is helping to fill the blogosphere with voices that don't accept bigotry. This can be as simple as responding to inaccurate or bigoted articles or as elaborate as creating articles, videos, and chatrooms dedicated to combatting hatred and correcting misperceptions. There is already a critical mass of people online who further Islamophobia (and anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia) as though it were their day jobs. Much as E-Islamophobia produces negative results in the real world, so too can E-activism reverse or preempt them.
So long as bigotry goes unchecked, it will hold a disproportionate influence in both realms. Yet this need not be the case. The hatewave is here, but our beliefs charge us to counter it. See you online.
This article has been cross-posted by Rabbis for Human Rights.