Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How To Become The President of the United States… Target Islamophobia

The world is still in shock after Donald Trump was elected the President of the United States. While many people have pointed out flaws in Hilary Clinton’s campaign strategy, not many have focused on one particular strategy employed by Donald Trump that almost certainly played a major role in his victory – his focus on the persisting Islamophobic stereotypes surrounding Muslims in the United States post 9/11.

This blog focuses on how Donald Trump manipulated a majority of the public to vote for him by spewing baseless information about Muslims. He was essentially building on the stereotypes harboured by right wing media such as Fox News, for decades. Together, these two forces reinforced each other’s claims and now we have the results right in front of us.

The Stereotypes

‘Islam preaches violence
‘Muslims identify with terrorism
‘Muslims promote groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS
‘Muslims hate the LGBT community’
‘You cannot be Muslims and be patriotic to America simultaneously’

These are just some of the stereotypes Muslims all over the world, particularly in the US, are faced with. I do not deny that a 17-year-old Muslim refugee went on a stabbing spree in Germany. I do not deny that a Muslim man, Omer Mateen was responsible for the Pulse nightclub killings in Orlando. I also do not deny that a group of individuals claiming to be Muslim were responsible for the Paris attacks in November of last year. Unfortunately, because of the acts of a few individuals, the rest of the 1.6 billion Muslims (including myself) have fallen prey to the ultimate attribution error, that is, all Muslims are considered to have similar dispositions. It’s no wonder that hate crimes against Muslims have been on the rise.

According to FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics published in 2013, hate crimes against Muslims have been “five times higher than the pre-911 rates” (Mcelwee & Cohen, 2016) While hate crimes against other groups dropped in 2014, hate crimes against Muslims increased by nearly 14%.
The shooting of a newly wed couple Deah, 23, his wife Yosur Muhammad, 21, and his sister-in-law Razan, 19, at the University of North Carolina is just one example of the horrific acts against Muslims in recent years. Another is of Abdul Usmani, a 7-year-old Pakistani boy who was beaten and bullied by five classmates in the US for being Muslim.

These names and statistics aren’t just regular news for me. Every time I hear something along these lines, I can’t help but feel vulnerable because I myself am a Muslim studying in a foreign country and such cases are being reported all around the world. The only difference is, the US has a president openly making gross and offensive remarks about the Muslim community.  

Shaking up the Stereotypes

Trump managed to tap into anti-Muslim sentiments by making numerous controversial statements. For example: ‘ I think Islam hates us. There’s something there. There’s tremendous hatred there. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is unbelievable hatred there’ He also claimed that he personally saw  ‘thousands and thousands’ of people in an area of New Jersey cheering as the World Trade Center came down; an area densely populated by Arabs. He also proposed a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States as well as ‘respectfully’ checking into the activities that go on in mosques around the country. While these statements caused a huge outcry, they managed to increase Trump’s supporter base as well. 

 This raises the question:

How did a blatantly racist and xenophobic man use Islamophobia to persuade the majority to vote for him as the President of one of the most diverse nations?

The Information Manipulation Theory
One possible answer lies within this theory. According to this, in order to persuade, a person deliberately breaks one of the following conversational maxims (Dawson & Brashers, 1996):

1.     Quantity: Information is complete without omissions
2.     Quality: Information given is truthful and correct
3.     Relation: Information is relevant to the subject of discussion
4.     Manner: Information is presented in a comprehensible way

The most observable tactic adopted by Donald Trump was violating the quality of the information he presented.

There is a very simple explanation showing how this works in a paper by Gawronski and Bodenhausen (2006)

This paper focuses on the associative and propositional processes behind evaluations or judgments. Associative processes or implicit attitudes are the automatic emotional responses that are activated when one encounters a specific and relevant stimulus, e.g. negative emotions when one hears the word Muslim or encounters one. The most important feature of associative processes is that they are independent of the assignment of truth-values. Therefore, they can be activated irrespective of the accuracy of the evaluations (Devine, 1989) e.g. negative associations regarding Muslims may be high despite an individual considering such associations to be false or invalid. A personal example is of my cousin – an American Muslim whose childhood best friend’s parents voted for Trump. Surely, the parents know my cousin, uncle and aunt very well. They are aware that they are devout Muslims as well as patriotic Americans who have adopted the American culture. Then why did they claim to support Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks despite them knowing they are inaccurate?

This brings us to propositional processes. These are evaluative judgments result from propositions that are derived from the automatic affective responses e.g. a negative reaction when one encounters a Muslim becomes the proposition ‘I dislike Muslims’. These propositions are then subjected to reflection, that is, when a person validates the proposition with other relevant propositions relevant to the judgment. Therefore, if the propositional implication of an automatic affective reaction is consistent with other propositions then it serves as a basis for the evaluation. Therefore, people who held the proposition that they dislike Muslims had it validated by Trump’s racist comments as well as right-wing media such as Fox News.
For example, when Fox News host Bill Maher stated that Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia and Muslims would ‘kill anyone who say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book’, many people had justified their dislike/hate for the Muslim community.

The Statistics
The results from the American National Election Studies (ANES) conducted earlier this year prove the explanation above (Mcelwee & Cohen, 2016)

As you can see, approximately 40 percent of Trump supporters chose ‘extremely well’ when asked how much the word ‘violent’ describes Muslims; a number significantly higher than the Democrats and other Republicans.

There is also evidence to show how Fox News has impacted the level of anti-Muslim sentiment. According to Jason McDaniel, a political scientist, right-wing media is fostering Islamophobic stereotypes. He found that Republicans who watch Fox News regularly are more likely to consider Muslims as violent.

The Information Manipulation Theory is just one of the persuasive techniques Donald Trump used and Muslims are just one of the many other groups he targeted to win the elections. However, the employment of this technique on the Muslim group in particular had a massive impact on the public. His supporters were not just ignorant Americans who had little prior knowledge to validate his false claims. They were ordinary, educated people as well. That is the power of manipulation as a tool to persuade people when it is used the right way– a man with no prior political experience is now the leader of the free world.

I would just like to end the blog by saying: I am a Muslim and I am not a terrorist. I am a Muslim and I do not support ISIS. I am a Muslim and I do not hate the LGBT community. 99.99% of the Muslims are like me. It’s a shame that I, or any other Muslim have to justify myself because of the religion I follow because of the acts of 0.01% of the Muslim population.


Jacobs, S., Dawson, E. J., & Brashers, D. (1996). Information manipulation theory: A replication and assessment. Communications Monographs63, 70-82.

Gawronski, B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2006). Associative and propositional processes in evaluation: an integrative review of implicit and explicit attitude change. Psychological bulletin132, 692.

Mcelwee, S., & Cohen, P. (2016, March 18). The secret to Trump’s success: New research sheds light on the GOP front-runner’s stunning staying power. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from

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