SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Social Media Reactions to SKF's Posts after the Attack on Salman Rushdie

Tuesday , 23 August 2022
Photo credit: AP Photo/Grant Pollard

On Saturday August 13, as he was getting ready to give a lecture in New York, “The Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie was stabbed. This resulted in a grievous injury that required Rushdie’s hospitalization. In light of this shocking violation of freedom of expression, the Samir Kassir Foundation’s SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom released online statements standing in solidarity with Rushdie and condemning the crime committed.


In this social media analysis report, we will be taking a closer look at the public’s response to SKeyes’s statements over each platform from August 13 to 15, 2022 (inclusive).

Twitter

The first analysis is linked to the Twitter post (Img. 1), where 78 replies were documented.


Twitter Classifications:

  • Positive tweets: Tweets that condemned the physical attack on Rushdie and/or the online attacks on SKF, supported Rushdie and/or SKF, and/or countered/debunked negative tweets.
  • Negative tweets: Tweets that attacked Rushdie and/or SKF, supported the attacker and/or any entity figure encouraging the assault on Rushdie.
  • Neutral tweets: Tweets that neither attacked nor supported either side, tweets that simply enquired on the issues discussed or relayed information of the incident.


Img. 1: SKF’s Twitter post supporting Salman Rushdie and condemning his attacker’s actions.



Figure 1. Language of tweets


Figure 2. Gender of author


Figure 3. Political affiliation of author


Figure 4. Sentiment analysis


Figure 5. Engagement metrics

All 78 monitored tweets were Arabic. Meanwhile, most of the authors were male (74% - 58 accounts), while only 10% were female (8 accounts). The gender of 16% of the accounts (12 accounts) was unidentifiable. In addition, the political affiliation of 41% of the accounts (32 accounts) was unidentifiable. However, among the recognizable accounts, all of the authors were Hezbollah supporters (59% - 46 accounts), therefore and based on previous experience, the evidence suggests this is another organized campaign involving cyber armies.

When looking at the engagement metrics, it is easy to notice that the negative tweets dominate the arena. However, a few things stand out. First, none of the tweets have any “Retweets.” Second, there is low collective number of “Likes” (49 Likes for 78 Tweets). In fact, upon closer observation, the highest liked tweet earned 17 likes, during the 48-hour observation period, followed by a tweet that earned six likes.  This indicates that the tweets were sent in mass, but substance and virality were not elements considered.


Most of the attacks were directed at SKF itself, though a few attacked Salman Rushdie as a person. On that note, the sentiment analysis showed that the overwhelming majority of the tweets (88% - 69 tweets) were “negative.” On the other hand, a mere 8% - six tweets were “positive” while only 4% - three tweets were counted as “neutral.” Others justified the assault on him, and even glorified the violence in disturbing ways.


A few common lines of arguments stood prominent. The first often compared Rushdie’s “insult to Islam” to deniers of the holocaust. Some asked why the former should be allowed while holocaust deniers are shut down. The key difference is that denying the holocaust means denying the collective suffering inflicted on humans, while criticizing or even insulting a religion, any religion, remains an attack on an idea, rather than people.






Img. 2: tweets glorifying and justifying the act of stabbing Rushdie and those expressing similar views

The second rhetoric reflects a twisted, subjective definition and understanding of freedom of expression. As seen in Img. 3 below, the authors often stated that even freedom of expression should have its limits and religion must not be insulted, completely disregarding that the freedom to criticize and insult falls under the umbrella or the freedom to express itself. Furthermore, any limits on freedom of expression are highly subjective and susceptible to personal interpretation, meaning there is no “universal limit” that could satisfy every individual.



Img. 3: tweets stating that freedom of expression should have its limits and religion must not be insulted

Facebook

On Facebook, 135 comments under SKF’s Facebook post condemning the stabbing of Rushdie were monitored and analyzed during the same timeframe (August 13-15, 2022). The overwhelming majority of comments under SKF’s post were in Arabic (98%, 132 comments) while only three comments were in English (2%). When it came to gender, the majority of the users were male (84%, 113) while the others (16%, 22 accounts) were female. Furthermore, the majority of the users who posted content did not exhibit any political affiliation (93%, 125 comments). Yet, among those who did exhibit a visible one, 2% (3 accounts) were Amal Movement supporters, 1% (2 accounts) were Hezbollah supporters. Likewise, 1% of the users showed affiliation with the Free Patriotic Movement (2 accounts) and another 1% appeared to be Future Movement supporters (2 accounts). Only one account showed affiliation with the Lebanese Communist Party (1%).


The majority of the comments heavily targeted Salman Rushdie specifically with atrocious accusations. In total, 87 comments (65%) displayed negative content towards Rushdie while only seven comments were positive (5%). The other comments (30%, 41 comments) were neutral. It was evident that most people agreed with the negative comments as they are the ones that received most of the likes and other reactions. Meanwhile, only one positive comment received 41 likes showing that some people do advocate for freedom of speech yet might be scared to post comments about it due to the overwhelming amount of negative and hateful rhetoric surrounding the incident in general and SKF’s Facebook post in particular. Those numbers are enough to build the impression of consensus around the Lebanese reaction to what happened with Rushdie as most of them are against him due to the religious accusations against him.

Instagram


This subsection is primarily focused on analyzing the user response to SKF’s own statement on Instagram, with the caption found below:

#SalmanRushdie, stabbed by the darkest form of brain washing. The attack on @salman.rushdie is a sobering reminder that the battle for freedom and enlightenment is an everyday, worldwide struggle.

 

The monitoring process later resulted in a sample of 28 original and relevant comments, posted from August 13 to 15, 2022, with a total of 50 comments when also including pertinent replies and mentions within the same section. Moreover, all 87 comment likes, and 27 comment replies went to negative comments, with positive/neutral content receiving no likes or engagement. Other key indicators regarding the distribution of the content have been noticed in the process, as demonstrated by these graphs.

Figure 6. Content distribution according to nature of sentiment


Figure 7. Content distribution according to the language of the comment

It is unambiguously clear that the vast majority of commenters have exceptionalized religion or religious texts when assessing the right to free speech, therefore suggesting that commentators, academics, writers, and people in general can be penalized or punished for hard-hitting or “deviant” critiques of religion.


On a more interesting note, even the only relatively “positive” comment (designated as positive to distinguish it) did not necessarily raise the bar on the freedom to critique religion or comment on texts and prophets in an unconventional manner, but instead focused on the more “technical” aspect of executing the punishment, suggesting that the way in which it was conducted was not right. While this discourse can be scrutinized, it also provides us with more contextualized tactical answers about how some people tend to positively address matters while remaining limited by religious judgement.


Conclusion

On every platform, “negative” posts constituted the majority of the replies to SKF’s posts. For Twitter in particular, the metrics only showed that the quantity of the tweets far outweighed their quality in terms of analytics. This observation, alongside the political affiliation of the accounts, hints at an organized campaign.


Meanwhile, the support for freedom of expression, in its true and proper essence, remains shy. Whether this is due to personal beliefs or fear of repercussions remains largely uncertain; but what is clear is that even the most “positive” posts monitored did not garner the support some of the top negative posts received. Certain rhetoric was common across platforms, specifically the one putting religion on a pedestal, even at the cost human lives. This indicates that the problem cannot be narrowed down to cyber armies and political games alone but reflects an overall culture in Lebanon that is yet to come to terms with the influence of religion on human rights and freedom of expression.

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