Beware the hate spin
FORMER education minister Anies Baswedan beat incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama to the Jakarta Governor post last Wednesday, after one of the most bitter and polarising elections in Indonesia.
Many saw the tight race as a test of tolerance in the plural and multi-faith republic – Ahok was not only fighting for his post but also his freedom from blasphemy charges.
The non-Muslim former governor was accused of insulting Islam after he urged voters on his campaign trail not to be “deceived” by hardline leaders who were using religious scripture to dissuade them from electing him.
Ahok has denied he intended offence and alleged that the viral video of his speech had been edited to twist his words.
But the harm had been done – many ordinary Jakarta voters were alarmed by their governor’s so-called “disrespect of Islam” and voted against him.
“They bought the line spread by the religious hardliners,” says Dr Cherian George, author of Hate Spin: The Manufacture Of Religious Offense And Its Threat To Democracy (MIT Press, 2016).
This was a classic example of how a growing political tactic in the world – that of deliberately taking offence – could work on a large scale, adds the Singaporean academic who is currently an associate professor in the Journalism Department of Hong Kong Baptist University.
He points out that, in the Ahok case in Indonesia, the situation had developed to the extent of mosques putting up banners warning that those who “vote for the blasphemer” will be denied funeral rites. But a day after the gubernatorial polls, Ahok’s blasphemy case continued and the prosecutor recommended a lighter sentence of two years’ probation instead of jail.
In his book, Dr George looks at how forces of fear and hate – or as he calls it, “hate spin” – are used as a political weapon in Indonesia, India and the United States.
He says he chose the religious right movements in the three countries not only for their size: they are the three largest secular democracies in the world, yet now face the pressure of nationalism.
Dr George – who was at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus in Kuala Lumpur recently to give a talk, “On The Offensive: The Global Assault On Religious Tolerance” – defines hate spin as “a mix of incitement and indignation”.
“It is more than hate speech. If you think of incitement or hate speech as the giving of offence for political reasons, the other side of the coin is the taking of offence as a political strategy to mobilise supporters and coerce opponents.
“It is the manufacturing and harnessing of mass outrage against some perceived insult or some intolerable action done by somebody.”
This double-sided use of offence is a worrying global trend that has been called many things from intolerance to popularism, he adds, pointing to the ascendancy of US President Donald Trump and India’s President Modi.
“It’s also amazing how creative human beings can be in the search of things to get offended at.
“It is a simple rhetoric of ‘othering’ the other and convincing people that this group of people is a threat and must be dealt with,” he notes, arguing that while flare-ups against anyone and anything from “controversial books” like the Harry Potter series to “offensive artwork” may seem like spontaneous reactions, they are really “performances orchestrated by political entrepreneurs in their quest for power”.
As he observed in his research, in most developed societies now, instead of inciting people to “go get them” the hate spinners are saying, “We are the victims. Look at how they are bullying us…. They are bullying us by the way they dress, which is not showing respect for our beliefs, and they are bullying us by erecting this place of worship, which is against our values, and they are bullying us by distributing popular culture and literature that is offending our values, and on and on and on.”
Interestingly, he highlights, although absolutist religious groups seem to despise one another, they are very similar.
“They take offence at others’ places of worship, they try to revamp text books, and so on. Although their religion is the dominant one, they convince their followers that they are in grave danger of being conquered by small minorities. By cultivating fear, they persuade followers that unjust discrimination and even violent repression is justified.”
He argues that the problem, however, is not religion as such, or people becoming more religious.
“Even asking for religious values to shape public policy is not necessarily a problem, as long as such proposals are subject to open debate. There is no evidence that any major world religion is incompatible with peaceful, inclusive democratic life. The real problem is absolutist strands within religions – the belief that one particular interpretation of a religion trumps all others, cannot be questioned and must reign supreme, not just within the home or within a community, but in the nation as a whole.”
Another factor is the organisation of politics along ethno-religious lines, he says.
“Religiosity as such, is not a problem for democracy. The problem emerges only when politics becomes organised along religious lines, and when exclusive religious loyalties are converted into a political resource.”
In such systems, party-political incentives are often not aligned with national priorities, he argues.
“Even if most ordinary citizens believe that the future welfare of their country depends on reaching out across ethnic and religious divides in order to address common problems, an ethnic or religious-based party may not want to respond to that desire. Self-serving leaders may feel that doing so would dilute their party’s appeal.”
