Al Jazeera Journalism Review

LONDON, ENGLAND: Social media comments featuring racist content directed at the England football team is seen on July 12, 2021 in London, England. While TV is the medium seen as most responsible for propagating hate speech in Europe, social media comes second. [Photo by Getty Images]

The problem with hate speech: How the media has fuelled its rise

Across the world, media organisations are guilty of misrepresenting the stories of refugees and other vulnerable minorities, stirring up panic and outrage within their respective countries. We look at some examples.

 

Discrimination and hate speech in media do not only hurt the feelings of the individuals or communities they target. They can also contribute to crimes committed against them and stoke the flames of armed conflict, or incite or justify the commission of crimes against ethnic or national groups, as well as encouraging violence against specific demographics such as women, children, refugees, minorities or political opposition figures. 

In Sweden, a study - entitled “Social Media Mechanisms for Right-Wing Political Violence in the 21st Century” - showed a correlation between tweets and Facebook posts concerning refugees and the number of attacks against them in a particular period. According to the study, the greater the number of tweets and posts featuring the word ‘refugee’ (flykting), the more arson attacks were committed by “extremists” against refugee accommodation. 

The study explained that social media algorithms help to produce “echo chambers”, that is, that individuals are exposed more to content that matches their personal preferences than to any other. In other words, these algorithms provide increased opportunities for individuals with racist inclinations to view media content depicting immigrants and refugees as a danger to society, creating a “justification” for violence against them.

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The first graph shows the number of tweets containing the word “refugee” against the number of attacks against refugee housing in Sweden between March and September 2016. The second shows the correlation between the number of Facebook posts including the word “refugee” and the number of attacks in the same period. 

Another study on digital hate speech in Bulgaria, conducted by the Sofia Development Association, tracked the reactions of the public, the media and politicians to the different stages of the refugee and migrant crisis. 

This study found a link between people’s attitudes to refugees and migrants and the extent to which hate speech circulated in digital media. The study found that “the opinions of Bulgarian citizens are influenced and shaped mainly by the media”, and that, as a result, “a large part of the population perceives refugees as a national security threat”. 

A 2016 report by the Bulgarian Helsinki committee likewise stated that television was the medium that the public saw as most responsible for spreading hate speech, while the internet came in second place.

Hate speech 7
Muslims hold placards as they pray during a gathering on October 30, 2020 in central Rome, to protest against Islamophobia and hate speech. [Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP]

The media and moral panic theory 

Moral panic is defined as a moment in “a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group”, says Maha Omar, journalist and academic. 

"The idea of moral panic has been used to understand many social problems, including drug gangs, schoolyard violence, child abuse and mistreatment of immigrants and refugees. 

"Any observer of the current climate surrounding refugees in the West can easily grasp the essence of the ideological discourse used by populists worldwide. 

"This discourse creates a wide space in which lies about migrants will be accepted, and is based on moral panic. Moral panic accounts for “panicked” majority reactions in a given society towards cultural groups like refugees or immigrants: this majority sees that the migrant minority threatens the central values of society and the economic privileges that citizens enjoy. 

"Political campaigns then base their rhetoric on this discourse by giving ever more space to fake news and conspiracy theories."

 

Discrimination in the media: Some case studies

Hate speech 1
KIGALI, RWANDA: People hold candles during a commemoration ceremony of the 1994 genocide on April 07, 2019 at Amahoro Stadium. During the genocide, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed over a 100-day period. The Rwandan broadcaster, RTLM, was later found to have played an important role in spreading hate towards Tutsis by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. [Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images]

The Rwandan Civil War 

Discussions of discrimination in the media always reference the Rwandan Civil War. It is an important case study both because of the barbarity of the crimes committed and also because the trials that followed it concluded that the media was responsible. 

The Rwandan broadcaster, RTLM, played an important part in fomenting conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in 1994, calling for the killing of Tutsis and describing them as “cockroaches” in its coverage of events

In cases of this kind, hate speech is a crime punishable by law. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sentenced the RTLM’s co-founder, Ferdinand Nahimana, and its executive chairman, Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, to life imprisonment for promoting hatred against the Tutsis through its broadcasts.

