Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’:
Cyber Hate Speech Unleashed on Twitter
By Imran Awan and Irene Zempi
All correspondence about this report should be directed to:
Dr Imran Awan @ImranELSS
Associate Professor in Criminology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University
Dr Irene Zempi @DrIreneZempi
Director of the Nottingham Centre for Bias, Prejudice & Hate Crime, and Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University
This report is a joint collaboration between the authors, Dr Imran Awan and Dr Irene Zempi, and HOPE not hate.
The aim of this report is to examine cyber hate speech on social media (specifically Twitter) in relation to the murder of Jo Cox MP and the EU Referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) in June 2016.
Evidence shows that hate crime surged in the UK in the following weeks after the EU Referendum vote, and still remains at significantly higher levels than a year ago.
Reports of hate crimes have risen 58% in the aftermath of this vote, according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC, 2016)1. Police suggested that some people had taken the ‘leave’ vote as a ‘licence’ to behave in a racist or discriminatory way.
Against this background, the authors conducted the first qualitative study of cyber hate speech on Twitter, focusing on:
- cyber hate speech as a result of the murder of British MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair
- cyber hate speech as a result of the Brexit vote in the EU Referendum in the UK
The report concludes with recommendations in terms of preventing and responding to cyber hate speech on Twitter.
- This study examined over 53,000 tweets between June 2016 and July 2016, following the murder of British MP Jo Cox and the EU Referendum vote.
- The top key phrases and hashtags discovered included: #refugeesnotwelcome; #defendEurope; #whitepower; #MakeBritainwhiteagain; #Stopimmigration; #DeportallMuslims; #Rapefugee and #BanIslam.
- The top 20 words used to describe Thomas Mair and Jo Cox MP included the terms: Hero, Patriot, White Power, Rapists and Traitor.
- A key theme that emerged on Twitter was the depiction of Thomas Mair as a ‘hero’ for murdering Cox. Individuals had tagged pictures in their tweets praising Mair for killing Jo Cox, using the hashtag #HeroMair.
- Thomas Mair was also referred to as a ‘patriot’. Using the hashtags #VoteLeave and #JoCox, Mair’s killing of Jo Cox was referred to as a ‘sacrifice’ that should not go in vain and to this end people were encouraged to vote Leave in the Referendum.
- A key theme that emerged on Twitter was the notion that Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’ because ‘she supported rape gangs’, with references to the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
- Jo Cox had campaigned for the rights of Syrian refugees in her first year as an MP. In light of this, she was labelled as a ‘traitor’ and ‘she got what she deserved’ among Tweets observed. She was also labelled a supporter of Islamist terrorism.
- In the Tweets analysed Muslims were often described as ‘rapists’. Since the majority of Syrians were Muslims, the inference was that Syrian refugees were ‘all rapists’.
- Hate crimes are message crimes. Cyber hate speech can lead to message crimes which, in the case of Jo Cox, means that her murder can be used to send a message that anyone (including politicians) are at risk if they are seen to be sympathetic towards the victim group.
- Cyber hate speech on Twitter also acts as an echo chamber, where hateful comments are reinforced and can impact upon wider community cohesion.
- There is a link between online and offline cyber hate speech. Experiences of xenophobic hostility lead to communities feeling a sense of fear, insecurity and vulnerability. It also leads to an increase in offline incidents where both these ‘trigger’ events (reactions to Jo Cox’s murder and the EU Referendum process) led to a rise in xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia.
- Trigger events in the case of Brexit have continued to spike despite most trigger events losing momentum within the first few weeks.
1. Social Media Training and Workshop for Schools
The authors argue that for a long-term sustainable change of attitudes, social media training should be provided for teachers and children in schools which can help equip young people from an early age in tackling cyber bullying, cyber harassment and cyber incitement.
2. Counter-Messaging Protocol
The authors feel that in some cases a significant amount of work in relation to counter-messaging can help create a positive space on social media platforms such as Twitter.
3. A duty of care for social media platforms
The authors believe that since users must sign up to a code of conduct, social media companies must also sign up to a specific duty of care and conduct.
4. Social media companies improving their response to online hate
The authors feel that social media companies must be more proactive in responding to online hate crime. This includes working alongside the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and prosecuting those who are responsible for posting, sharing and endorsing harmful content.
5. Debating what is Hate Speech and striking the balance with free speech
The authors believe that there should be a national debate on how we balance free speech with actual accounts of cyber hate speech.
6. Online archive of hate incidents
The authors argue that an online tool that can help report things directly to the police through social media networks is important.