Another interesting observation is how the top leaders can distance themselves from the hate spin.
“People like Trump and Modi don’t need to be extreme in their speech because they can leave it to their lieutenants and supporters. They do not have to say anything instigative or get their hands dirty and can remain presidential.
“Modi, for one, has the firebrand BJP MP Yogi Adityanath, now Uttar Pradesh chief minister, who is always dispatched to ‘create trouble’ with his anti-Islam rhetoric when the BJP needs trouble to be created,” Dr George attests.
And the liberal Anies Baswedan has constantly denied any links to conservative religious groups in Jakarta, but after his win he was reportedly seen celebrating with the groups who helped organise mass protests in the capital against Ahok.
Most members of developed or open societies have their antenna out for hate speech, Dr George points out.
“It is no longer considered acceptable, and any politician who is too blatant in using outright hate speech will usually pay the price.
“Most influential leaders know better than to directly involve themselves with such hate speech.
“They conveniently get their message across through layered campaigns or ‘networks of hate’, using multiple actors such as paid media, paid experts, party funders and extremist groups,” he says.
This makes most incitement laws inadequate, he notes: “Hate speech laws assume tight cause-effect links between speech and harm, but hate campaigns are distributed across a network.”
According to Dr George, there is a “big debate” in the world on where the line should be drawn against hate speech.
Based on international human rights standards, the line should be drawn when there are elements of incitement, he says.
“When a speech crosses the line into incitement – when people are being instigated to cause harm to other people – that’s where we draw the line.
“If it is merely offending feelings, it should be legal – not that it’s something good, or should be promoted – but if it is a problem, we solve it through non-legal means. We don’t need to lock people up for it.”
However, many countries have opted for more “traditional standards”, he says, noting that Malaysia, Singapore and India regulate “incitement” through the Penal Code.
“They don’t wait for speech to incite harm – the moment it offends and hurts feelings, they make it illegal.”
Dr George believes laws are not always the solution.
“Offence is subjective. What is offensive to one person may not be so to another. In addition, there is a need to determine if offence is deliberate or not, which will be tedious to prove before a court of law.
“On the other hand, incitement has measurable effects, such as an outbreak of violence or instances of discrimination.
“Therefore, in facing hate spin, governments should not accede to voices taking offence but rather, address the real danger that comes from those using offence as a pretext to launch incitements.”
One of the main sources of the inadequacy of laws, he points out, is the state’s readiness to prosecute anyone who offends religious feelings and slowness in sanctioning anyone who incites violence against minorities.
“This results in a clear imbalance between society’s response to offence-giving as opposed to offence-taking,” he notes.
Worse, he cautions, while outrage is manufactured by hate spin agents in any context, blasphemy, sedition, libel and lese majeste laws encourage and empower hate spin.
However, research also shows that doing nothing is not an option.
“In this new reality where hate spin is on the rise, a laissez-faire approach will not work,” Dr George says, citing the example of Indonesia’s former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose deep dislike of confrontation and preference for letting things be, “enabled the rise of religious conservatism in his country”.
Dr George emphasises the need for society to intervene collectively.
One of the key lessons we can draw from everything that’s happening is that societies need to invest a lot more in civic education, he says.
“Citizens need to understand the importance of principles like democracy and equal rights. Media literacy is an essential component, because if citizens don’t have the ability to discern reliable facts from fake news, they will always be susceptible to hate propaganda.”
Crucially, people cannot “play dumb” when they witness any ethnic conflicts, such as fighting between followers of different religions.
“There’s always some agenda at work that benefits from the conflict. We’ve been very lazy about uncovering those agendas.
“Once we recognise that there are those agendas at work, immediately it raises our defence and we then become less susceptible to such propaganda.
“When we see these supposed religious groups fighting, what actually is happening is that a politician is benefiting.”
He also stresses the need to view social media in a more positive light. It can play a big role as an early alert of hate speech, he says.
“While they are the enablers of hate spin, censorship is not the answer. Tech giants need to do more to stop fake news and hate spin.
“Researchers, meanwhile, are studying how we can spot a rise in hate speech online and use it as an early warning of possible trouble breaking out.”
As Dr George sees it, social media can provide useful hints of what is happening offline.
“And most of the time, the real hate spin is happening offline. It is what is being preached in churches and mosques, what is being said door to door by politicians as they go around…. That is where the action is.”