Plugged int Hater
Doris Lessing had an interesting notion about hatred. In her novel, ‘The Four-gated City’, she writes, “you discover hatred is a kind of wavelength you can tune into…plugged into Hater.”
If hate was the faint cosmic microwave background (the annoying radio waves that your hear as static on radio or see as black & white noise on your TV) that we experienced occasionally, medias have in a sense, appended large Arecibo-sized radio telescopes on our foreheads, tuning in hi-definition hate and streaming it into our consciousness 24×7.
Logging into Facebook, turning on the news channels on Television, or starting a conversation on WhatsApp about politics – now there are numerous ways to plug into Hater. In the post-modern times, where we question everything and there is no one true god, there is no one true meaning to life, but there certainly are many ways to plug into Hater. We live in a world where there simply aren’t enough ‘wavelengths’ dedicated to compassion, but there are many to hatred.
Us v/s Them.
This is the easiest wavelength to plug into – the ‘us v/s them’ Hater. You wear purple jersey, the ’other’ wears yellow. You have brown skin, the ‘other’ has black. You are heterosexual, the other is homosexual. You like hip-hop, the ‘other’ likes Carnatic classical. You eat pork, the ‘other’ eats mutton. There are so many ways to ‘other’.
The whole point is to find ways to connect with ‘our kind’ by hating on the ‘other’. The tribal humans divided by geography ensured their survival with this hatred, keeping the unknown at bay. The Modern connected human is unravelling the progressive project with this hatred, holding itself back, harming itself in the process.
An ‘experiment’ conducted by a schoolteacher in Iowa in 1968 showed just how easy it is to divide a people, to discriminate.
One day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Jane Elliot decided to demonstrate the reality of discrimination to her seven-year old students in a predominantly white town. She divided her third-grade class into groups on the basis of eye colour – ones with ‘blue eyes’ in one group and the ones with ‘brown eyes’ in another. As an authority figure, she said the ‘blue-eyed’ ones are superior and deserve special privileges. The ‘brown-eyed’ ones had to wear a collar around their neck to help identify them. Soon enough, the thoughtful young children turned on their classmates, calling them stupid, actively excluding them, turning ‘brown eye’ into a slur. On that day’s test, the blue-eyed kids pumped up with newfound superiority, performed better in tests.
The next day, she turned the table. Brown-eyed ones became superior. The collar that designated the inferior ones was gleefully removed from the necks by the brown-eyed ones and tied over the blue-eyed children. They got to feel superior, got longer recess and got access to playground. This day, the brown-eyed children scored much better than the blue-eyed ones in tests.
Arbitrary notions of superiority made children mean, dominating and helped them become more confident. Within a day, ‘thoughtful children’ became “miserable little Nazis”. When discriminated, they felt the pain of being rejected by their own friends. They felt hurt.
At the end of the experiment, they realised the power of discrimination though and the absurdity of it too. They realised how corrosive discrimination can be. They realised what African Americans & Native Indians had to experience in their country. At seven years of age, they realised what most of humanity never gets to understand: discrimination is absurd, but it causes real harm. It must be rejected.
I highly recommend you watch the PBS Frontline Documentary “A Class Divided,” which chronicles this experiment.
What can we learn about hate from this?
- Hate creates a new zero-sum game where one group gains power, while another loses.
One of the kids in the experiment said this, “I felt like I was a king, like I ruled them brown eyes, like I was better than them, happy.”
It propagates a culture where to gain happiness, someone else has to lose it. It doesn’t have to be this way in reality. But hate turns it into a zero-sum game. It manufactures an unhealthy competition.
- Hate can be cultivated easily. All we need is an artificial bogeyman that people can pin their insecurities, their fears, their concerns on.
“All your inhibitions are gone. And no matter if they were my friends or not, any pent-up hostilities or aggressions that these kids had every caused you, you had a chance to get it all out.” One of the kids in the experiment recalled this incident, as an adult many years later.
Life is not fair. We all have been in situations where we felt weak, where we were wronged, when we were made to feel insignificant. Hate creates a bogeyman to direct that anger.
There always exists enough pre-existing conditions that a hate-monger can leverage to rile someone up. One needs a convincing fiction that dissolves the dissonance that lived experience of unfairness, ignorance, luck, inequality etc. creates. In a sense, hate is made out of a psychological cocktail of,
- Wish-fulfilment: Promise of gaining privilege, righting wrongs, etc.,
- Certainty of narrative based on untruths: Real life is messy. It’s hard to pin point sources of worries, our fears. When someone builds confidence about whom to blame, it gives you sense of certainty that you needed. Conspiracies essentially serve the purpose of crutches against existential angst in a deeply uncertain, unfair world.
