Relying on social media for news increases support for anti-Muslim policies, new PLS research finds

August 1, 2022 - Karessa Weir

The more people use social media as a news source, the more exposed they are to false and prejudicial content. And it the case of anti-Muslim content, the more likely they are to support anti-Muslim policies as a result.

Dr. Nazita Lajevardi has published her research “Hate, amplified? Social media news consumption and support for anti-Muslim policies” in the Journal of Public Policy.

She and her co-authors, Drs. Kassra A.R. Oskooii (University of Delaware) and Hannah Walker (University of Texas at Austin) undertook three original surveys and found “reliance on social media is linked to policy attitudes across partisan divide and for individuals who reported holding positive or negative feelings towards Muslims.”

“These findings highlight the need for further investigation into the political ramification of information presented on contemporary social media outlets, particularly information related to stigmatized group,” the authors wrote.

Previous research has found that the way social media delivers news creates “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” which silos users within their own social networks and exacerbates political polarization. Meanwhile, the growing polarization is seen through ethno-racial conflicts on- and offline. The researchers focused on social media reliance it is arguably a venue for this polarization.

“Unlike traditional news media outlets, who are tethered to actual news and subject to fact-checking, the social media environment facilitates the development and spread of sensational, misleading and sometimes outright false information,” they wrote.

For example, because of media portrayals of the role of Islam in promoting terrorism, Muslim men have been typecast as inherently violent. And the wearing of the hijab by some Muslim women is seen as oppressive and backward.

In social media specifically, the more negative and sensational stories garner more comments and shares “prolonging the life of the headline and heightening traffic to the origin site.” For Muslims, the majority of those posts are negative.

The anti-Muslim posts themselves are motivated by both political and profit incentives. And the more a person interacts with Islamophobic posts, the more they appear in one’s feed.

For one study, Lajevardi, Oskooii, and Walker focused on two anti-Muslim policies in the news during the 2016 presidential primary season – Donald Trump’s “Muslim Travel Ban” and Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s call to heighten the monitoring of Muslim neighborhoods.  They then surveyed how much respondents relied on a variety of information sources regarding politics.

“Greater reliance on social media is associated with more support for limiting Muslim Americans from reentering the US if they have left the country for any reason,” they wrote. “We find nearly identical results with respect to support for deploying extra police patrols in Muslim neighborhoods.”

Relying on social media increased support for the Muslim travel ban by 9 percent and the same for the Muslim patrol proposal. This holds true for people who self-identify as Democrats as well as Republicans.

Two subsequent studies verified these findings.

“Democrats and Republicans who rely on social media platforms to obtain information about politics are consistently more likely than nonsocial media users to endorse Islamophobic policies, such as not allowing US Muslim citizens to purchase weapons. This relationship holds even after accounting for other media sources, political ideology, and Muslim favorability,” they found.

The researchers argue that the stigma holds true for other minority groups and found initial evidence of anti-Latino rhetoric surrounding posts about a US-Mexico border wall.

The good news is there are many things social media companies can and do to slow the spread of misinformation, Dr. Lajevardi said.

"Very small actions such as asking users if they would like to read an article (e.g. click on a hyperlink) before they retweet or flagging tweets as misleading especially when made by public figures with large followings is certainly one easy step forward," she said. "There's far more that can be done in terms of content moderation that numerous scholars and activists have called for."


Nazita Lajevardi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science. Her scholarship focuses mainly on issues related to race and ethnic politics, political behavior, voting rights, and immigration.

Kassra Oskooii is an Associate Professor in the Department Political Science and International Relations and Provost Teaching Fellow at the University of Delaware. His work centers American Political Behavior and Minority Politics, and his research and teaching focuses on the interplay between the contextual and psychological determinants of political opinions and behaviors of high and low status group members.

Hannah Walker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines the impact of the criminal justice system on American democracy with special attention to minority and immigrant communities.