Islamophobia: Stoking Fear & Prejudice in the 2018 Midterms

Document Type



Graduate School of Media and Communications


Two American Muslim members of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, have become the primary targets of President Donald Trump’s xenophobic 2020 reelection campaign rhetoric. But the vilification of the pair began the moment they entered national politics in the 2018 midterm elections. This paper examines the experiences of Omar, Tlaib, and other Muslim candidates who ran in the midterms. While many Muslim candidates reported limited encounters with Islamophobia among their constituents, we found a social media narrative of manufactured outrage that was disproportionately Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It was heavily influenced by a small number of agents provocateurs, whose hate-filled messages and disinformation were amplified by networks of accounts operating on a scale that signals the involvement of organized networks. These operations largely replaced Breitbart and other extreme-right media entities that were the primary source of the anti-Muslim dialogue in the 2016 presidential campaign. They spread hate speech like a virus on social media through both human interaction and the use of bots, sockpuppets, and automated “cyborg” accounts, poisoning the political narrative, drawing in both likeminded and unsuspecting individuals, and disproportionately amplifying—and, for some, normalizing— the message of intolerance.