Professor Peter Hopkins and Dr Robin Finlay, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University
Background to submission - Our submission draws upon a project where we examined the political interests and political participation of young Muslims (aged 15-27) in Scotland. Through this research we have gained significant insights into barriers and possibilities encountered by young Muslims when engaging in politics and in public life, which we believe is valuable for the work of Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee. In addition to the research on political participation, we also draw on other academic experiences of working with Muslims communities to broaden our contribution. Our final report from this project has been published here:
In response to the questions identified by the Committee, we respond in particular to questions 1, 3 and 8 below
1. How has digital technology changed the way that democracy works in the UK and has this been a net positive or negative effect?
We found that digital technologies were having varied impacts on young Muslims. The impacts were making some marginalised and less inclined to participate, while for others, digital technology was empowering and assisting democratic and civic participation. We found that young Muslims access much information relevant to democracy through digital technologies such as social media and the internet more broadly. Importantly, digital technologies are a way young Muslims engage with politics and practice democracy and citizenship. Political engagement and political discussion were frequently facilitated by social networking platforms, which created the potential for young Muslims to be more democratically and politically informed and engaged. However, social media was frequently cited as one of the most common places they are exposed to and experience overt Islamophobia and racist stereotyping. This was commonly through user comments, media articles and political campaigning and activism. For example, consider the following quote:
Yesterday I was watching a YouTube video and it was just a pretty harmless video of people trying Pakistani snacks. And obviously, I just randomly went to the comments section just to see what people wrote about. And loads of people were just kind of against Muslims and saying how Muslims should be thrown out of America, thrown out of UK, all kinds of racist comments that you just kind of feel…You just kind of feel scared knowing that people like that are out there. Fahad (Male, 16–18, Scottish-Pakistani, Glasgow).
As the quote highlights, young Muslims frequently see and receive Islamophobic and racist comments on social media, which can engender a sense of insecurity and fear in their everyday lives. This highlights how discrimination in online spaces affects the material lived spaces of young Muslims and can infiltrate everyday spaces through their mobile phones or through their home computers. We found that for some, the hostility on online spaces can make them withdraw and it can limit the extent of their democratic participation. For example, consider the following quote:
… I don't I feel like I can voice my opinion because I feel like I am too scared of the reaction I am going to get. Whereas like there will be things that I feel strongly but I won't write anything because I know that there will be someone out there that has something to say. And it kind of discourages you, but then obviously there are people who are more proud and they can say it. But I feel like for a young teenage girl … the controversy of voicing my opinion, the abuse I would get. Abida (16–18, Scottish–Pakistani, Glasgow)
For young Muslims, the realm of social media can be a highly hostile space, which can have varied effects on their democratic processes.
3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?
Given that Islamophobia and racism are frequently communicated and perpetuated on digital technologies, educating younger people about digital citizenship and the need to take responsibility for what is said online is of great importance. Moreover, there is a need to educate younger people to be critical users of digital technology and assist younger people to question the legitimacy of the information and news they consume online thereby helping bolster their resilience.
8. To what extent does social media negatively shape public debate, either through encouraging polarisation or through abuse deterring individuals from engaging in public life?
As we illustrated in our response to question 1, social media can have negative impacts on shaping public debate and can deter individuals from engaging in public life. This is primarily due to how Islamophobia is perpetuated in online spaces and in the media. Social media was frequently cited as one of the most common places in which young Muslims experience overt Islamophobia and racist stereotyping. This was commonly through user comments, media articles and political campaigning and activism. Moreover, most participants had frequently been exposed to negative and sensationalist representations about Muslims in the media, including on social media. Reporting about terrorism was often seen as one of the most problematic aspects of the media, as many felt that it perpetuates problematic stereotypes by associating Islam with terrorism. There would appear to be a clear correlation between geopolitical events and Islamophobia in the media and social media. For example, events such as terrorist attacks, the refugee ‘crisis’ and Brexit have resulted in an increase in media and social media narratives that stigmatize Muslim identities and the Islamic religion. From this research project, it is clear that the media – including a combination of print, broadcast and social media - play a key role in promoting Islamophobia, which encourages polarisation and can deter individuals from engaging in public life. However, as we illustrated in the response to question 1, we also found that some young Muslims were using media and social media platforms to challenge and resist Islamophobia. Through media and social media platforms they are re-orientating themselves into more public and visible spaces in order to challenge the marginalising processes of Islamophobia thereby using social media and digital technologies as a mechanism for challenging stereotypes and engaging in political life.