the Finsbury Park attack was a wake-up call

Around six months ago, on the 19th June 2017, the 48 year old Darren Osborne is accused of having driven a van into a crowd of Muslim worshipers outside a mosque, injuring nine people and killing one 58 year old man. Though the suspect has not yet been convicted, the tragedy has opened the eyes of the public to the urgency of the problem of combating Islamophobic propaganda and of rethinking the way in which a narrative can be created about a community that is not only divisive, but potentially deadly. 

Though it might have been Osborne who is responsible for the tragedy, this should in no way detract from the bravery of the victims, in particular that of the imam Mohammed Mahmoud who prevented any retaliation by shielding him from a crowd beginning to show signs of shock-induced aggression. Despite being lauded as a perfect example of someone loving their enemies and even being labelled as the ‘hero imam’, though, Mahmoud rejects this characterization on the basis that it implies that he is the exception to the rule. In an interview for The Guardian, he eloquently explains:

“We can’t escape the fact that Muslims are portrayed in an unfavourable light in the media…to conclude or theorise that [Osborne] would have been killed if [I wasn’t] there, that’s based on a narrative that’s put forward that Muslims are savage and don’t respect the law”.

Instead, he calls attention to the fact that he was helped by many others, that aggression is the natural response to such a barbaric act of cruelty. The London mayor Sadiq Khan similarly spoke out about the horrific events, asserting:

“This is a good community. They pull together, they work closely with each other and the actions of Imam Mohammed are what I would expect from a good faith leader and a good Muslim leader.”

Why, then, must it take a disaster such as this for people to recognize the power of common moral principles, of shared dignity and humanity? Why must it be necessary for a tragedy such as this for a Muslim man to be called a ‘hero’ for the work he does and for the outpouring of support that came in the wake of the attack even though Islamophobia is increasingly being felt by British Muslims on a daily basis? The Independent has published figures that show that instances of anti-Muslim hate crime targeting mosques have more than doubled between 2016 and 2017, Sadiq Khan also pointing out that Islamophobic attacks have increased fivefold since the London brige attack.

statistics
Source: YouGov

Undeniably, the media has a huge role to play in the unfair demonization of Islam, the press being responsible to much of the kind of hateful, extremist content that motivated this act of terror. Osborne’s partner, Sarah Andrews, described to the BBC in an interview how “He seemed brainwashed and totally obsessed with the subject [of Muslims]” prior to the attack. She cites programmes such as the BBC’s Three Girls and the social media accounts of nationalist parties such as Britain First and the English Defence League as contributing to his paranoia, it being fair to say that a clear line can be drawn between hate crime and the way that Islam is presented in the media. An article in the Guardian draws attention to graffiti on the Sutton Islamic Centre which reads “Terrorise your own country”, ironic when the terror suspect in this instance is British and attacking fellow Brits.

islamophobia
Source: NewStatesman

This kind of bad press disproportionally targets and affects those most vulnerable, it being convenient to create a scapegoat for society’s ills that can shoulder the blame for everyday hardships. It dehumanizes entire communities and encourages a tribal way of thinking where those who may be of an unfamiliar race or religion do not ‘belong’, or even pose a threat to the existence of one’s own tribe, even though this is an entirely ludicrous and unhealthy way to look at the world.

All of this only highlights the growing need for the government and the police to combat Islamophobia and to put the same kind of efforts into eliminating the issue as they do towards extremist Islamic propaganda. Both of these are terror-related, and must be treated with the same degree of urgency and dedication for they both pose a threat to what we might like to imagine a peaceful Britain to be . It seems completely absurd that schools might summon a boy who simply converted to Islam into a meeting to check if he was being targeted by Islamic State (as they did at mine) but authorities wouldn’t investigate a man (Osborne) who had made inflammatory and threatening statements at a pub – “I’m going to kill all the Muslims, Muslims are all terrorists. Your families are all going to be Muslim. I’m going to take it into my own hands” – and publicly announcing his intentions to kill members of the Labour party such as Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn.

Fundamentally, the debate comes down to issues of identity and belonging, Osborne harboring the ideology like many others that those of other ethnicities, cultures and religious faiths don’t ‘belong’ in Britain. At the heart of this is a certain dangerous conception of what Britain was and should be i.e. a predominantly white and Christian country. Though this Britain may never truly have existed, as this country has for thousands of years been composed of countless different cultures and ethnicities, the dream persists, more accurately described as a nightmare for the potential hatred and division it feeds and facilitates. I for one would rather belong to a community made up of members who honour justice and mercy, such as Mohammed Mahmoud, than those who take the law into their own hands and fail to recognize the humanity of others as Osborne has demonstrated. Now, rather than divide us, this tragedy should teach us that we must actively nurture compassion and understanding rather than hatred and division, or the society that we would like to live in might never come to fruition.

when the news got social

You would have to have been living under a rock to have missed the way that news coverage has moved to feature in social media feeds, so ubiquitous now that it barely merits a second thought. This union has proved to be both beneficial and problematic, though the advantages, efficiency but one, are difficult to overlook. Rather than having to visit a separate website, tune in to the radio, switch on the TV or pay for a newspaper, all one has to do is log in to their social media account to access the same content, often in real-time. Leaving this to one side, this marriage can have important consequences when it is one’s only way of accessing the latest news, particularly in a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. In a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism it was revealed that 1 in 10 people favour their social media in briefing them on the latest news, a figure likely to be higher almost two years on from the study.

