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Propaganda and Disinformation Target Muslim Candidates During Midterms

Aisha Yaqoob is American Muslim hijab-wearing woman who is the 2018 Democratic candidate for the 97th District in the Georgia House of Representatives. The daughter of immigrants, Yaqoob, 25, is one of the nearly 90 Muslims running for public office nationwide. But facing that unprecedented number of Muslim candidates running in the midterms are perhaps the most Islamophobic U.S. elections ever. She is one of those candidates who face such hate, particularly on her social media pages.

The Islamophobic harassment, however, wasn’t always such a pressing concern. Only after her photo and social media pages were posted on a right-wing website this year did the wave of Islamophobic hate came crashing in.

But the hateful comments didn’t have anything to do with Yaqoob’s stances on the issues she promoted, she said; rather, they always referred to her faith and racial identity. The online critics told her to go back to her country and accused her of bringing Sharia, or Islamic law, to the United States. 

“It’s not even about my platforms. It’s literally just about who I am,” she told HuffPost. “[My campaign] had to spend a lot of time and a lot of money, frankly, just making sure that people knew who I was before we even got the chance to start to talk about issues or ask for their vote.”

The use of anti-Muslim bigotry in political campaigns is not new, but new research by the Information Disorder Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy released last week outlined the various propaganda tactics right-wing websites and activists utilized to target and smear Muslim candidates. 

The goals of such campaigns is to primarily see Muslim candidates lose their elections, said Stefanie Le, a researcher at IDLab. These right-wing websites are doing so by “otherizing these candidates” and “appealing to the fears that have been stoked in the political climate,” she added.

The findings list the five most common tactics used to target Muslim candidates in 2018 races. The most common tactic recorded by the research center was falsely accusing Muslim candidates of having ties to terrorism and extremism. One such example can be found in Minnesota, where Muslim Democratic candidate Ilhan Omar is running for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District.

In her heavily Democratic district, Omar, a former Somali refugee, is poised to be one of the first Muslim women and the first Somali-American in Congress. Muslims currently hold only two of the 535 seats in Congress.

Despite her qualifications and like Yaqoob, Omar is constantly attacked on various websites, including in her district, where local GOP members set up a site and leveled a litany of false accusations against her. The site called her dangerous, accused her of aiding terrorists and said she broke immigration laws ― allegations that she has denied and that various media investigations have disproved.

The report also lists other tactics used to target Muslim candidates, such as coordinating smear campaigns, exaggerating “scandals” involving Muslim candidates that are then echoed on conservative news sites and social media channels, and guilt by association, which targets non-Muslim candidates who work alongside Muslim candidates.

Such tactics are in line with the rising Islamophobia seen in politics and beyond. Last month a report from Muslim Advocates documented dozens of candidates nationwide who ran on anti-Muslim platforms, such as claiming that Muslims want to take over the U.S. government.

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