- Objectification of the victim: It’s not easy to hurt someone else. We need to ‘other’ the person, make them appear alien so that we may not feel guilty of hurting them.
- Hate spreads rapidly.
Once the cocktail is drunk, the transformation in worldview is immediate and conviction is strongly held.
Logical things spread slowly. It needs comprehension, appreciation and advocacy. But unreal conspiracies and notions can grow faster than cancer, because they appeal to our inner psyche.
“They (masses) do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt was talking about Totalitarian state’s strategy of using ‘mysteriousness’ of conspiracy theories (as in the case of Jesuits and Jews in Nazi Germany and ‘plot of Trotskyites’ in Soviet Union) as propaganda to gain and maintain their power. These mysteries might be based on some kernel of truth or be completely fabricated. As long as it paints the ‘other’ as villain and ‘us’ as righteous heroes, any inconsistencies in truth and logic can be papered over with new mysteries. As a matter of fact, the dissonance with truth, requires a certain level of faith in these mysteries that enable rapid agreement and spread of these mysterious conspiracies. Masses have to believe in these mysteries to not feel guilty.
As she identifies, this mysteriousness had an inexhaustible supply. “Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”
21st century digital networks have accelerated this whole system of hate peddling disinformation. People might have more voice now, but their manipulators (corporates lobbies & brands, and political parties) now have even greater power, more access, more intelligence and more capability to mould preferences, beliefs and behaviours too.
In a sense, social media platforms have become the open hunting grounds where citizen are fair targets for interest groups to hunt with targeted missiles of misinformation and disinformation. It’s open season here, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. In these fields, the missile is precisely targeted and moves at the speed of thought.
- The creator of that bogeyman, then gets the key to your anger. You become a tool in the hands of the hatemonger.
The creator of hate can direct your anger against their opponents. You become cannon fodder for their agendas. Right now, could be a good time to examine your own emotions. Who is benefiting from your anger?
- Hate is often directed to an identity – real or imagined. Here it was about an eye colour. But even simply the ‘act’ of hating can lend you a purpose, an identity. The rise of right-wing xenophobia across much of the world is based on this insight. It is hard work to build an identity with our work, with a principled life. It’s so much easier to imagine a glorious past and to attack the imagined villains holding us down from our destiny.
- Violence can’t vanquish hate. In the experiment, ‘brown eyes’ became a slur. Within a day, it became potent enough to cause a fight between two friends. One kid hit another in the gut. And yet he didn’t feel good after doing that. The tag stuck. Violence did not help in making him feel better.
In a sense, it creates psychological weapons in which people keep getting bruised and there’s no recourse from it, until the artifice on which the hate is built is dismantled. Violence does not help, arguing it doesn’t help, ignoring it doesn’t help. It has to be collectively called out – in a sense, all minds in that community have to be disinfected with the sunshine of truth.
- Which means, there has to be a willingness to engage with the truth.
In this experiment, the authority figure cultivated that willingness through the experiment. In real life, that might not be possible. Media and the government’s response to it matters here.
- In reality, having to confront the reality of your actions makes you reflect. The teacher controlled the space in a way that the oppressor and the oppressed saw each other and saw what was being done. Real communities can do that, online communities can’t. Real communities are shaped by consequences of what happens inside and outside the community. Online ‘communities’ can go on spewing out hatred without an iota of inkling of what consequences some of its members have to experience.
In reality, you can see the tears, the bruises that your hate caused. Online you won’t. You could drive someone to suicide and not know what you have done until news breaks through to your feed.
This exploration throws up so many questions,
- How to dismantle zero-sum games that hate engender?
- How can people guard against psychological hacks that partisan groups leverage?
- How to replace the hateful narrative that animates their worldview with a kinder narrative? Appeal to identity? Most cultures have heroic stories to that effect. Can they still be relevant? What stops us from using the non-dogmatic strands of existing cultures?
- How to ensure that people don’t feel that their trust is misplaced in institutions or elites? What mix of regulation, cultural narratives and justice system reforms is needed?
