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Hate propaganda

Cherian George

Until recently, scholars of political communication in stable democracies treated hate speech as a marginal phenomenon. That changed with the entry of various anti-establishment and anti-pluralist tendencies into the mainstream electoral politics of the United States and Western Europe. In 2016, Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum jolted dominant paradigms in communication studies, reordering research priorities and challenging assumptions about normal democratic discourse. Information disorders, ranging from individual-level ‘posttruth’ preferences to the distortions wrought by computational propaganda, are now central to the field’s concerns. Hate speech is a key constituent of this basket of déplorables.

As suggested by the title, this chapter focuses on organised campaigns that promote hate to achieve larger political objectives. Examples abound from contemporary politics. In India, false rumours of forced marriage, cow slaughter, and child abductions are used to unleash violence against minorities, terrorising their communities into submitting to majoritarian domination (Harsh 2020). In South Africa, the Gupta oligarchs bankrolled a disinformation campaign to shift attention away from allegations of state capture. Designed by the public relations multinational Bell Pottinger, the covert programme involved stoking racial hatred with a narrative of ‘white monopoly capital’ (Wasserman 2020). In Europe, the far right has amplified reports of sexual harassment by people of colour into a ‘rapefugee’ crisis, riding on the #MeToo movement to grow support for their xenophobic and nativist agenda (Sorce 2018).

Hate propaganda has a history measurable in millennia, considerably longer than the digitally assisted misinformation that has triggered concern in recent years. Hate studies, similarly, have a long pedigree. The well-established study of hate can benefit from dialogue with the flurry of new research into online misinformation — and vice versa. Much of the recent research on online misinformation makes only cursory reference to the rich literature on how hate agents work. This chapter tries to engage in such a conversation.

Hate speech

Hate speech is the vilification of an identifiable group in order to stigmatise its members and cause them harm. The group in question could be distinguished by race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, immigrant status, gender, sexual orientation, or any other feature that is applied in an unfairly discriminatory manner (Parekh 2012). United Nations bodies fighting racial discrimination treat hate speech as ‘a form of other-directed speech which rejects the core human rights principles of human dignity and equality and seeks to degrade the standing of individuals and groups in the estimation of society’ (CERD 2013, 4). Hate speech can hurt its targets directly by inflicting emotional distress (Matsuda 1989) or causing them to retreat fearfully from public life (Fiss 1996). But it is most harmful when it incites others to discriminate or inflict violence against the target group. Hate speech has been harnessed by state and non-state actors to whip up hostility against enemies while uniting followers and allies. Such propagandistic use of hate speech has facilitated all the major atrocities that peoples have inflicted on one another in modern times, from slavery to imperial rule, land dispossession, war crimes, ethnic cleansings, and genocides (Gahman 2020; Meisenhelder 2003; Said 1979; Thompson 2007; Tsesis 2002).

The term hate speech straddles such a wide spectrum of harms — from the diminution of self-esteem to the decimation of a people — that many scholars have proposed more precise terminology. Benesch (2012), for example, uses ‘dangerous speech’to refer to expression that increases the risk that its audience will support or perpetrate violence against another group. Observing Europe’s Roma being routinely subjected to a ‘language of negation, destruction and erasure’, Townsend (2014, 9) suggests the term ‘genocidal discourse’. Most legislation sidesteps the term hate speech entirely. Laws refer to explicit calls to action as incitement. Others make reference to insult, offence, or the wounding of religious or racial feelings, for example — categories that liberal jurisdictions tend not to criminalise.

The hate speech that attracts the most attention and regulatory or societal intervention tends to be expression that is shocking in and of itself, such as when President Donald Trump tweeted that certain progressive Democratic congresswomen — referring to four women of colour, three of whom were born in the United States — should ‘go back’ to the countries where they ‘originally’ came from (Coe & Griffin 2020; Rothe & Collins 2019). But hate campaigns can be much more indirect. They do not have to be fuelled by foul language or ethnic slurs. Some of their most effective work has been pseudoscientific (such as nineteenth-century physiognomy, which stratified different races based on their outward resemblance to apes) or critically acclaimed for its artistic merit (like Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’, justifying American imperial rule over the Philippines). Holocaust denial was dressed in scholarly garb, though it is now obvious to most that it served no purpose other than to normalise anti-Semitic negationism. Many other examples of disguised hate propaganda have wider sway. Tactics include inserting Islamophobic talking points into the formal public sphere, through referenda and legislative proceedings ostensibly to fight non-existent threats such as minaret building in Europe (Cheng 2015) and religious law in the United States (Lemons & Chambers-Letson 2014).

