Cherian George

Hate speech presents a major challenge to today’s journalism. Socially conscious journalists have been rightly alarmed at how rapidly hate-filled messages seep into, and often overwhelm, comment on the internet. Less talked about is how journalists’ own professional procedures — including how news is defined — may amplify the voices of hate propagandists. Then there are the media outlets that purvey intolerance, serving as ideological spokesmen and cheerleaders for forces of hate, from xenophobics to religious extremists.

Hate speech is any expression that vilifies an identifiable group — a race, religious community, or sexual minority, for example — and thus prompts harm to members. Even free speech advocates agree that hate speech requires special handling, especially when levelled against minorities too weak to counter it in the marketplace of ideas. However, discussions on this subject often lose focus: definitions get fuzzy and we find legitimate concerns being translated into unwarranted censorship.

There are vital distinctions to be made among the following examples.

  • Incitement to cause harm such as negative discrimination and violence;
  • Expressions that hurt a community’s feelings, including by insulting beliefs;
  • Criticism of politicians and other powerful interests, exposing them to contempt.

The first is the only category that is properly labeled “hate speech”; it is what human rights standards say warrants legal intervention. The second raises ethical issues, but generally should not be subject to legal restriction, since freedom of speech must include the right to challenge religious orthodoxy or other deeply held beliefs. The third may be felt as hatred by its elite targets, and is often what officials, military and police are thinking of when they cite hate speech as a justification for clamping down on media.

To label something otherwise inoffensive as “hate speech” and use it as an excuse for silencing criticism of dominant values and institutions has understandably bred cynicism among many journalists. As a defensive reaction, they retreat behind their legal right to freedom of expression.

Yet, legal limits should not determine the boundaries of professional conduct. Many principles that journalists live by, such as protecting confidentiality, are not imposed by law, and indeed, may be in conflict with the law, but are nonetheless voluntarily adopted as a matter of ethics.

Similarly, journalists need to develop their ethical capacities to respond to the real risk of serious harm being promoted. Ethical standards pertaining to hate speech remain a work in progress. There are a number of worrisome trends that deserve closer scrutiny and deliberation.

User-Generated Contempt

The invasion of the trolls – internet users who publish offensive comments and pick fights on social media and other platforms: they often indulge in hate speech. Many news organisations respond to this problem through post-moderation, deleting or relegating posts flagged as hate speech. Rather than viewing this as censorship, such practices can be seen as helpful to open discussion, ensuring, for instance, that women can speak up without enduring a barrage of misogynistic abuse intended to intimidate and silence them.

Most media organisations claim that thorough housekeeping of their internet platforms requires more man-hours than they can afford. This begs the question of why they should host an activity that outstrips their ability to manage it responsibly (event organisers, for example, are expected to ensure safety, comfort and convenience by limiting numbers to what staff can handle). News organisations that understand this duty close comments for stories that generate more vitriol than they can manage.

The Newsiness of Hate

Media are less conscious or perhaps more confused about their responsibilities in covering newsmakers who advocate intolerance. This is partly because the issues are genuinely complex and not amenable to simple ethical formulas. Best practice entails alerting society to agents of hate, but without giving them a free ride that exaggerates their importance and amplifies their views uncritically. It can be hard to strike the right balance. Unfortunately, what often sways the decision is the media’s appetite for controversy. Donald Trump evidently knew this when he used hate speech against Mexicans and Muslims. “Trump exploited the lust for riveting stories,” said “Politics and Public Policy”, a report on the media’s coverage of the presidential pre-primary season by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, “Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee,” it added.

Some aspects of mainstream US coverage of Trump‘s campaign were more salutary. Baseless claims about minorities were torn apart. Made-up statistics he cited were fact-checked and debunked in almost real time. In this way, the media played a central role in the pushback against his us-versus-them politics of fear. Such critical scrutiny, unfortunately, may be limited to the high-profile race for the presidency; it is less evident in local politics, where the media’s capacity for public-interest reporting has been severely depleted. Furthermore, fact-checking probably made no impact on Trump’s hardcore supporters or the result of the election.

Trump is not the only politician who understands that coverage is often dictated by “news values rather than political values”, as the Shorenstein report put it. Pauline Hanson of Australia’s One Nation party is equally adept at earning free media coverage. “The new populists understand the media and how to command its attention,” says Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology journalism professor. “News editors and journalists shouldn’t let themselves be played like fools. Hanson is a freak on the fringe. Don’t elevate her to the status of a major player.” McNair points out that One Nation claimed less than 4% of the Queensland electorate in 2016. This should not be treated as “a political earthquake deserving headline coverage”, he says. In India, extreme statements from or about any religious group are lapped up by television news channels, says Sevanti Ninan, founder-editor of the South Asian media watch website, The Hoot. Journalists report oddball views in order to generate a debate that is good for ratings, she says. “They can barely mask their joy … when one more person pipes up and says something stupid. ‘Gotcha! You actually said that? Now watch me flog it.’ ”

Electoral Legitimacy

The Trump phenomenon illustrates another problem: democratic politics confers legitimacy on election contenders that many mainstream media outlets think they are not entitled to override. Whatever their misgivings about Trump, many journalists felt they had to respect Republicans’ choice of nominee.

This has also been observed in Europe. “When radical populist parties reach a certain threshold of popular vote, some media outlets are inclined to adopt policies of accommodation under the mantra of journalistic impartiality and fairness,” says Jean-Paul Marthoz, professor of international journalism at the Université de Louvain. “Others drop adversarial journalism to avoid upsetting an electorate that is part of their audience.”

The problem is compounded by the almost universal tendency to cover elections like horse races between personalities rather than contests of policy positions the media should help assess. This was noted in the coverage of the UK’s referendum on European Union membership. Even though the BBC’s public service mandate obliged it to provide balanced coverage, Labour’s position was barely covered, a Loughborough University study found. Media focused on the more exciting contest within the Conservative Party as well as from the anti-immigration UKIP.

The run-up to the Brexit referendum also showcased media’s more active and deliberate role in purveying hate. According to a Cardiff University study, Britain’s right-wing press stood out in Europe for the “consistent, hard campaigning edge” of its anti-immigrant coverage, an example of how hate speech can proliferate in highly charged and polarised political debates.

Dehumanised Communities

In extreme cases, a culture may have so demeaned or dehumanised a particular community that hate speech against it sounds normal and unobjectionable to many people, including journalists. This is the situation in Myanmar, where many ethnic Burmans have deep prejudices against Muslims, especially the Rohingya. “Tragically, the Rohingya and some other Muslim groups are dehumanised to the extent that even horrific crimes against them fail to generate public or official sympathy,” says Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre.

This has parallels with homophobia and the extreme bias against transgender people in some parts of the world. That these attitudes can turn deadly was demonstrated in the shooting rampage in Florida at an Orlando gay nightclub in June 2016, which killed 49. That spawned further hate speech, with religious leaders and other commentators stating that the victims got what they deserved.

In the many countries where homosexuality is illegal, such as Indonesia, Iran and Uganda, media often prey on prejudice and ignorance by agitating against the LGBT community. In Uganda in 2014, the day after a harsh anti-gay law was enacted, one tabloid newspaper published a list of what it called the nation’s 200 top homosexuals. “Ugandan journalists say they are just reflecting the sentiment of the society they cover and the laws under which they work,” according to Al Jazeera’s media watch programme, The Listening Post.

Religious Hate

Hate speech against religious groups is a particularly complex problem, because religious communities define themselves by a set of beliefs and beliefs are fair game for criticism and insult. There is therefore a tension — some would say a fatal contradiction — between the need to protect against incitement while allowing beliefs to be pilloried.

Some of the most fraught debates over offensive speech are due to this tension. When cartoons or videos depict Islam as a murderous religion, governments and internet intermediaries declare that they cannot legitimately restrict such expression, because an attack on a belief system does not technically amount to a call to arms against its believers. Many at the receiving end, however, maintain that such denigration of their religion is part of a broad ideological assault that makes it harder for them to live as equals in their society.