7. Improving the lives of victims of online hate crime
The authors feel that much of the discourse about online hate ignores the role of victims and much more can be done by relevant stakeholders when considering online hate impacts.
In the summer of 2016, Britain was gripped in a climate of fear and hostility, following the murder of British MP Jo Cox2.
A week after her death, the UK was involved in a referendum vote to decide on the UK’s future in the European Union (EU)3.
As this report will highlight, both these incidents led to a rise in the levels of hate crime, Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia, both online and offline.
For example, in August 2016, six teenage boys were arrested in Harlow, Essex, after Polish immigrant Arkadiusz Jóźwik died following a brutal street attack which his brother said began after he was heard speaking Polish in the street.4
The decision to leave the EU in some cases emboldened people to express their feelings of hate and ‘legitimised’ the prejudice that they had by empowering them to express and verbalise those feelings both in the cyber world but also in ‘real’ life.
However, in the UK, issues and concerns around immigration and the EU have a long history and are not confined to simply the EU Referendum vote. According to the British Social Attitudes survey in 20135 over 56% people wanted immigration to be ‘reduced a lot’ and the Transatlantic Trends (2014)6 survey found similar concerns, which people had about the levels of immigration from within and outside the EU.
Research indicates that hate crimes spike following ‘trigger’ events (Burnap and Williams, 20167; King and Sutton, 20138). Correspondingly, our study data was collected from Twitter for a period immediately following two selected ‘trigger’ events.
Specifically, the selected ‘trigger’ events were the murder of British MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair, and the EU Referendum in the UK.
As such, we examined cyber hate crime on Twitter focusing on:
- Cyber hate speech as a result of the murder of Jo Cox
- Cyber hate speech as a result of the Brexit vote in the EU referendum in the UK
We selected Twitter as our data source because Twitter differs from other online social networks, such as Facebook and Google+, in the sense that Twitter posts are largely public, programmatically accessible, and free to academic researchers (Burnap and Williams, 2016). Twitter effectively supports a digital agora that promotes real-time interactive exchange of thoughts, opinions and beliefs, making it a defensible and well-suited source for data for this research (Burnap and Williams, 2016). The methodology employed in this study is outlined in more detail below.
This study examined over 53,000 tweets and found the majority of instances related to specific calls for violence post and pre-Brexit following the murder of British MP Jo Cox and the Brexit vote.
The research questions in this study included:
- What was the nature and frequency of hate speech targeting Jo Cox, following her murder by Thomas Mair?
- Which ‘visible’ minorities have been attacked on Twitter and in ‘real’ life, as a result of the Brexit vote following the EU Referendum in the UK?
- What types of physical and non-physical threats have been made following the Brexit vote?
- What is the profile of Twitter users who used hate speech to attack the memory of Jo Cox, and/or abuse ‘visible’ minorities as a result of the Brexit vote?
This paper used a mixed methodology as part of a wider content analysis utilising qualitative data gathering techniques embedded within Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967)9. We used Twitter users’ direct quotations in order to illustrate the themes emerging from the analysis, provide evidence for our interpretations and offer readers greater depth of understanding.
The Twitter pages were analysed between June 2016 and July 2016. The authors were able to collate ‘high frequency’ words and patterns that are directly related to the murder of Jo Cox MP by Thomas Mair and the Brexit vote. Additionally, we used hashtags such as: #Brexit, #eureferendum; #voteleave; #strongerin; #strongerout; #voteremain; #votestay; #remain and #Leave. This generated over 53,000 tweets which led to a snowball methodology of different hashtags associated with our key phrases, such as: #refugeesnotwelcome; #defendEurope; #whitepower; #MakeBritainwhiteagain; #Stopimmigration; #DeportallMuslims; #Rapefugee and #BanIslam.
Comments and all posts were then compiled into a large word cloud (see figure 1). The word cloud was analysed using a word frequency count which was created to explore core issues and recurring themes around Brexit, Thomas Mair and the Jo Cox murder (see Table 1, for the top 20 key words).
In particular, the word cloud frequency helped the authors obtain key words that were used in the aftermath of the Jo Cox murder and the pre- and post-Brexit vote. For example, from the top 20 words used, there were five key words that consistently emerged over the recent Jo Cox murder and the Brexit vote. They included the words: Hero, Patriot, White Power, Rapists and Traitor.
Table 1: Collocation network of key words across word cloud
|Freedom for Britain|
|Refugees not welcome|
|No to Islam|
|Deserved to die|
|Muslim Rape Gangs|
|Indigenous British People|
|Glad she’s dead|
|Invasion of Britain|
In what follows, the data analysis is organised in two sections. Section 1 covers cyber hate speech as a result of the murder of Jo Cox by Thomas Mair whilst Section 2 covers cyber hate speech as a result of the Brexit vote in the EU Referendum in the UK.