The media industry is under a lot of pressure to adapt to the rapid change that society is currently undergoing, some even referring to this transitional period as a ‘technological revolution’. Over the last decade, there has been a massive decline in the number of people consuming printed news, preferring other sources such as television and radio and, increasingly, online coverage. It is fairly recent, however, that the news has bled into social media platforms and on such a scale, this phenomenon corresponding to the rising popularity of companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. It seems only natural that in such a climate news organisations would be willing to adapt in order to reach the largest audience, only made possible by embracing these new networking tools. According to the Pew Research Centre, 67% of Americans admit to accessing some of their news coverage on social media, says a report published in 2017. Now, Facebook has a built in feature that mimics a news bulletin. Snapchat hosts the stories of many of the major players in media, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with others such as The Sun and The Daily Mail. Much of today’s political debate takes place within what has become known as the ‘Twittersphere’. Social media has become impossible to ignore, it being entirely logical to see why many well-known news organizations have jumped on the social media bandwagon, it being too important a ride to miss.

Today’s problem, though, is that of the spread of ‘fake news’, to use the famous term coined by Donald Trump. When social media becomes one’s main or only source of accessing news, they make themselves more vulnerable to be exposed to sensationalist or misleading information which feeds off the freedom and scope of these platforms. At its heart, social media is intended to be a personal, social space hence when one introduces news coverage, it too must become social and personal for its target audience, there then being a fine line between what is real ‘news’ and what is actually an ideology dressed as ‘fact’. In this sense, it’s no surprise that social media platforms are the seed-bed of extremist content or birthplace of ‘fake news’.  In 2017, a rumour that the devastating hurricane Irma would be a category 6 storm – a level that does not exist – was doing the rounds on social media after it was broadcast by the website InfoWars and shared on Facebook. The President of the United States Donald Trump even retweeted one of the right-wing Britain First’s campaign videos about Islamic terrorism, both deemed Islamophobic and later discredited. When news becomes ideological, which it inevitably does when it leaks into social media, “fake news”, misinformation and the distortion of fact becomes unavoidable, even inevitable. The presence of reputable news organizations on social media legitimizes the less trustworthy ones that whose sole aim is to reach as many people as possible, making it even more difficult to distinguish between ‘real’and ‘fake’ news. Though this task was far from easy even before this shift, all these developments can do is further muddy the waters of fact and fiction.

Crucially, this phenomenon has made it necessary to have some way of filtering the ‘real’ news from the ‘fake’ news. In The Guardian’s James Ball’s piece on the decline of public trust in social media makes it clear just how prescient this issue really is:

Trust in social media platforms fell just four points year-on-year in the UK, and even after the relentless coverage of social media being exploited for propaganda, and the big tech backlash in the US, fell just 11 points there. Globally, media was trusted less than business and NGOs, and is equal to government – and this trust level isn’t increasing.

Many government leaders and CEOs have pledged to tackle the spread of fake news, attesting that it is one of their main priorities. This can be problematic in itself though, people voicing their concerns that freedom of the press must be protected, that a state where fake news is rife is preferable to a state policed and censored by governing bodies. In spite of this, some of these strategies are compelling and might well positively contribute to the fight against misinformation and sensationalism. During the run-up to the Italian election, the government is assigning a task force to combat fake news in the wake of the suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Following much public uproar, Mark Zuckerberg has committed to suppressing the spread of fake news on Facebook by encouraging its users to take a survey on which sources of information they perceive to be most “trustworthy” so as to give priority to “high quality news”.

Social media platforms are a great way to respond to news stories and are often used as vehicles for social or political movements, undeniably a good thing in that they are a sign of a healthy democratic society. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements would not have taken off in the same way if social media platforms had not been their to give them access to millions of people. Complications arise when social media is a source of news rather than a space to react to news, though this recognition may have come too late. As James Ball points out,

they [social media and news coverage] are now wedded to one another, and will sink or swim together. News won’t be saved by the public falling out of love with Facebook. It will take much more than that.

Regrettably, it seems to be too late to curb these developments, it being instead more important to get with the programme and experiment with methods of damage-control and of improving the quality of journalism today. Though the future is far from certain, there remains huge potential for the media industry, avenues that are only available thanks to these very social platforms. It seems that all we can do at present is keep scrolling.

 

View story at Medium.com