Earlier today, The Huffington Post apologized for the following tweet, which paired a picture of former One Direction member Zayn Malik with a headline about ISIS. The apology was quick, and public, and didn't attempt to hide the fact that a mistake had been made. For that they get some credit.
We apologize for the original image here. Zayn Malik is mentioned in the story, but is obviously not part of ISIS. pic.twitter.com/CzEaDwxs3y— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) November 20, 2015
They did not apologize for picking a weird and unflattering picture of Zayn, which not only adds insult to injury but is also baffling in its near impossibility. But, anyway.
The mistake echoes ones made by many publications earlier this year when reporting on a short-lived feud between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift. Twitter was quick to condemn articles and tweets paired with images that showed Swift looking demure and Minaj looking enraged, a furthering of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. They were quick to condemn this mistake too, and the instant feedback of the platform provides some momentary satisfaction when it shouts down idiotic choices like these.
But The Huffington Post's image choice wasn't a simple snafu, or a harmless one. And the image wasn't even close to the whole problem. If you search "Zayn Malik ISIS" on Google, there are over 3 million results, many of them explicit and virulent conspiracy theories. Zayn, as a former member of one of the world's most popular bands (and a solo artist who will soon release his first album) is the most famous Muslim in Western pop culture, and has been accused of being a member of ISIS and of recruiting teens to the jihadist cause for the entirety of his five years of fame, starting when he was 17 years old. The Huffington Post's article is now the top of the Google News results for that search. It's not hateful, but it has the correct key words and the right meritless association.
This kind of snafu is not harmless
As a social media manager myself, I have absolutely no idea how a person could approve the selection of an image of a Muslim person completely and totally unrelated to the most reviled terrorist group in the world and place it under that headline. None. And I wish that writers and editors would be more conscious of the way they describe and categorize articles, knowing how things will appear in Google News and other algorithm-based content organizers.
But more importantly, I don't fully understand the intent behind the accompanying article. I think the author was trying to make the argument that non-Muslim Americans should try harder to understand the religion and the diversity of the people who practice it. The article would have been better had it kept its focus there, rather than weakly grasping for a pop culture tie-in.
The sub-heading of the article reads: "To deny ISIS a place in this world, build a place in your heart for Zayn. Sound crazy? Hear us out."
Yeah, it does sound a little crazy.
Yes, Zayn Malik is a globally recognized celebrity who happens to be Muslim, but it's not up to me or to another random blogger to determine the value or implication of that. Malik responded to a question in his very recent FADER profile saying emphatically that he didn't wish to wield political influence from that position.
"I'm just a normal person as well as following my religion, and doing all the normal things that everybody else does. I love music and I get tattoos and I make mistakes, and I've had to go through relationships and break up relationships. I feel proud that people actually look to me and can see themselves in that... I enjoyed that I brought the diversity. But I would never be trying to influence anything or try to stamp myself as a religious statement or portrayal of anything. I am me. I'm just doing me."
Needless to say, researching one Muslim person and engineering affection toward him, as the Huffington Post piece suggests doing, does not actually make you impervious to the horrific tide of Islamophobia sweeping through the United States. And it certainly doesn't absolve you of having those feelings yourself. It's in fact, pretty fucked up to say, "look at this inoffensive Muslim person to reassure yourself about the acceptability of Muslims."
Zayn Malik has received death threats for tweeting #FreePalestine. He has been compared on no less reputable and far-reaching a platform than HBO to the Boston Marathon bomber. He wonders if he was cast as "the mysterious one" in One Direction because of the color of his skin, and he has now told us that the entirety of his career so far has been a portrait of him as painted by someone else. On top of all that, he doesn't need to be thrown up as a cross for Americans to pin their guilt on. (Pardon the religious reference, I was raised Christian — has never come up in my professional life though!)