Cyber Hate Speech: Jo Cox’s Murder
1.1: Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’
On Thursday 16 June 2016 (a week before the EU Referendum), Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, died after being stabbed and shot multiple times. The perpetrator, Thomas Mair, is reported to have shouted ‘Britain first’ as he attacked Cox, and gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. Jo Cox was the first MP to be murdered since Ian Gow, who was killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in 1990. She was also the first woman, and the first Labour MP to be murdered in office.
According to our research findings, a key theme that emerged on Twitter was the notion that Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’. Specifically, Twitter posts suggested that Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’ because ‘she supported rape gangs’, with certain individuals making references to the ‘child sexual exploitation scandal’ in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. This revelation of widespread child sexual exploitation by ‘Asian/Muslim gangs’ in Rotherham led to a rise in Islamophobia towards Muslims in Rotherham and elsewhere in the UK (Tufail, 2015)10. Awan and Zempi (2015)11 found that in the wake of the Rotherham scandal, ‘Muslim’ is deployed in order to cast all Muslims as synonymous with child abusers. However, it is also important to recognise that hate crime has increased not only towards Muslims but also towards those who are working towards tackling Islamophobic hate crime.
For example, Jo Cox was working in conjunction with Tell MAMA, an organisation that measures anti-Muslim attacks on a report entitled: The Geography of Anti-Muslim Hatred before her murder. She had planned to present the findings in Parliament later in June 2016. The report found that there were about 80% more attacks on Muslims in Britain in 2015 than the year before, with Muslim women being the most vulnerable victims (Tell MAMA, 2016)12. Against this background, we found a number of Twitter posts (often using the hashtag #HeroMair) suggesting that Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’ because she supported the ‘Rotherham rapists’.
Along similar lines, we also found other tweets referring to Jo Cox as ‘no saint’ who remained ‘silent’ about the ‘Muslim rape gangs’, which were said (by those Tweeting) to be rife in her constituency (see figure 2). Therefore we argue that people who associate themselves with either Muslims or a minority group are seen as being ‘guilty by association’. In the case of Jo Cox, her death was also attributed to her continued support for Syrian refugees.
Our study also found conversations on Twitter discussing Jo Cox’s (perceived) involvement in the cover up of the ‘Rotherham scandal’. To illustrate this, there was a conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #JoCox where Jo Cox was referred to as a ‘vile woman who virtue signalled over the broken bodies of child rape victims’. There was also the perception that she had failed to take action to protect children victims of rape at the hands of ‘rape gangs’ in her constituency, as indicated in figure 3.
1.2 Jo Cox was a ‘Traitor’
Six days before being murdered, Jo Cox posted a tweet stating that ‘immigration is a legitimate concern, but it’s not a good reason to leave the EU’ (figure 4). Following her murder, people replied to her tweet, calling her a ‘traitor’ and that ‘she got what she deserved’.
Again, the justification for this was that she supported ‘Muslim rape gangs’. This is related to our earlier point that in the wake of the ‘Rotherham sex abuse scandal’, people equated all Muslims with ‘rapists’.
In the following tweet, it was suggested that Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’ because she wanted to ‘import more rapists of little English girls’. In this tweet, Jo Cox is referred to as ‘pure evil’. Pictures were often attached to similar tweets calling Jo Cox a ‘traitor’ who supported ‘Muslim rape gangs’ (figure 4). Cyber hate speech therefore can lead to message crimes which in the case of Jo Cox meant that her murder was used to send a message that anyone, including politicians, are at risk, if they are seen to be sympathetic towards the victim group (in this case Syrian refugees).
The potential victims of hate incidents are not just solely those people who belong to the victim group. Instead, the implications are much wider for all types of individuals and communities.
Another key development at the same time was a dangerous campaign that demonised and stereotyped British MPs who were campaigning to vote Leave. For example, only an hour before Jo Cox’s murder, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage had unveiled a huge poster showing Syrian refugees fleeing to Slovenia last year, nothing to do with EU free movement – and none arriving in the UK. The campaign’s poster read: ‘Breaking Point. We must break free from the EU and take control of our borders’ (figure 5).
With a climate of fear, suspicion and hostility, Twitter became awash with posts stating that ‘the mood was ugly when Jo let in rapists’, referring to refugees, particularly Syrian refugees, as‘rapists’. Again, there was the perception held on these tweets that all Muslims were ‘rapists’, and since the majority of Syrians were Muslims, this meant that Syrian refugees were ‘all rapists’. The person who posted this tweet went as far as to state that ‘more traitors MPs will die’, referring to Jo Cox as a ‘traitor’ for allegedly supporting ‘Muslim rape gangs’ (figure 6).