Therefore, the individual hateful message, no matter how incendiary, is not the most illuminating unit of analysis for students of hate propaganda. Scholars have learned more by studying long-running campaigns. For example, Whillock (1995) focused on hate appeals systematically inserted as talking points woven into an election campaign. Hamelink (2011) takes an even longer view, showing how the aggressor’s calls to action count on historical prejudices and deep anxieties within the groups being mobilised.

Full-blown hate campaigns start with an us/them framing of collective identity. Enlarging and intensifying in-group commitments is often the hate agents’ main strategic objective, constructing an out-group being just the other side of the coin. The process involves the essen-tialising of identity: a set of arbitrary attributes is reified as definitive of the group (Gahman 2020; Said 1979). While the in-group is essentialised as exceptionally noble and civilised, the out-group’s members are caricatured as barbaric, alien, or bestial, thus suggesting that they are not fully entitled to equal citizenship or human rights. Next, hate agents scapegoat the Other (Tsesis 2002). They blame the in-group’s genuine grievances and anxieties on the out-group. In its most advanced form, scapegoating becomes ‘accusation in a mirror’ (Marcus 2012; Kiper 2015). A term associated with the Rwandan genocide, this refers to the technique of depicting the out-group as the real aggressor. In-group members come to believe that pre-emptively eliminating this threat to themselves and their families would be nothing more than an act of self-defence. This helps explain why ordinary people are prepared to inflict violence on a weaker community when leaders flag off war crimes, pogroms, and genocides, let alone lesser evils such as separating children from immigrant parents. The final step is the call to action. This often follows a trigger event, such as news of an attack on in-group members or some other intolerable provocation. Leaders opportunistically transform the event into an ‘injustice symbol’ (Olesen 2015), framing it the ultimate outrage that requires now-or-never retaliation.

Every stage in what Hamelink (2011, 21) calls a ‘spiral of conflict escalation’ involves deception and manipulation. The us/them binary is deceptive because everyone actually has plural identities. Portraying a single identity as supreme and exclusive (one’s religion or race, for example) while discounting all others (including species) promotes a myth of ‘choiceless singularity of human identity’ (Sen 2006, 16). As for essentialising the out-group, this is a form of ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak 1988). Scapegoating and accusation in a mirror, similarly, invariably involve messages that mislead. Anti-Semitic propaganda paving the way for the Holocaust included the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an elaborate hoax intended to add weight to the conspiracy theory about a Jewish plan for global domination. Contemporary hate merchants carry on the tradition. India’s Hindu nationalists have constructed a ‘love jihad’ conspiracy theory about Muslim population growth (Rao 2011). Muslim hardliners in Indonesia, meanwhile, have strengthened their hand by reviving the communist bogey, as well as stoking fears of domination by the small minority of ethnic Chinese and Christians (Miller 2018).

Finally, the triggering injustice symbols may be partly or wholly fabricated. In Indonesia, the 2016 demonstrations leading to the prosecution and ouster of Jakarta’s Christian, ethnic Chinese governor were provoked by viral videos misquoting him as claiming that the Quran was lying to Muslims (Peterson 2020). Hate campaigns do not necessarily depend on pants-on-fire lies. The European ‘rapefugee’ myth, for example, can be sustained through the selective highlighting of factual news reports of sexual offences involving a suspect with a foreign-sounding name, supported by centuries of stereotypes concerning brown and black men (Sanos 2018). Nonetheless, the campaigns in their totality are maliciously deceptive. Hate propaganda is thus a trick or ‘stratagem’, says Whillock (1995). Tsesis (2002, 1) builds this observation into his definition of hate speech, calling it ‘misinformation that is disseminated with the express purpose of persecuting targeted minorities’.

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