Saturday, November 23, 2013

Warsan Ismail's Twitter Posts Spark Nationwide Discussion on "Norskrasisme" in Norway

Norwegian Tweeter Warsan Ismail
The immediacy, power and reach of Twitter, and its ability to migrate beyond the boundaries of social media to impact global mainstream media with just 140 characters has been seen and felt many times.

There was IT consultant Sohaib Athar who unknowingly became the first person to (publicly) report on the US raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on April 29, 2012 when he heard a noise outside his window, looked out and tweeted: "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1am (is a rare event),".

According to a CNN article by Doug Gross, on Saturday the day before the raid, Athar had 751 followers; by Monday two days later he had 32,000 and had cemented his place in history. There were (and still are) myriad examples of people on the ground in Egypt, Libya, Syria and other hot spots around the globe using Twitter to report on uprisings and conflicts as they unfold.

But yesterday there was a really interesting article on the BBC Website about a Norwegian student of Somali origin named Warsan Ismail who's tweets about the kinds of racism and intolerance her family faces every day in Norway have exploded into a nationwide conversation on race, culture and immigration. As the BBC article by Cordelia Hebblethwaite revealed, Ismail posted a series of tweets describing various incidents (including one where a neighbor set his two dogs on her mother) using the hashtag #norskrasisme which translates to Norwegian racism, and very quickly other Norwegians began using the same hashtag to post similar stories.

To date there have been thousands of tweets in this evolving and revealing conversation and Ismail has been interviewed on Norwegian television and in newspapers. To me there's something fascinating, brilliant and powerful about this. By simply telling her story (in a 140 characters at a time no less) she has tapped into a nationwide need for Norwegians to begin having an open and frank discussion about an issue that many in Norway don't like to openly discuss.

Just last week the Independent reported on efforts by Marine Le Pen of France's National Front and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, the leaders of their countries respective right wing political parties, to form a cooperative voting bloc in the European Parliament.

These are just two of the many nationalistic right wing political movements in Europe that are becoming increasingly mainstream largely in response to frustration over lingering high unemployment, stagnant wages and resentment over the immigration of growing numbers of people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East seeking better jobs in Europe - or fleeing violence or political persecution in their own countries.

These parties, usually occupying the fringes of mainstream political movements, typically gain traction and popularity during times of economic downturns when they tailor their message to capitalize on frustration and find ways to entwine their brand with the struggles of the larger populace.  (Tea Party anyone?)

For example in the United States in the 1920's in the wake of a sluggish post-World War I economy fueled by global recession, membership in the Ku Klux Klan exploded, reaching an all-time high of between 4 and 7 million members nationwide; including US Senators, Congressmen, judges and police from all over the country.

Cultural diversity is not new here in the United States and we still collectively struggle with open and frank discussions about race and immigration. I can't help but wonder how things might have been different in the United States in the 1920's if there was some kind of platform like Twitter for people to engage in more open discussions across the perceived boundaries that kept society so segmented.  

What's positive about Warsan Ismail's tweets sparking discussion in Norway is that it's been a catalyst for people of different races and religions and from all sides of the issue to begin to talk openly about the shifting dynamics of race, identity and nationality in a nation for whom cultural diversity is relatively new. And that's a start.

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