We also found a number of similar direct threats made on Twitter against other MPs. In this regard, people referred to Jo Cox’s murder as ‘the fate of all the political traitors’. Typical examples are the tweets listed below (figure 7).
However, it is important to point out that there were also politicians who made similar comments regarding ‘other MPs being murdered’. For example, Terence Nathan, a UKIP councillor in Bromley, south-east London, called for all Remain voters to be killed in a post on Facebook. The post read: ‘Time to start killing these people till article 50 is invoked, perhaps remainers will get the message then.’
He elaborated on his comment when his post was questioned by another Facebook user. He replied: ‘Not threatening anyone, no need for threats just a bullet’ (Figure 8). A Metropolitan Police investigation has since been launched into these comments but UKIP stated that the councillor was ‘obviously joking’.
‘His joke was in very poor taste, but we have spoken to him and he is mortified. There seems no advantage to anyone to take it further’ (Mann, 2016)13.
The next day after Jo Cox’s murder, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan posted a tweet stating that ‘Jo Cox was a formidable politician, campaigner and person. I will miss her. City halls flags lowered to half-mast’ (figure 9). Some of the responses to this tweet were that Jo Cox was a ‘traitor to the UK responsible for the genocide of the indigenous British people’ and that she ‘got rich off selling her country off to the multinational corporations and rape-murder of her people’ (figure 10).
1.3 Jo Cox was a ‘Traitor’ for supporting the Remain campaign
Jo Cox was elected to Parliament in 2015, having previously worked internationally as a head of policy and humanitarian campaigning for Oxfam. She had campaigned for the rights of Syrian refugees in her first year as an MP and was an advocate for Britain to remain in the EU. Immigration was an important issue to her, and she used the reminder of differences as strengths to make the case for Britain remaining within the EU. She stated during her first speech in the Commons:
‘While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’14
However, a key theme that emerged from our findings was the description of Jo Cox as a ‘traitor’ because she supported the Remain campaign. One user on Twitter stated that she ‘deserved what she got’ on the basis that she was a ‘genocidal traitor of the indigenous population’ (figure 11), thereby implying that she supported the deliberate and systematic extermination of the British nation as a Remain campaigner. As noted in the above conversations, cyber hate speech on Twitter therefore acts as an echo chamber, where hateful comments are reinforced and we argue that this could impact on wider community cohesion.
Furthermore, certain Twitter posts suggested that Jo Cox ‘deserved to die’ because she had ‘committed treason’ for supporting the Remain campaign. To illustrate this, Yahoo had run a news story about her murder on Twitter on 16 June 2016, and a Twitter user replied to this post, saying that ‘Jo Cox deserved to die as she had committed treason’ while praising her murderer, Thomas Mair, as a ‘patriot who should be rewarded’. This person described himself as ‘extremely right wing’ and ‘100% against Islam’ on their Twitter profile. In fact, one of their followers had replied to this tweet, stating that ‘Jo Cox deserved to die & so too all violent authoritarian static politicians and law officers’ (figure 12).
The issue of immigration (also linked to the Syrian refugee crisis) was one of the key issues that affected how people voted in the EU Referendum. While immigration was not the sole issue driving those supporting ‘Brexit’, it was among the key considerations that led to the referendum’s call, and had been one of the recurring topics of tension with Brussels (Migration Policy Institute, 2016)15.
As mentioned earlier, strong anti-immigration attitudes were promoted by UKIP e.g. UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, featuring a queue of refugees escaping Syria. In line with inflammatory political rhetoric and inaccurate, irresponsible and sensationalist media reporting about immigration, certain Twitter posts suggested that Jo Cox was an ‘anti-British traitor who wanted to flood her nation with foreign invaders’ (figure 13).
As noted earlier, Jo Cox had campaigned for the rights of Syrian refugees in her first year as an MP. In light of this, she was labelled as a ‘traitor’ on the basis that she supported bringing into the country ‘3rd world Muslims’, as the following tweet shows (figure 14). In this tweet specifically, an image is attached of the Calderdale gang jailed for grooming and abusing girls. The comments below this tweet also included asking whether Jo Cox would have ‘changed her tune if Muslims had gang raped her’.
Relatedly to the issue of Jo Cox being a ‘traitor’, a number of posts commented on the way she had died (i.e. the fact that she was murdered) and whether the ‘punishment’ was fair enough in light of the fact that she ‘betrayed her people’.
