Ruji Auethavornpipat, Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, described that in Malaysia, attitudes of scaremongering and scapegoating of migrants worsened during the Covid pandemic. Migrants and refugees, especially Rohingyas arriving by boat, were portrayed as intruders threatening the country.
Saritha Irugalbandara (picture), Social Media Analyst for the NGO Hashtag Generation, reported a similar trend in Sri Lanka, where it was Muslims who were pictured as “Covid spreader”. Playing on the fears and uncertainties brought by the pandemic, deliberate disinformation and malinformation singled out Muslims – or localities singled out as such – accusing them of initiating, spreading or otherwise worsening Covid contaminations.
Mechanisms of generalization and dehumanization
Another common trend that was identified were generalizing mechanisms. On the one hand, hate speech ‘jumped’ from attacking an individual to the whole group they ‘represented’ – nationality, ethnicity, religion or immigration status. This served dehumanizing discourses, lumping diverse situations together under perceived ‘otherness’.
On the other hand, hate speech spread rapidly because it generalized its claims as ‘the majority’s opinion’, thereby legitimizing its false information. In Sri Lanka, this was largely fueled by public figures endorsing or relaying hate speech in talk shows, online, etc. The mandatory cremation policy, which gained international attention for going against Muslim and Christian freedom of religious belief, was informed by, and in turn reproduced, anti-Muslim disinformation.
What can civil society do?
Ruji Auethavornpipat suggested that civil society could help fight hate speech by (1) publicizing the plight of migrants and refugees to promote inter-communal respect and tolerance; and (2) organizing public information campaigns to counter hateful narratives.
Sarita Irugalbandara added that capacity-building, especially among youth, was crucial to build critical thinking and resilience to misinformation. This was especially true outside of the capital Colombo, where tech education remains low and hate speech is more prone to spreading. Hashtag Generation also runs capacity-building workshops for women working in public roles, since politicians, journalists and women in similar professions are exposed to discreditation and hate speech on a large scale.
Both speakers agreed that social media presented a threat, with Sarita Irugalbandara noting that hateful content is always “one step ahead”: by the time it is identified, reported and possibly taken down, it may have already spread (by individuals or bots) and already done the harm. This “reactive” approach is limited, but attempts to increase its efficiency could present risks to freedom of speech, for example through excessive prohibitions and censorship. A less risky and more lasting approach lies in training and education.
Asked to conclude, Ruji Auethavornpipat highlighted that although there have been fewer reported hate speech incidents than in the pandemic’s early days, underlying attitudes putting vulnerable populations at risk of hate speech and inciting violence should be addressed. This represents an ongoing, potentially lasting, challenge.
Watch the whole webinar recording below.