Nothing illustrates the echo chambers of social media better than the constant outrage over Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
Omar, one of only two Muslim women in Congress, has garnered a great deal of media attention during her first few months in office. Her strident stances on U.S. foreign policy and blunt criticism of Trump administration officials have made her not just a symbol of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, but a lightning rod for criticism from both the left and right.
But while some of the criticism of Omar may be in good faith, it’s clear that a lot of it isn’t. Since coming into office, the freshman congresswoman has been a target of right-wing fear-mongering and anti-Muslim rhetoric. She has been accused of being an anti-Semite, having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and not being “grateful” enough to America, given that she came here as a refugee. Last month, a poster appeared in the West Virginia statehouse with an image of Omar under the burning World Trade Center towers and the words “Never Forget.”
The conservative media ecosystem is primed to seize on any misstep or statement she makes that can be mischaracterized.
We looked at how this conservative echo chamber turned criticism of Omar’s comments on the September 11 attacks into a major news story earlier this month. What we found doesn’t bode well for the left going forward. Conservative Twitter’s hate cauldron stews unbeknownst to the left, which counter-mobilizes only after the vitriol spills over into mainstream discourse. When Democratic lawmakers finally scramble into action, they do so in a fragmented and uncoordinated manner.
What the data says
Two weeks ago, conservative figures on Twitter seized on month-old comments Omar made at a Council on American-Islamic Relation (CAIR) event. In the brief clip that went viral, Omar is speaking about Muslims losing civil liberties after the 9/11 attacks. Conservatives seized on her phrasing — “some people did something, and… all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties” — to argue that Omar was belittling the attacks.
To investigate how a one-month old, short clip became a major news story, we downloaded a sample of tweets via Twitter’s application programming interface (API). We searched for tweets containing either the congresswoman’s name (“Ilhan Omar”) or her Twitter handle (“@IlhanMN”), posted from April 8 to 17. We then sorted influential Twitter accounts into ideological communities based on their retweeting patterns.
As is the case with many Twitter campaigns, a handful of accounts dominated the discourse on Omar, in the sense that they were retweeted far more often than others. From April 10 to 13, the height of traffic on this topic, just 1% of accounts generated over 80% of all Twitter traffic mentioning “Ilhan Omar.” Since searching by topic and by Twitter handle return slightly different kinds of results, we focused on the accounts responsible for the first 80% of “Ilhan Omar” traffic and the first 50% of “@IlhanMN” traffic.
Twitter activity mentioning Ilhan Omar among select ideological groups
Most media outlets framed the start of the dispute as the moment Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) tweeted out the video of Omar’s event on April 9. Crenshaw was quoting an earlier tweet by Imam Tawhidi, a self-described “Reformist Imam” from Australia popular among the American right for his criticisms of Islam.
Our analysis suggests this wave of outrage began even earlier, and these two were relative latecomers to the conservative ruckus. Starting on April 8, a range of figures both well-known (Donald Trump Jr.) and lesser-known (Daily Caller journalist Ryan Saavedra and Jewish American commentator Michael J. Morrison) began harping on Omar after she called Stephen Miller, who is Jewish, a white nationalist.
Twitter activity mentioning Ilhan Omar from 12:00 p.m. on April 8 until just before midnight, April 9
Waves of outrage built on each other. Tawhidi jumped into the fray near midnight EST and was picked up by Crenshaw the next day (after a nighttime drop-off in activity). Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel fed into the controversy through a series of tweets over the next few days, accusing Omar of “sympathizing with Islamic terrorists” and of being a “terrorist sympathizing anti-Semite who’s loved by Louis Farrakhan.”
Online mobilization on the left began as figures more visible to mainstream media coverage — such as Crenshaw, Trump Jr., and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) — continued to tweet about Omar. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Omar herself took to Twitter to confront the storm of controversy, although left-leaning mobilization continued to be reactive and piecemeal.
Conservative commentators continued to fan the flames through April 11, when the New York Post published a cover story with the burning Twin Towers and Omar’s name printed across the top.
Once Trump weighed in on April 12 with an edited video of Omar’s speech, he super-charged Twitter mobilization on the right and left.
Word clouds of the most prominent vocabulary in tweets mentioning“@IlhanMN” from liberal accounts, April 12-13, 2019. Word clouds of the most prominent vocabulary in tweets mentioning“@IlhanMN” from conservative accounts, April 12-13, 2019.
The left’s mobilization was not only late in arriving, however, but also fragmented.
While Pocan and Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), were quite vocal in their online defense of the congresswoman, many elected officials remained silent — either skeptical about the merits of defending Omar or concerned about electoral backlash in their districts.
More than 60% of House Democrats in the safest, most liberal districts defended Omar. Yet less than 30% of those in swing districts did so.
Percentage of Democratic representatives who appeared in our sample mentioning Ilhan Omar or her Twitter handle. Numbers in boxes are the total number of representatives in each class of district. One Democratic Representative — Collin Peterson (D-MN) — does not have a Twitter account.
This may provide some indication of why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) initial reaction was fairly tepid — a tweet saying the “memory of 9/11 is sacred ground” but making no mention of the president’s attack on Omar at all.
This analysis is by no means a perfect measure. Our method, for example, failed to capture Warren’s message of support and even Trump’s tweet because neither mentioned our keywords of interest.
Still, this episode points to the vulnerability of the entire Democratic coalition as the conservative outrage machine shifts into high gear ahead of the 2020 election. Democratic efforts to establish internal consensus ahead of potential controversies will be a key factor determining whether these bursts of outrage crash against a unified party in 2020, or succeed in turning liberals against each other.
Alexei Abrahams is an Open Technology Fund research fellow at Citizen Lab (Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto). You can find him on Twitter @abulkhaezuran.
Andrew Leber is a PhD student at Harvard University’s Department of Government. You can find him on Twitter @AndrewMLeber.