As the tweet below indicates, there was the perception that Jo Cox ‘got off lightly’. Taking a similar position, another Twitter post stated that in a time of war, Jo Cox would have been charged with ‘treason for letting in an invading army’ referring to Syrian refugees (figure 15).
Another Twitter user cited Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE, Roman philosopher, politician and lawyer), stating that Jo Cox was seen as the ‘enemy within’ and a ‘treasonous traitor’ (figure 16).
Additionally, other Twitter posts noted that the murder of Jo Cox was not a tragedy and that ‘the world is a better place without her’ (figure 17).
Some tweets also suggested that Jo Cox would now spend ‘eternity in Hell with all the Muslims’ (figure 18).
There was also the perception that Jo Cox was a supporter of Islamist terrorism. In this regard, the Lee Rigby murder16 was also linked to comments on Twitter about Jo Cox being a ‘traitor’.
As the following comment shows, Jo Cox was labelled as a ‘traitor’ who, unlike Lee Rigby who fought for his country, had apparently supported ‘evil’ Islam and Muslims. As such, the murder of Jo Cox was not ‘senseless’ but justified on that basis that Jo Cox was a ‘traitor’ for supporting the ‘threat’ of Islam and Muslims in the UK.
There were also Twitter posts in other languages, which argued that Jo Cox was supporting Islamist terrorist. A typical example was a Twitter post in Dutch (figure 19). Interestingly, from our data set the majority of individuals who used cyber hate speech towards Jo Cox were either young people or people who identified themselves as having families with jobs.
1.4: Thomas Mair is a ‘Hero’ and a ‘Patriot’
According to our research findings, a key theme that emerged on Twitter was the depiction that Thomas Mair was a ‘hero’ for murdering Jo Cox. A typical example is the tweet below which states ‘Tommy Mair, a f***ing hero. God bless him’ (figure 20).
We also found that individuals who had tagged pictures in their tweets praising Mair for killing Jo Cox using the hashtag #HeroMair. The title on this picture is: ‘Indigenous people’s defender Tommy Mair’.
A number of people justified why they thought Mair was a ‘hero’. For example, one Twitter user stated that Mair was a ‘hero’ because he protected the nation including the children of Jo Cox ‘from the effects of her evil doing’. In conversations on Twitter with other people, the author of this tweet also stated that Jo Cox’s murder was justified on the basis that she was a ‘threat’ to the nation by campaigning to bring in more Muslim refugees (figure 22).
Another person justified Mair being a ‘hero’ by referring to an incident where a five-year-old girl from Twin Falls, Idaho, was sexually assaulted by two boys in June 2016. Although the two perpetrators were from Iraq and Sudan respectively, locals cast blame on Muslim refugees and specifically Syrian refugees in the local community. It is important to bear in mind that in recent months, rhetoric over Muslims and refugees has become especially heated in US. In December 2015, President-elect Donald Trump called on the federal government to enact a ‘total and complete ban’ of Muslims from entering the United States. Our findings suggest that international events in the US and regional events such as ‘Rotherham scandal’ have impacted the way people viewed Mair (figure 23).
There were also individuals who thanked Mair for killing Jo Cox. A typical example posted on Twitter two days after Jo Cox was murdered is figure 24 where the author of this tweet thanked Thomas Mair ‘for taking out the trash’ using the hashtag #JoCoxMP.
Additionally, another Twitter user thanked Thomas Mair for killing Jo Cox and stated that ‘with God’s grace he will one day walk free again’, using the hashtag #HeroMair.
Moreover, we found numerous tweets praising Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik17 and US shooter Dylann Roof18, with some Twitter users comparing them to Mair using the hashtags #HeroBreivik, #HeroDylannRoof and #HeroMair (figure 25).
Furthermore, there were Twitter posts that encouraged other people to follow Mair’s steps (i.e. kill ‘traitors’ like Jo Cox) and to this end become ‘heroes’. Using the hashtag #HeroOfBelgium, some users encouraged people on Twitter to use violence to defend their nation from ‘invaders’ and ‘traitors’ similarly to a Belgian nationalist man who is documented on the YouTube video below to attack an activist supporting immigration in Brussels.
Relatedly to being a ‘hero’, Thomas Mair was also seen as a ‘patriot’. For example, in the following tweet, it is argued that Jo Cox ‘got what she worked for the Muslims’ and that Mair was ‘a patriot of England’ who ‘had enough’ of Cox destroying England so he killed her (figure 27).
