#StopIslam and the altruistic punishment impulse on Twitter

posted at 7:41 pm on March 22, 2016 by John Sexton

Shortly after the Belgian terror attacks the hashtag #StopIslam started trending on Twitter. There’s an interesting  piece in the Washington Post about the hashtag and how it became a worldwide trend:

The hashtag has been in circulation for at least five years, when it first entered the tea party-Twitter lexicon alongside bigoted mainstays such as #bansharia and #IslamIsTheProblem. It began spiking in Spain early this morning, when some trollish, right-wing Twitter users there began tweeting it…

Within minutes, dozens of Spanish users had condemned #StopIslam on the hashtag itself; within the hour, it was trending worldwide.

An analysis of 1,333 global #StopIslam tweets scraped by the Post between 9:20 a.m. and 12:50 p.m. shows that roughly 90 percent were critical of the hashtag. And according to a network analysis tool developed by researchers at North Carolina State University, the single most cogent conversation around the hashtag was surprise and anger that it ever trended.

If you read the entire Post piece, you’ll see the author believes she has tracked the entire trend to a tweet put out by an anonymous account named for a Spanish soccer player. But again, it wasn’t that tweet so much as the strong reactions to it that apparently got the hashtag going. The Post notes that something similar happened after the Paris attack, “Anti-Muslim rhetoric spikes disturbingly on social media after an attack, but the spike of anti-anti-Muslim rhetoric is even more dramatic.”

The behavior the Post is describing is very common on Twitter and definitely not limited to discussion of religion or terrorism. It encompasses all manner mass verbal barrages aimed at punishing offensive comments (#HasJustineLandedYet is a well known example). Researchers call this behavior altruistic punishment. I wrote about this in more detail last year:

Novelist Douglas Preston has written an excellent e-book about the topic of altruistic punishment. Preston became interested in the topic after he wrote something about the Amanda Knox case online and became the target of a relentless online mob harassing him for having the wrong opinions.

What Preston discovered is a pocket of social science research which applies to a disturbing percentage of our online interactions. Altruistic punishment, simply put, is the expression of negative emotions toward those who fail to cooperate with the group. It is a pressure tactic designed to whip people into line with the tribe and its goals.

The purpose of altruistic punishment seems to be to fight the tendency to freeload. In a group where cooperation is necessary for survival, there will always be some who coast on the effort of others. Altruistic punishment may have developed as a way to discourage that kind of freeloading. But with the advent of social media, it seems to apply to everything and everyone who fails to get in line with the group’s priorities.

What’s interesting about this particular trend is the Post’s factoid, i.e. 90% of the #StopIslam tweets were people upset that #StopIslam was trending. Now that may have been a bit later once the full backlash had begun, but it’s interesting because if you take away 90% of those tweets the hashtag itself probably would either a) not have become a top trend or b) would have stopped trending hours sooner. It was the reaction that gave it legs and ensured even more people would see the hashtag and take a moment to lament the fact it was trending. This is Twitter as a kind of perpetual motion machine of altruistic punishment. The nature of this behavior means it is just as likely to create victims as heroes. Those celebrating it today might want to think about that.

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