- How to ensure that the ability to mould preference, beliefs and behaviours are not misused? (Advertising often helps problematic organisations build favourable imagery and escape scrutiny. Political entities misuse personal freedoms to push their propaganda. How to ensure privileges afforded to the weak are not misused by powerful entities? How to keep these organisations in line?)
- How do we learn to know if the content we are consuming is in good-faith? how to defend against partisan interests? How to be aware of who is benefiting from my anger?
- How to cultivate empathy towards the other? How to incentivise the act of finding common ground and not things that divide us?
- How do we help people channel their desire for prestige, their sense of injustice?
- How do we puncture conspiracy theories?
- How do we cultivate a shared realisation that violence is futile. How do we ensure that people are heard, their grievances redressed to ensure that they don’t feel helpless?
- How can we create a culture where truth is valued and there’s a willingness to engage with it, no matter how messy it is?
- How can we rewire the algorithm of authority? how can we put trust, service to humanity as levers of gaining status and not simply popularity based on base desires of attractiveness or celebrity?
- How can we create safe spaces for people to engage with each other at multiple levels?
- How can we make consequence of acts more immediate?
- How can we defang partisan forces and profit-seeking businesses and help them become responsible citizen too?
Complicated problems, powerful forces at play and no easy answers here!
The issue operates at multiple levels with manifold strands and many actors.
Yet we see most of today’s efforts are very narrow minded. Fighting explicit hateful content is simply not enough. By focusing only on explicit hate, as big tech and even justice system does, we are essentially responding only to the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’. We must confront the whole lifecycle of hate.
It’s counter-productive to shut down dissent in the name of hate, even as injustices go unchecked. Afterall, hate in media is not just a media issue. It is a broader humanity issue that needs a co-operative approach at multiple scales, in multiple time frames and needs participation of various actors.
I will build a framework for this purpose in the next post. until then, let me know what you think. am i missing something? is my perspective skewed? what can be improved in this line of thinking?
“Yeh lo azadi (take your freedom)”.
Saying so, the 19-year-old pulled the trigger on peaceful protestors.
Incidentally, it was the martyr’s day – 30th January 2020. On this day 72 years ago, a Hindu fundamentalist had killed Mahatma Gandhi.
History certainly rhymes – both criminal acts were perpetrated by majoritarian fanatics against people fighting for the secular character of nation.
The difference between the two perpetrators – one had a clear political mindset (however misguided) and a leader as a target, the other had nebulous politics of majoritarian pride and a nebulous target of ‘anti-nationals’/ ‘Tukde Tukde gang’. One was a political murder, the other was hate crime.
The nebulous nature of hate tells us something. What can drive a 19-year-old to commit murder of unknown ‘others’? What miasma of hatred was he living in to give up his life for the hateful cause? Before setting off on his mission, he had written on his Facebook page, “Game over, Shaheen Bagh” and “wrap me in saffron on my last journey“. (Shaheen Bagh refers to another venue of protest where a large number of women and children were protesting. Depending on which news channel you saw, you either saw innocent women and children exercising their fundamental right or a grave conspiracy with a devious front. Saffron symbolises Hinduism.)
What happened earlier in indoctrination camps in deep jungles or hush-hush compounds in the towns, now happens openly on social media and TV. Conspiracies foment hatred while skirting around facts (and consequently shrugging off their responsibility to reality). The world is hooked on to a constant high of outrage. In a rapidly changing and increasingly unequal world, impressionable people (young and old. Oh lord, the old!), are being constantly bombarded with highly charged conspiracies, summary judgements and ready-made point of views. Most do not have the education to think critically[i]. The media eco-system has become so overbearing that one simply surfs over one outrage to next. In a sense, it creates a weather of ever-present hatred. The winds change direction merely to point one target to next – abortion, temple/mosque/ synagogue/ church attacks, Pizzagate, perceived slights to national honour or even something as innocuous as a girl smiling to camera or teens dancing for a meme… everything and anything is under the eye and everything and anything can be made to appear as outrageous.
In such a weather sometimes the flap of a misinformed butterfly, is enough for a hurricane of riot to be unleashed.
It was such weather of conspiracy and hate created by certain mainstream news channels around Hillary Clinton’s e-mails that created the fertile grounds for pizzagate conspiracy to foment on social media which resulted in innocent people receiving death threats and a person firing rifle inside the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, D.C in 2017.