Using the hashtags #VoteLeave and #JoCox, Mair’s killing of Jo Cox was referred to as a ‘sacrifice’ that should not go in vain and to this end, people were encouraged to vote Leave in the Referendum (figure 28).
Another a key theme that emerged from our findings was the notion that Thomas Mair was unlawfully detained. In one of these tweets, online hate movement ‘Bluehand’ (defining itself as ‘online movement against political correctness’) stated that they would hold a vigil for Mair and invited those interested in attending this vigil to contact Bluehand (figure 29).
As Perry and Olsson (2009)19 point out, internet communication facilitates the creation of the collective identity, which is necessary to the cohesiveness of the hate movement. The Web strengthens the domestic presence of hate groups in countries such as US, Germany and Sweden but also facilitates the consolidation of the global hate movement. Internet communication knows no national boundaries. Consequently, it allows the hate movement to extend its collective identity internationally, thereby facilitating a potential ‘global racist subculture’ (Perry and Olsson, 2009).
In this section, we have examined cyber hate speech on Twitter in relation to the murder of Jo Cox both before and after the Brexit vote. In the following section, we share our findings regarding the rise in hate crime – including xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia – both online and offline post-Brexit.
Cyber hate speech: EU referendum in the UK
2.1 Post-Brexit Hate on Twitter and in the ‘real’ world
In June 2016, the British public took part in a historic vote to decide on whether the UK should remain in the European Union (EU). The vote, which was held on Thursday 23rd June 2016, resulted in England voting in favour for Brexit, by 53.4% to 46.6%.20
At the same time as England voted to leave, the UK witnessed a sudden surge in hate crimes. This led to an increase of 42% in England and Wales since the Brexit result was announced. Indeed, there were 289 hate crime related incidents reported alone on 25th June, the day after the result was announced.
We argue that Brexit led to the following incidents of online hate.21
a) Where there were specific threats made against people deemed to be of Eastern European origin and from the EU
b) Where experiences of xenophobic hostility led to communities feeling a sense of fear, insecurity and vulnerability
c) Immigrants and refugees being seen as an aggressive ‘enemy’
d) Witnesses and victims report incidents of discrimination, verbal abuse and physical attacks on social media
e) Using the notion of ‘British patriotism’ to further intensify a ‘them versus us’ culture.
Trigger events in the case of Brexit have continued to spike, despite most trigger events losing momentum within the first few weeks.
In the case of Brexit, people who were perceived as being ‘different’ despite being born in Britain were viewed as the ‘Other’, leading to fear and the risk of an exacerbation of offline hostility.
As noted earlier, the Brexit vote led to an empowerment of certain individuals to express their anger and hatred towards people deemed to be Muslim, immigrants or from within the EU. We also argue that international and regional events involving Islamist terrorism influenced some people online to begin gathering support and urging people to vote Leave. Once the decision was made to vote Leave, social media platforms such as Twitter became an avenue for people to target their response towards Muslims. Below are some examples of cyber hate speech on Twitter, after the Brexit vote that specifically targeted Muslims.
We also found that racist language was used to create a message of racial inferiority over the targeted group. The language used was persecutory, hateful and degrading but also involved direct threats against the targeted group. Previous research has shown that such language can be harmful for those being targeted and can have psychological and social impacts on the individuals targeted. Awan and Zempi (2015) found that being targeted online left people feeling anxious, depressed and had left an emotional impact upon the victims.
Following the Brexit vote, a number of social media posts emerged that specifically associated the refugee crisis with Muslim families, and created the notion that leaving the EU would allow Britons to ‘take back’ their nation. Through linking refugee status with immigration and Muslim communities, those tweeting out such messages were able to foster a sense of ‘identity’ among groups we have identified as ‘cyber mobs’ who at the same time, target the minority community.
Figure 31 below indicates the nature of some of those tweets we found.
In the virtual world, social media sites such as Twitter became a facilitator in accelerating the digital wildfires and communications online, whereby conversations moved from initially describing Muslims as ‘filthy’ and ‘vermin’ into messages that targeted immigrants and anyone from Europe as the new ‘bogeyman’. We argue that Twitter therefore acted as an ‘echo chamber’, which reinforced views of hate and animosity.
The notion of using immigration as a means to whip up issues around race and identity also led people to use Twitter to focus on issues such as deportation once the UK had voted Leave. Some clearly viewed immigrants and Muslims as ‘outsiders’, deserving of punishment, which would help ‘restore’ British identity.