In any case, a legal right to insult religions does not preclude journalists deciding, on ethical grounds, to refrain from wanton attacks on values and beliefs. Political cartoonist Garry Trudeau suggests media should take people’s power into account when making such decisions. Reflecting on the controversy over satirical depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in Europe, Trudeau said in an essay in The Atlantic: “Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful … Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”

While journalists may agree in principle, however, there would still be disagreements over implementation. Muslim immigrants in Europe are a vulnerable minority when viewed at the national level, but they are simultaneously members of a world religion with tremendous power to shape world affairs. Media’s ethical responses will differ depending on which of these two frames apply.

Extreme nationalism hatred is often overlooked in discussions of hate speech, perhaps because intense and exclusive loyalty to the nation — patriotism — tends to be seen as a virtue in a way that similar sentiments about race or religion are not. Yet, nationalistic hate speech in East Asia, for example, poses a threat to world peace. China’s state-run media, aided by online media, regularly incite hatred against Japan with alarming headlines and half-truths. Right-wing media in Japan reciprocate with China-bashing, although their influence is diluted by Japan’s more open media environment.

Also worth pondering is how to reflect the grievances of citizens who are drawn to hate campaigns. They may have legitimate concerns about the economic and cultural cost of immigration. Immigration policy deserves vigorous discussion, even as immigrants are shielded from bigotry. Similarly, protecting Muslim minorities from discrimination should not preclude debates over the real problem of intolerance and militancy gaining ground within many Muslim communities.

Growing Complexities

Hate speech is a constantly evolving phenomenon, with new perpetrators, targets and tactics. One noteworthy development, particularly in the West, is the rise of left-wing intolerance among segments of the political spectrum previously thought of as open-minded and progressive. Their attempts to censor offensive speech on campuses are ostensibly intended to create safe spaces for victimised and disadvantaged groups. But some of their campaigns also smack of political opportunism, milking indignation to advance more self-serving organisational objectives. The backlash from the right includes charges of “political correctness” run amok and perhaps greater resistance to discussing the harm of hate speech.

Another worrying trend is vilification of the media. Individual journalists have always faced personal attacks. In the US election campaign, however, Donald Trump whipped up a broader assault on the media in general. This trend had already been observed in Europe, where extreme right-wing groups have cultivated hatred towards the mainstream press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

One of the most pernicious and under-discussed aspects of hate speech is that potent hate campaigns are not limited to racist rants or banners. They instead involve a sophisticated effort across a networked movement. Extreme expression is only part of its arsenal and not necessarily the most effective weapon. Psychologists and sociologists tell us that messages are more persuasive when they enter minds when their guard is down. Journalists need to be vigilant not only against obviously toxic speech, but also hate propaganda couched in pseudoscientific terms and reasonable discourse. In France, for example, National Front leader Marine Le Pen has assiduously sanitised her party’s rhetoric to make her anti-immigrant positions sound more respectable.

If journalists are to help counter propaganda, therefore, bringing in policies to deal with flagrant hate speech is just the first step. The media also need to help uncover connections between elements that make up a modern hate campaign. Much of this needs traditional investigative journalism: tracing the flows of money and power, and figuring out who benefits by instigating hatred, discrimination and violence.

Reporting on extreme far-right groups can be as risky as covering the criminal underworld, notes a Committee to Protect Journalists report. Like covering crime, corruption and the abuse of political power, covering hate campaigns calls on journalism’s highest principles and deepest skills.

Politicians Blamed for Race Hate Rise

Reports of race hate and religious abuse incidents in Britain leapt by 41% in the month after the UK voted to quit the European Union, leading to a call from the country’s equality watchdog for an end to political incitement and intolerant political speech. In a letter to all political parties the Equality and Human Rights Commission said politicians had “polarised” the country and “legitimised hate”. The letter was sent after a wave of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic attacks on the streets and two murders, including the killing of a Labour parliamentarian, Jo Cox, during the referendum campaign. Prosecutors said the attack by Thomas Mair was “nothing less than an act of terrorism” and the judge said it was carried out to advance a political cause of violent white supremacism. And in late November, just three weeks after the United States presidential election a leading US human rights group, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, said there had been almost 900 incidents of hate crime, a postelection surge which they blamed on the rhetoric of the winning candidate, Donald Trump.

Main photo: Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash


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