Hate speech 2
ZA'ATARI, JORDAN: Refugees from Syria collect food and supplies from the UNHCR as they arrive at the Za’atari refugee camp on January 30, 2013 in Mafraq, Jordan. Jordanian media has produced biased coverage of Syrian refugees, compounding negative social attitudes towards them. [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan 

Both the Lebanese and Jordanian media have produced biased coverage of Syrian refugee issues. This has contributed to negative societal attitudes towards them which have in turn produced opposition to their presence. 

In Lebanon this is more clearly noticeable because racist speech on social media has developed into incidents of physical violence against refugees. Politicians have played a part in exacerbating this tendency, with some of them promoting racist speech: the Lebanese Foreign Minister [name him],  has tweeted [when?] equating refugees with delinquents [let’s link to the tweets]. 

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A piece published by the Lebanese news outlet MTV titled “Cancer afflicting Lebanon... And two reasons it is spreading”, September 5, 2018. Here, MTV quotes a doctor who considers Syrian refugees to be a major factor in rising cancer rates in Lebanon. The doctor gives no evidence for these claims, but the channel nonetheless treats them as scientific truths without any attempt to verify them. MTV has since removed the piece from its website. 

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Jordanian newspaper Al Rai's twitter account shared the same article twice: In the first picture on the left, the tweet caption and the headline are the same: "Sewage flood in Mafraq city due to Syrian Refugees." Then, the newspaper altered the headline to read: "Sewage flood in Mafraq city due to overpopulation and misuse", but kept the original tweet caption about Syrian refugees. 

The Jordanian newspaper Al Rai, meanwhile, published a story on its website titled “Sewage Overflows Because of Syrian Refugees”. The newspaper later amended the title to “Population Pressure and Misuse Lead to Sewage Overflow”, but kept the government official’s statement about Syrian refugees in the introduction to the story used on social media, without citing a source and without attempting to verify this claim. The story was published in a tweet, and received a great deal of criticism. 

Hate speech 3
AKRE, IRAQ: A family wear traditional Kurdish outfits to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year, in March 20, 2021 in Akre, Iraq. Kurdish communities face discrimination in the media in Iraq. [Sam Tarling/Getty Images]

Iraq 

Iraqi Media House has produced a report titled “The Hate Dictionary” (in Arabic) documenting examples of hate speech in Iraqi media and on social media. The report tracks the most prominent words and expressions used in the media “which call for murder, violence, retribution, contempt [or contain] discrimination or swearing”. 

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There are many other cases of discrimination in Arab media. Examples include incitement against the Egyptian Rabea protests during the Egyptian army’s takeover and sectarian discrimination between Sunnis and Shi’a in Iraq. 

Hate speech 4
BOSANSKA BOJNA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: Members of a refugee family from Afghanistan walk in the rain after being pushed back into Bosnia by Croatian police, after they attempted to cross into EU by foot on January 6, 2021 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. [Damir Sagolj/Getty Images]

Migrants and refugees in Western media 

The situation is no better in much of the European media, particularly in countries with migrant and refugee populations. The conservative right has gone from strength to electoral strength in Europe by promising anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies, thereby exploiting xenophobia spread by the media.

Even media outlets that show professionalism in their coverage as a whole are sometimes discriminatory in their crime coverage. There is often more focus on crimes whose perpetrator is an immigrant or refugee and less interest in those committed by citizens. Hate speech appears clearly in the Western media through its use of hostile language against refugees. 

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In this Daily Express front page story, for example, the paper calls for the army to intervene to stop a “migrant invasion”. 

Edward Bulwer-Lytton once declared that "the pen is mightier than the sword". In recent news narratives we can see how true that can be, and how hate speech perpetuated by the media doesn't merely hurt feelings, it can actively legitimise hatred violence towards vulnerable communities. 

 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the AJMI publication, Avoiding Discrimination and Hate Speech in Media

 

 

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