The focus on immigrants and refugees also led to a spate of online hate communicated through the hashtag #raperefugees, which was used to depict Muslim refugees as rapists and people who should be feared. This sense of fear and online hate speech also crossed the boundaries when used in order to make direct physical threats with tweets related to blowing up mosques, using immigrants as ‘shooting practice’ and making refuges starve to death. The Brexit vote led to a spike in racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic attacks with a number of cases reported as such.
According to Komaromi et al. (2016)22, in 51% of the incidents perpetrators referred specifically to the Referendum. The most common phrases included ‘Go Home’ (74 stories), ‘Leave’ (80 stories), ‘f*** off’ (45 stories). These were followed up by statements such as: ‘we voted you out’; “we’re out of the EU now, we can get rid of ‘your lot’’; ‘when are you going home?’; “shouldn’t you be packing your bags?”.
Interestingly, they also found that the issue around nationalism was a key factor post-Brexit, with this issue around Englishness and British identity being exclusively for people who were white and Christian. Similarly, Demos (2016)23 found that immigration was one of the key themes made by Brexit supporters on Twitter in the run-up to the vote. In their analysis they found that between 22nd June and 30th June, 258,553 tweets were sent from the UK containing the words ‘migrant’, ‘migrants’, ‘immigrant’, ‘immigrants’, ‘refugee’, and ‘refugees’. General discussion about migrants and migration sharply increased over the day of the Brexit announcement. Overall they found that the 16,151 tweets using a xenophobic term sent from the UK, 5,484 were classified as ‘derogatory’ and ‘xenophobic’. On June 24th, 707 tweets were classified as xenophobic and on June 25th, 502 tweets were classified as xenophobic, and 2,225 as supportive. Similarly, they found that between 18 March and 30 June, 2016, 4,123,705 tweets were sent around the world containing words with an Islamophobic context.
2.2 Witnessing Offline Incidents after Brexit through Social Media
As discussed previously, the police recorded an increase in hate crimes after the Brexit vote. One of the interesting developments from the vote came with the use of social media by witnesses and those victims of abuse reporting incidents online. This included a range of tweets that captured different stories and incidents after Brexit. These offline events included people being verbally and physically abused in shopping centres and while going to work. We conclude that racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia had thus become ‘normalised’ to the extent that people felt they had a mandate following the EU Referendum vote to target people perceived to be visibly ‘different’. Below are a selection of tweets that appeared with respect to racist incidents people had witnessed.
Following the recent UK Government hate crime action plan, the report authors have developed some key recommendations. The following are a list of recommendations that they feel are important in relation to the findings:
1. Social Media Training and Workshop for Schools
One of the authors’ findings revealed that the majority of cyber hate speech on Twitter was directed towards Jo Cox MP and was committed by young people. The authors argue that for a long-term sustainable change of attitudes, social media training should be provided for teachers and children in primary and secondary schools which can help equip young people from an early age in better understanding the dangers of online hate speech. The authors also feel that social media companies must be better informed with respect to online hate speech. Therefore, the authors suggest that the use of social media training workshops for social media providers which highlight key words, issues and community impacts is crucial with respect to having a better understanding of online hate speech.
2. Counter-Messaging Protocol
In another of the authors’ findings, the [HOPE not hate-inspired] hashtag #MoreInCommon, launched with reference to Jo Cox, did reveal how social media can galvanise support and counter the ‘echo-chamber’ of online hate. The authors feel that in some cases a significant amount of work in relation to counter-messaging can help create a positive space on social media platforms such as Twitter. They believe that such an initiative could be part of a fund set up by social media companies and government, which will help counter online hateful rhetoric.
3. A duty of care for social media platforms
The authors believe that since users must sign up to a code of conduct, social media companies must also sign up to a specific duty of care and conduct. This duty of care would mean that social media companies can issue cautions online where users have used and shared harmful content. They argue that use of penalties to fine social media platforms if they are ‘reckless’ and have not met the standard duty of care could also help change the culture in tackling online hate speech.
4. Social media companies improving their response to online hate
The authors feel that social media companies must be more proactive in responding to online hate crime. This includes working alongside the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and prosecuting those who are responsible for posting, sharing and endorsing harmful content. They suggest that prosecution and also warnings must be given to those responsible for propagating harmful social media communications through retweets and sharing and distributing harmful content. They propose that social media companies must examine the offending content and consider whether it is emanating from the same users or groups of people.
5. Debating the nature of hate speech and striking the balance with free speech
The authors suggest that there is a need for a Parliamentary debate on how we balance free speech with actual incidents of hate speech. They argue that there needs to be an open public debate on what accounts to cyber hate speech and the implications such incidents have for offline attacks.