It was similar weather created by certain mainstream news channels in India which consistently branded the protesting students as ‘anti-nationals’ sometimes falling as low as resorting to doctored videos[ii], that led to normalisation of hate against students. Two days before the incident of the teenager firing shots at protesting students, the Junior Finance minister of the country had openly sloganeered ‘desh ke gaddaronko, Goli maaro saalon ko’. Shoot the traitors. Here the traitors are understood as the Anti-CAA protestors.
Hate turned to violence.
Someone indeed did heed the slogan.
Who really pulled the trigger then? Should the teenager alone take the responsibility? Or should it also lie with the junior finance minister? Or some of the media channels? The ‘target’ of protesting students was in a sense, marked by a certain section of the media which routinely called them ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘tukde-tukde gang’. (tukde means pieces. It refers to the notion that these people aim to break India apart in pieces. Needless to say, this nomenclature was completely undeserved and fabricated for the convenience of powers-that-be.)
Or should it be the advertisers who effectively fund these media houses? After all, the media houses choose to attract majority’s attention, because they can then sell that attention to advertisers. Majority’s attention can most easily be earned by news channel by championing majoritarian issues. It’s a win-win – political class is happier, advertisers are happier, business booms.
Hate is profitable. Most eyeballs will after-all come for majority of people who have majoritarian point of views.
Let’s agree that media does fuel hate.
How media is incentivised to turn a blind eye to societal ills
The maths is simple. Advertisers typically seek to reach the largest number of consumers, more often in the most cost-effective manner. These are the most important considerations. Media planning, largely, is a game of finding an optimum solution in delivering these three factors. The only nuances considered might be about a sharper definition of the consumer, consumer behaviour/ preference about the content, likelihood of skipping the ad… etc. Lately ‘brand safety’ has become an emerging concern, but largely for digital advertising inventory. TV, Radio remain very relevant and yet ‘brand safety’ conversations haven’t affected the way media dollars get allocated to them.
Even in the digital realm, the attempts at solving the problem are ham-handed – keyword based. (More on this later.)
Since media is often primarily supported by advertising, they want to deliver the highest number of viewers, and to hold their attention for the longest. The most effective way to deliver it is not through thought-through treatise of truth, or even-tempered narration of the big picture. Being logical, thoughtful or engaging with complexity of reality is a sure shot way of losing interest of your audience in the post-modern times of ours where there are just too many options for the mind to find its next hit of dopamine. Five seconds of lack of excitement and click… channel changed, tab closed, screen swiped.
The most effective way to deliver consistent attention of the greatest number of people, is through the spectacle of the roadkill. The idea is to show imagery that is so outrageous that you can’t bear to see it nor to look away. It’s the spectacle of roadkill. Its macabre, it’s tragic and it colonises your psyche. It’s a meme that is so outrageous that you can’t skip it, the grotesqueness drawing you in.
We are inadvertently incentivising news channels to peddle hate and serve the spectacle of the roadkill.
The news media has hacked our psyche. They have found the optimum trigger of holding our attention. This is the reason news channel pick a small clip that they repeat endlessly. It isn’t as if they don’t have any other footage. The idea is to find the grotesque, the curious, and the ambivalent and repeat it.
There you have it. Loads of attention.
Media is driving hatred because it is incentivised to.
By the lure of advertising dollars.
Nobody is going to hold advertisers responsible criminally. But now that we know how we have inadvertently incentivised hate, shouldn’t we (advertising fraternity) do something to undo the damage? It doesn’t have to be this way.
By remaining moral-agnostic, advertisers are effectively funding majoritarian politics.
Digital media works differently from broadcast media with its long tail of content creators and consumers. The feeds, instant gratification, and the ‘reaction performance’ culture means that there are many different ‘long tails’ of ‘spectacle of the road-kills’.
The flat earthers, the QAnon, the Mukbang … there are as many spectacles out there and they have found large audiences too.
The dynamics of media consumption might vary, but in the post-modern world today, viewership is majorly towards these spectacles-of-the-road-kills.
Contentcreators – from journalists and TV show producers to YouTube stars and Facebook group editors – are merely responding to the world they live in. They create more of the things that get them more likes, views and ad revenues.
So essentially the attention economy has incentivised the Flat Earthers to hunker down on their mistaken beliefs and for QAnon followers to believe in nonsensical conspiracies.
