Sunni-Shi a Conflict and Cooperation in the Digital Age
Amid mounting death tolls in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, sectarian discourse is on the rise across the Arab world—particularly in the online sphere, where extremist voices are amplified and violent imagery and rhetoric spreads rapidly. Despite this, social media also provides a space for cross-sectarian discourse and activism. Analysis of over 7 million Arabic tweets from February to August 2015 suggests that violent events and social network structures play key roles in the transmission of this sectarian and countersectarian rhetoric on Twitter. The vast majority of tweets containing anti-Shia, anti-Sunni, or countersectarian rhetoric were sent from the Gulf and were especially concentrated in Saudi Arabia, mirroring Twitter’s demographic distribution across the Arab world, as well as rising tensions and regime crackdowns on the Saudi Shia population. Anti-Shia rhetoric is much more common online than anti-Sunni or countersectarian rhetoric, reflecting the minority status of Shia throughout the region and the manner in which anti-Shia rhetoric is amplified by influential Twitter users with millions of followers. While social media has facilitated Sunni-Shia interaction online, including the coordination of joint political protest movements, today countersectarian rhetoric is often dismissed or decried as pro-Shia propaganda.
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