New Research Delves into the Sunni/Shia Conflict on Twitter

by Grant Baker

In June, Bahrain revoked the citizenship of Isa Qassim, one of the most important Shia clerics and public figures in Bahrain. The arrest prompted a bevy of tweets from users who both disagreed and agreed with the decision. A number of researchers are examining the Twittersphere in various ways to understand the ways in which online sectarianism works and its relationship with sectarianism offline. In response to this particular incident, Marc Owen Jones, a professor in Germany, searched through the tweets and found that many anti-Shia tweets containing sectarian terms appeared to be coming from bots. After his study, Twitter banned 1,800 accounts that it believed to be bots. In July, Jones posited that some of the banned accounts may be affiliated with the news channel Saudi24 because many of the tweets included links to the website. While bots are definitely a problem, there is no denying that sectarian rhetoric on Twitter comes from real accounts as well. Sectarianism happens both ways, but anti-Shia sectarianism is far more widespread than anti-Sunni sentiment. In a 2015 study that cataloged 7 million Arabic tweets, a “vast majority” were anti-Shia. Likewise, after the arrest of the Saudi Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric, in January 2016, research at NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation lab found 900,000 anti-Shia tweets and only 30,000 anti-Sunni tweets.

Underlying sectarian tensions have always existed in the Middle East, but the US invasion of Iraq coupled with the fall of myriad autocratic Middle Eastern governments led to a spread of sectarian sentiment across the region. In different countries, this sectarianism takes different forms; for example, in Lebanon there is Christian and Muslim sectarianism, and in Iraq there are sectarian divides between Arabs and Kurds, but the most extensive brand of sectarianism throughout the region has been Sunni-Shia sectarianism. Sunnis and Shias have different interpretations of Islam, rooted in the choice of the prophet’s successor. Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr, the caliph who succeeded the Prophet, is the rightful heir because the companions of the prophet chose him, while the Shia believe that Ali, the prophet’s cousin, is the rightful heir because he was related to Muhammad. This split influences differences in religious practice in addition to the rhetoric that appears online today, as does the split between predominantly Sunni Arabs and largely Shia Iranians, who are commonly associated with all Shia in the region. Beyond the debate over identity, most analysts agree that the conflict in Syria has also led to a huge uptick in sectarianism and often shapes this rhetoric, both on and offline.

The anti-Shia rhetoric that has become popular on Twitter includes words such as rafidha, nusayri, majus, and safawi, which are not limited to strictly religious differences. While rafidha, meaning “refuser,” refers to Shia’s denial of the line of caliphs in the Sunni tradition, safawi refers to the Safavid empire’s expansion throughout the Middle East. Nusayri refers neither to the Iranians or the Shia, but to the Alawites, the ethnic minority in Syria that includes Bashar al-Assad. Some of the other popular anti-Shia terms found in the Carnegie study include hizb al-shaytan and hizb al-lat, both referencing the Lebanese Hezbollah’s role in the Middle East (which many see as promoting Iran’s agenda), and associating the group with the devil (Shaytan) and a “pre-Islamic Arabian goddess” (Lat). Therefore, sectarianism is not as simple as religious differences, but often relates to race and and geopolitical differences in the region.

Similarly, anti-Sunni rhetoric often includes words such as wahabia, takfiri, nasabi and ummawi. Like the anti-Shia rhetoric, some of the words are religious; takfiri refers to the Salafist practice of banishing and killing “non-Muslims,” often including Shia depending on the interpretation, while the use of the word wahabia intends to associate the majority of Sunnis is the Middle East with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf. There are terms that are a bit more complicated, such as daesh, which Twitter users use primarily to refer to the Islamic state, but sometimes use to refer to all Sunnis in the region.

The dominance of anti-Shia sentiment is not surprising: The Gulf, which is predominantly Sunni, is particularly active on Twitter. As of 2014, Kuwait had the highest Twitter penetration and Saudi Arabia the second highest in the region. Saudi Arabia had 2,414,000 Twitter users as of 2014, more than any other country in the region. Despite the fact that the top cleric in Saudi Arabia said "Twitter is for clowns," Saudi citizens remain particularly active. Certain Sunni figures hold particular influence; in a Brookings study, Geneive Abdo analyzed how influential Salafists on Twitter contribute to sectarian discourse online and found that many of the most influential preachers had a large number of Twitter followers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. She writes, “It is today’s Salafists who are proving to be the standard bearers of anti-Shia discourse;” these clerics use “Xenophobic rhetoric about the Shi’a, Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.” Muhammad al-Arefe, a Salafist preacher from Saudi Arabia has over 8.3 million followers, 49% of whom are Saudi. However, Saudi Arabians also comprise 52% of the 1.3 million followers of Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian Salafist, and significant percentages of the followers of smaller Lebanese Salafists. Of equal importance, the vast majority of the followers of Salafi preachers are young men under the age of 34. This is especially relevant as many of these preachers regularly encourage Sunni muslims across the Middle East to fight the Assad regime in Syria.

The same Brookings study tracked events in Syria and concluded that tweets “do escalate” around violent events in the Syrian war, though it did not prove correlation. However, the Carnegie study that reviewed over 7 million Arabic tweets in 2015 found that sectarian rhetoric on Twitter rose around violent events, albeit for a brief amount of time. The most dramatic increase in anti-Shia tweets occurred after the Saudi government led the bombing campaign against Yemen, but these increases do not last too long. Counter-sectarian tweets also rise around the same time as bombings of mosques. For example, the bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait led to the most counter-sectarian tweets, though other users often misinterpret these tweets as pro-Shia.

Understanding sectarianism both on and offline is critical to understanding the region; as Alexandra Siegel notes in the Carnegie study: “When hate speech moves from the realm of terrorists and extremists to state and socially sanctioned actors, sectarian narratives take on even more power, breeding intolerance and further alienating marginalized populations.” Offline, hate speech can only move so fast, but in the Twitterverse, phrases and ideas move at a much faster rate. Although this means that Twitter could potentially be more toxic for sectarian attitudes, Siegel also concludes that there is a positive: “Twitter users espousing diverse and frequently clashing messages often engage with one another and are not isolated in ideologically homogeneous echo chambers.”