To move away from the road-kill spectacle, we need to fundamentally rewire our media ecosystem. The biggest shift that needs to happen is of rewiring the incentive – advertising money must incentivise kindness not hatred, truth not lies, healthy dialogue not unhealthy obsessions.
Ignorance is no longer bliss. The price of 21st century living is eternal vigilance. The post-modern challenge is this- you might not know enough/ it might not be in your interest to take a stand. And yet, not taking a stand is not an option. As Sartre said, a person is condemned by free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Every choice – either of action or inaction – is our responsibility.
The beginning of a renaissance
Currently some conscientious brands have taken a stand and are pulling their ad dollars away from divisive content.
Recently, Renault pulled out its advertising from Republic Bharat channel in India which communalised a tragic lynching case (the channel often indulges in communal conspiracies).[iv]
Last year, Tucker Carlson’s show lost 70 advertisers in USA in response to his anti-immigrant rhetoric and tacit support for white supremacy.[v]
Even as I write, the list of companies boycotting Facebook is increasing. This was in response to an appeal by a Civil rights coalition which includes Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the NAACP under its #StopHateforProfit campaign. They cited Facebook’s “repeated failure to meaningfully address the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms.” as the reason for boycott. Power to them.
The #StopFundingHate campaign has been successful in persuading/ shaming tabloids into being more responsible publishers. Due to sustained campaigns there has been a substantial drop in anti-migrant front pages in UK press.[vi] The United Nations has taken the campaign’s message on board – and has recognised the need to de-fund media outlets that fuel hatred.
2019 saw the launch of two major advertising industry initiatives, the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media. Both seek to address advertisers’ ethical responsibilities, including the need to tackle hate speech.
These are transformative times and it’s about time that the broader advertising community wakes up to this new responsibility.
Consciousness shouldn’t be this much work
The efforts I mentioned brought a lot of good change. But it needed a lot of nudging, a lot of efforts and considerable time on the part of civil society members.
Hundreds of volunteers, reporters, organisers had to work tirelessly to get brands to recognise the impact of their advertising dollars. This is truly inspiring and commendable on the part of civil society and shameful on the part of brand owners. Why should someone else carry the cross of your ignorance, your lack of consciousness?
Holding media accountable is a full-time job that costs money. Right now, it is not sustainable. Consider TheHoot.org from India. It used to report on media bias, but had to shut down in 2018 because they couldn’t hire experienced journalist who they could afford. Now it exists as an archive. Newslaundry.com does excellent work of raising awareness of media bias, incompetence. It is managing to grow with subscription from its viewers. But this illustrates the point. In a country of a billion and a $2 trillion economy, there are just a handful of small companies, driven largely by passionate individuals, surviving on a small section of concerned citizens’ subscription revenues.
This is neither sustainable nor desirable where companies keep ‘externalising’ their ecological (more on it later), civil and even ethical costs. The citizens are paying these costs – with increased hatred in our cultures, with increased uncertainty about our future, with increased room for corruption, with power not being held accountable.
We need a SYSTEMIC solution to this problem. And advertising industry has a role to play in creating & participating that system. We need to change the way we work to account for our responsibilities to the civil society. It can’t go on with activists having to check on us regularly.
How do we build this system which can be sustainable, accepted by all and non-discriminatory? I have an approach to solve this problem in mind. But before I get to the solution, it would be worthwhile to appreciate the nature of the beast – why is hate such a big problem now? Who benefits and how incentives are stacked against the civil society? What are the specific mechanisms of fomenting hate? What are the challenges we would need to overcome to build a system to reduce hatred being propagated with ad dollars in the world?
[i] Most Students Don’t Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds, The Wall Street Journal, Nov 21, 2016
[ii] Forensic experts say Kanhaiya video was doctored, February 19, 2016, India Today https://www.indiatoday.in/india/delhi/story/forensic-experts-say-kanhaiya-video-was-doctored-309626-2016-02-19
[iii] Hate Speech in Pixels: Detection of Offensive Memes towards Automatic Moderation, Benet Oriol Sabat, Cristian Canton Ferrer, Xavier Giro-i-Nieto, Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya – UPC, Oct 2019
[v] Tucker Carlson’s Show Bled 70 Advertisers in Less Than a Year, GQ, Luke Darby, August 20, 2019
[vi] Five ways that Stop Funding Hate supporters have made a difference, https://stopfundinghate.info/2019/08/16/five-ways-that-stop-funding-hate-supporters-have-made-a-difference/ , June 16, 2019