Spiritual polarisation on social media: the case of Arab atheists on Twitter
Al Hariri, Youssef Akram Y.
Social media platforms provide an unprecedented method of communication, and they are considered an integral part of people's lifestyles. Also, these platforms facilitate forming communities, groups and networks. Hence, it attracted researchers to study people's interactions and analyse the enormous human-generated data. In this thesis, I focus on studying the online Arab communities as a case study of online communities to understand online spiritual-based groups and the polarisation among them. This work combines multi-disciplinary approaches of natural language processing, information retrieval, data science and social and technological networks to understand better the online social behaviour of Arabs with different religious beliefs. I explore the discussion among Arab Twitter users from religious and atheistic groups. I identify four types of Twitter users based on how they describe themselves: Atheistic, Theistic, Tanweeri (reformers), and Rationalists. This study shows that Arabs from different religious spectrums get involved in online discussions on local and regional topics. I collected two datasets from Twitter for users who discussed religions and atheism, in which I considered about 434 accounts in the first dataset and 2,673 accounts in the second one. The analysis shows that, whatever their attitude towards religions, Arab Twitter users tend to use their accounts to promote their beliefs and to show their stances towards others. I showed that the data that was generated by these four groups illustrate the rich socio-cultural context in which discussions among believers, non-believers and religious reformers unfold. I showed that there is a clear online polarisation between atheists and theists, while Rationalist and Tanweeri accounts are spread among and between the two polarised groups. Arab atheists are separated into two groups in terms of engagement based on the accounts they prefer to interact-with. I found that Arab atheists and theists mention and reply-to users from any religious groups and vice versa, but they tend to retweet and follow accounts from their own group. The findings of this thesis provide insights for researchers to understand the case study of Arab online communities and the religious and non-religious online polarisation. Also, it shows the implications for the studies of spiritual discourse on social media and provides a better cross-cultural understanding of relevant aspects.