Month: August 2019

Hate News and Social Media

 [Image Credit:  Wikipedia]

We all know about “fake news” and understand that we need to be on our guard against it.  But have we thought hard enough about “hate news” and are we concerned enough about it?

Let me start with a quick look back at fake news.  Fake news is misinformation (often deliberate) that is passed off as real news.  It contains vignettes that are factually incorrect.  Two classic examples of fake news were the “birther” hypothesis (the incorrect information that went around that Obama was not born in the USA) and the Obama religion conspiracy theory (that Obama was not of the religion he claimed to be).

The Indian equivalent of that is what I call the Rahul Gandhi birther hypothesis, which is that Rahul Gandhi’s grand-dad’s name was not Feroze Ghandy but Feroze Khan (and that he was a Pathan from Pakistan) thereby suggesting to the majority of Indians not only that Rahul Gandhi was not patriotic, but also sympathetic to a certain religious dispensation.  It had the effect of the Obama birther hypothesis and the Obama religion hypothesis rolled into one.

Now that is fake news, but the reason the fake news even matters to Indians and Americans is that it has been preceded by a campaign of hate news.

There has been, for many years, in the USA and in India, the dissemination through certain far-right channels, of information that incites hatred towards people of certain groups.  In the case of the USA, there has been a one-sided portrayal of immigrants.  In the case of India, there has been a sustained campaign against certain religious groups.

These campaigns stir up hatred towards a religious or racial “other” and make people susceptible to having their attitudes and decisions manipulated by fake news.

I must mention here that the propaganda of some of the most successful groups taking on state actors (such as ISIS in the middle east and Jaish-e-Mohammed in South Asia) also use hatred as a means of obtaining recruits and maintaining the loyalty of supporters around the world, their deliberate campaigns of hatred making their target audience susceptible to having their attitudes and decisions manipulated.

And it works!  During the final three months of the election campaign in India, this incitement to hatred took on such a feverish pitch that after the elections, people were attacked in the streets of Delhi for such innocuous acts as wearing prayer caps.

It might also be said that in the last elections, both in India and in the USA, a key strategy employed to win the elections was to:

  1. Incite people to a feverish pitch of hatred towards an “othered” group
  2. Paint the opposition as sympathetic towards that “othered” group
  3. Claim to represent and sympathise with the “in” group.

The “othering” takes place through hate news.  The association of the political opponent with the othered group makes use of fake news.

In the USA, the othered group was people whose origins might be traced to beyond the Southern border and people of a certain religion.  In India, the othered group was people of a certain religion.

How do we define hate news

I think hate news might be defined as any information (real or fake) that results in othering.

Hate news typically works by presenting a one-sided view of an issue.  For instance, in India, hate news highlights those historical events where rulers belonging to the othered group have acted against the interests of the in group, while remaining completely silent about historical events where the same rulers have acted in the interests of the in group, and about events where rulers belonging to the in group have acted against the interests of the in group or against the interests of other groups.

So we could define hate news as news that is one-sided (against an othered group).  A hate news source could be defined as a source that only presents one-sided perspectives against an othered group.

However, the mention of the othered group is important in such a definition.  Without the mention of the othered group, all one-sided argument might be considered as bad.    But activists (such as climate activists) take one-sided positions against something that could pose a danger to society.

So the one-sidedness of the argument alone is insufficient to mark it as hate news.  It would have to be hate inducing and aimed at othering a religious or ethnic group of people.

How does hate news help a majoritarian politician?

Once a politician has successfully ‘other’ed a group of people, they are now in charge of a political project that energizes their support base and consequently helps them win elections provided the “in” group is in a dominating majority.

I believe that Modi in India, Trump in the USA, Hitler in Germany and Boris Johnson in the UK all used the same trick.

Othering need not always be the result of the use of hate news.  Politicians might not even be the agents of that hatred.  They might merely be opportunistic exploiters of hatred.  For instance, racial prejudice had existed in the United States prior to the development of modern 24×7 television news channels and religious hatred has existed in India for a long time before literacy levels were high enough for mass news consumption.

However, it is possible that deliberate use of hate news was made to harden the pre-existing otherings.  Hate news may have also helped propagate otherings in places where they did not always exist.  For instance, a political party that uses the strategy of hatred has made considerable inroads into the State of West Bengal in India which was once known for its liberal and left-leaning disposition.

The existence of social media echo chambers makes it easy to concentrate hate news upon people with pre-existing biases who are highly susceptible to it, and these echo-chambers make it difficult to combat the insidious effects of the same.

Groups of people who keep sharing hateful news articles with each other can keep the flames of hatred alive and even raise its intensity for a very long time, possibly in perpetuity.

Many groups (organized or otherwise) exist that have the sole aim of helping a politician who claims to sympathise with the in-group come to power.

Combating hate news

The only thing that can counteract hate news is news that presents alternative but trusted view-points; that carries information that helps people see the situation from a different perspective.

It is not often possible to reason with a person who believes in the message contained in hate news, because it has been found that facts alone rarely change anyone’s mind.  However, strategies involving looking at things from the othered person’s perspective seem to have had some success (though the findings in that respect are not straightforward).

However, since the lack of opposing perspectives supplies some of the power of hate news in echo chambers, the combating of the impact of hate news should probably involve a) the identification of hate news, and b) the communication of alternative perspectives to the user (possibly as recommendations near the hate news).

On social media, this might entail the use of algorithms that do more than recommend articles similar to what users have liked in the past.  Better algorithms might have other aims such as increasing the diversity of perspectives that those users have been subjected to but without a loss in user engagement (a business necessity).

This might be an interesting challenge to the AI and language understanding communities.

Apart from technology strategies, it might be necessary to reach out across divides, with each side bearing in mind that engagement with different opinions, no matter how unpalatable, might be necessary if one is to prevent the political projects that finance hate news from winning.


Here’s a related article: