Gaps and future directions
Most of the public debate and scholarly work on misinformation and hate propaganda focuses on the veracity and civility of individual posts, tweets, and other utterances, examining how toxic messages can be identified and then subject to legal prosecution, administrative orders, removal by media and platforms, correction by fact-checkers, and other interventions. Such research and policy interventions implicitly apply a ‘toxic bullet’ model of hate propaganda, even as every introductory media effects course debunks the ‘magic bullet’ theory of persuasion. A policy and research agenda informed by decades of hate research would instead recognise hate campaigns as layered, distributed, and strategic (George 2017).
First, they are layered in the sense that they are composed of multiple messages, motifs, and narratives delivered over years or even centuries. The vast majority of these are not problematic in isolation and may even have been put to positive, prosocial use. Patriotic narratives, for example, can inspire great acts of self-sacrifice as well as war crimes. In some of the examples cited earlier, the skill of the hate propagandist lies in the creative combination of a community’s treasured repertoire of stories and symbols, together with carefully curated news from the recent past, topped off with more pointed observations about current events. To believe that social media moderators and algorithms checking for inappropriate language and fake news can make much difference is to grossly underestimate how the most pernicious hate campaigns actually work.
Second, the work is distributed, with a movement-style division of labour. Different actors take responsibility for the campaign’s different layers. While fringe organisations have no compunctions about using flagrantly racist language, national leaders tend to rely on dog whistles. Or they confine themselves to grand themes like ‘India Shining’ or ‘Make America Great Again’ to help promote an essentialised in-group identity without spelling out their exclusionary intent. The most emphatic statements of Modi and Trump are delivered in silence: by refusing to condemn allies guilty of hate speech and hate crimes, they express their sympathies unequivocally. Think tanks and outward-facing websites try to sound reasonable in order to attract converts (Meddaugh & Kay 2009). Their efforts also help members who need to rationalise their prejudice. Norwegian white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 in a shooting spree in 2011, cited American ideologue Robert Spencer and his Jihad Watch blog 162 times in his manifesto.
Third, the most sophisticated hate propaganda is strategic: the communication is designed to achieve goals that go deeper than its superficial intent. In many cases, the strategy factors in the likelihood of pushback. Taking a leaf from how progressive civil disobedience campaigners make censorship backfire (Jansen & Martin 2003), hate groups turn legal and regulatory obstacles into opportunities for generating sympathy and mobilising support. For example, campaigners who purchased advertising space in American metro systems for anti-Muslim billboards expected to be censored; they could then mount First Amendment challenges that would generate news coverage (George 2016b). When white supremacists adopted Pepe the Frog as an icon, it was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of online hate symbols and deplored by media and politicians, but the reaction was built into the campaign’s design as ‘a prank with a big attention payoff’ (Daniels 2018, 64; Phillips 2018). In Europe, attempts by governments and internet platforms to rein in anti-immigrant hate speech have been exploited by nativists as evidence that establishment institutions obsessed with multiculturalism and political correctness are silencing people’s grievances — hence, the need to support the far right (Nortio et al. 2020; van Noorloos 2014).
Hate studies have benefited from the recent surge in scholarly interest in Western democracies’ problems with misinformation and populism. But this is a mixed blessing. It trains the spotlight on a limited number of narrow, message-centric questions, such as what social media companies can do about ‘fake news’. Shifting the focus to actor-centric questions would be more revealing of the ingenuity with which hate campaigns are rolled out. Also lacking are demand-side investigations to understand why people are susceptible to hate appeals in the first place and why these seem to be growing. Communication studies as a field is well positioned to investigate the symptoms of this trend. But it should also take an interest in underlying causes. Beneath the surge in intolerance and hate may be resentments arising from the exhaustion of the modern idea of progress, with its deep injustices and inequalities. The claims of populist leaders that they possess humane answers to their societies’ problems is the mother of all disinformation campaigns. But until those who care about questions of justice and equality emerge with better answers themselves, we can expect hate propaganda to continue figuring prominently throughout the world.