6. Online archive of hate incidents
An online tool that could help report directly to the police through social media networks is important, suggest the authors. This could be an online link that takes the police and social media companies to an archive where people are able to store material and collect evidence of the abuse people have suffered (such as dates, notices, and screenshots.) This could be potentially important in terms of evidence when considering a prosecution at a later date.
7. Improving the lives of victims of online hate crime
Much of the discourse about online hate ignores the role of victims and the authors believe much more could be done by relevant stakeholders when considering online hate impacts. A victim’s charter could be drawn up which allows for case studies and reports about victim impacts. This may help increase reporting of online hate and through the use of case studies may act as a deterrent.
1 NPCC (2016) Tackling hate crime remains a priority, http://news.npcc.police.uk/releases/tackling-hate-crime-remains-a-priority
2 Booth et al. (2016) Labour MP Jo Cox dies after being shot and stabbed, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/16/labour-mp-jo-cox-shot-in-west-yorkshire
4 Quinn, B. (2016) Six teenage boys arrested over death of Polish man in Essex, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/30/five-teenage-boys-arrested-after-man-dies-following-attack-in-essex
5 British Social Attitudes Survey (2013) Immigration highlights, http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-31/immigration/introduction.aspx
7 Burnap, P. and Williams, M. L. (2016) ‘Us and them: identifying cyber hate on Twitter across multiple protected characteristics’. EPJ Data Science.
8 King R.D. and Sutton, G.M. (2013) ‘High times for hate crime: explaining the temporal clustering of hate motivated offending’. Criminology 51(4): 871-894.
9 Glaser, B.G. and Strauss, A.L. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research, London: Sage.
10 Tufail, W. (2015) “Rotherham, rochdale, and the racialised threat of the 'Muslim Grooming Gang”. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 4 (3): 30-43.
11 Awan, I. and Zempi, I. (2015) ‘We Fear for Our Lives’: Offline and Online Experiences of Anti-Muslim Hostility, Report produced for Tell MAMA, http://tellmamauk.org/wp-content/uploads/resources/We%20Fear%20For%20Our%20Lives.pdf (Also see Awan, I and Zempi, I. (2015). Virtual and Physical World Anti-Muslim Hate Crime, The British Journal of Criminology, Advance Early Access http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/12/18/bjc.azv122.abstract
12 Tell MAMA (2015) The Geography of Anti-Muslim Hatred, Annual Report http://tellmamauk.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/tell_mama_2015_annual_report.pdf
13 Mann, S. (2016) London Ukip councillor Terence Nathan faces probe after suggesting campaigners trying to block Brexit should be killed, EveningStandard, http://www.standard.co.uk/news/crime/london-ukip-councillor-faces-probe-after-suggesting-campaigners-trying-to-block-brexit-should-be-a3300106.html
15 Migration Policy Institute (2016) Brexit: The Role of Migration in the Upcoming EU Referendum, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/brexit-role-migration-upcoming-eu-referendum
16 British-born Muslim converts Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, south-east London on 22 May 2013. This was the first al-Qaida-inspired attack to claim a life on British soil since the 7/7 bombings. A rise in online and offline Islamophobia following the Lee Rigby murder is well documented in the research literature (Awan and Zempi, 2015; Littler and Feldman, 2015).
17 Anders Behring Breivik is a Norwegian right-wing extremist who committed the 2011 Norway attacks. On 22 July 2011, he killed 69 people at a summer camp for young centre-left political activists on the island of Utoeya in July 2011. Earlier that day, he set off a car bomb in the capital, Oslo, killing eight people. In August 2012, he was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism.
18 Dylann Storm Roof is accused of the racially motivated massacre of nine African American parishioners after joining their bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on 17 June 2015.
19 Perry, B. and Olsson, P. (2009) ‘Cyberhate: the globalisation of hate’ Inf Commun Technol Law 18: 185-199.
21 Mortimer, C. (2016) Hate crimes surge by 42% in England and Wales since Brexit result, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/brexit-hate-crime-racism-stats-spike-police-england-wales-eu-referendum-a7126706.html
22 Komaromi et al. (2016) Post-referendum racism and xenophobia, Post Ref Racism, http://www.irr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/PRRX-Report-Final.pdf
23 Demos (2016) From Brussels to Brexit: Islamophobia, Xenophobia, Racism and Reports of Hateful Incidents on Twitter, http://www.demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/From-Brussels-to-Brexit_-Islamophobia-Xenophobia-Racism-and-Reports-of-Hateful-Incidents-on-Twitter-Research-Prepared-for-Channel-4-Dispatches-%E2%80%98Racist-Britain%E2%80%99-.pdf