Open societies today have become susceptible to misinformation that instigates intimidation, discrimination and violence against vulnerable groups, even in strong democracies with press freedom and a vibrant marketplace of ideas.
When George Orwell contemplated trends toward tyranny in 1984, he saw a world where truths were violently obliterated to leave Big Brother’s lies unchallenged. This negation of knowledge and erasure of human experience, he mused, was:
… more terrifying than mere torture or death.
But something curious has happened in the post-totalitarian world, which even Orwell’s penetrating gaze did not foresee.
Today, demagogues don’t actually need to silence or censor their opponents. It turns out their followers are quite happy to succumb to wilful blindness, believing what they want to believe even as contradictory evidence stares them in the face.
One result of this is open societies remain surprisingly susceptible to misinformation that instigates intimidation, discrimination and violence against vulnerable groups. Untruths doled out in hate campaigns find ready buyers even in a free marketplace of ideas.
The unholy appeal of outright lies has been on stunning display in Donald Trump’s rise as the Republican candidate for the US presidency. Independent fact-checking organisation PolitiFact has found 71% of his statements to be mostly false, false or in the “pants-on-fire” category.
This phenomenon is not new. More than a decade has passed since satirist Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness”, referring to stuff that some people lap up because it feels right – even though it definitely isn’t.
Right-wing conservatives on every continent have long mastered the art of weaving simple, comforting ideas into a security blanket against a complex and diverse world they perceive as threatening to their values and way of life.
This tendency toward self-delusion might be largely harmless but for the fact that the untruths are being circulated often vilify other communities. And the invective is not confined to idle gossip, but converted into blueprints for action: remove them; ban their places of worship; censor their viewpoints; restrict their practices; kill them.
Often this emerges as straightforward hate speech or misinformation that incites hostility, discrimination or violence against a group. Or it is expressed as righteous indignation, accusing the targeted community of behaving in a manner that causes outrage.
These twin tactics – the giving and taking of offence – meld into a potent political strategy that I call “hate spin”. Its practitioners manipulate the visceral, tribal feelings of their audience in order to mobilise supporters and defeat opponents in their quest for power.
Hate spin is distressingly common – and effective – despite its ultimate reliance on half-truths and even pants-on-fire lies.
In the US, a small network of misinformation experts have pushed extreme claims about Muslims from the loony fringe into the edges of mainstream discourse: US mosques are terrorist training centres; the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the US government; Barack Obama is a closet Muslim.
Although under 2% of the US population is Muslim and there is no lobby urging US courts to recognise Islamic law, several states have enacted statutes or constitutional amendments to protect against sharia. Such has been the power of islamophobia agents to whip up paranoia about Muslims.
In India, Hindu nationalists use hate spin to consolidate the country’s religious majority into a dependable vote bank that transcends the internal divides of caste, class and language.
This group has tried to make fundamental a faith that is inherently eclectic and fluid. They have chosen to take violent offence at the killing of cows and the eating of beef, as if Hinduism ever treated such prohibitions as strictly as the Muslim injunction against pork.
The Hindu right claims Muslims – through their polygamy and a “love jihad” conspiracy to convert Hindu girls – will turn Hindus, who currently make up 80% of the population, into a minority in India. This fantastical projection has somehow seeped into the political discourse of a civilisation renowned for its mathematical prowess.
Indonesia has hardline Islamist groups that claim to have uncovered a conspiracy to Christianise the country. This would be quite an accomplishment, considering Indonesia has some 200 million Muslims – around as many as the five largest Arab states combined. They account for almost nine in ten of the country’s population.
Demographic delusions seem particularly popular among hate-spin agents.
Constitutionally, Indonesia upholds belief in God, but not exclusively Islam. Protestantism and Catholicism have explicit status alongside Islam among Indonesia’s religions.
The central government and Supreme Court have upheld the right of Christians to build churches. Yet local hardline groups have blocked church construction in some localities for years, exploiting religious frictions to extract protection money from Christian congregations.
What’s striking about these cases of hate spin is that they are occurring in established democracies with strong traditions of press freedom and intellectual debate.
US, India and Indonesia are nowhere near the Big Brother totalitarian regime Orwell described. Each has its own vibrant, noisy marketplace of ideas. It’s just that the market does not seem to value truth as consistently as it should.
Faced with the real harm that can be inflicted by hate propaganda, it’s no wonder that many reasonable people wonder if there should be more restrictions on speech.
Prohibitions on incitement are sometimes warranted, in line with international human rights law. But censorship is not the answer in most cases. Hate spin is more prevalent and dangerous in countries with less freedom of expression, not least because such countries usually have less regard for the equal rights of vulnerable minorities.
Instead, we should begin by recognising that a free marketplace of ideas, while necessary, is not sufficient. Truth’s victory over hate propaganda is neither automatic nor preordained. It requires a commitment to equal rights and norms of tolerance that is at least as determined as the uncompromising hate of demagogues and fascists.
This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Cherian George is an Associate Professor of Journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University.