The Seeds of Online Hate Speech

During the final weeks of the 2008 presidential election, I received email from friends wanting me to vote for their candidate.  As a new voter, I treasured my independent status. I’d just listen and make up my own mind.  So, I grinned and tolerated their pitches for the most part, until I got one that claimed to be a speech given by “Barack Hussein Obama.”  It was so outrageous it screamed for fact checking.  Two minutes on Google and into three different urban legend websites, and lo, there it was on each site, a speech concocted by a mid western radio talk show host to caricature Obama.

But my friend was passing on the chain email, as a real speech given by the presidential candidate.  Ugly.  He really wanted this to be true.  And he didn’t care that it was a lie. He still doesn’t see the harm of it, as he maintains his anti-Obama rage like a martyr.  I rebuked him, in a “reply all” for promoting a lie.  It’s a journalism thing with me.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent an email quoting Prime Minister Rudd of Australia telling Muslims to get their act together or go home.  But I discovered in just a minute that this speech can be tracked to a Florida air force veteran who wrote these words to his local newspaper following the terrorism of September 11, 2001. I’d seen a similar email four years ago putting the same words in, then Prime Minister, John Howard’s mouth.  It was a lament that US leadership couldn’t be so direct.  I hit “reply all” here too and shot the thing down.

This week, via Facebook, another friend encouraged me to take seriously a video clip of a documentary trailer, that “exposes” the Obama administration’s subversive preparation of the US to accept a one world government and currency.  It’s such an obvious conspiracy theory, except for those who want to believe it.  And, some of my friends really want to believe this stuff.  (Makes me wonder what weirdness I might want to believe)  Should we be surprised to learn that a Republican talk show host, with a record of failed conspiracy theories, directed it?  It was a slick video.

Now, while the Bush administration suffered heavy criticism – no emails, or videos landed in my computer that attributed to G.W. Bush words he didn’t say, plans he didn’t have. Still, he was lampooned unmercifully.  So, a bit peeved at the intensity of Obama bashing, I chastised this particular friend for promoting hateful discussion, by “commenting on his status” (Facebook speak), and to my chagrin, he responded there with some humble pie.

So I called him.

Speaking about President Obama, my friend said, “You know Chris, I think the reason I do this is I feel so powerless. He and his henchmen make decisions that affect my life, even here in Australia, and I can’t do anything about it.  I just don’t trust the guy.  Any suggestions?”

I was flummoxed. I wanted to say it’s not even documentary – it’s propaganda.  But that wasn’t his concern.  He was overwhelmed by a sense of the power of the Obama machine, and the sense of his own lack of representation.  I wonder why he gives the man so much power.

Yet, I can relate to the feeling.  The question is what do you do when you feel like that?  I guess, owning it is a good start.  And there are civil ways to discuss politics and express disagreement, where truth matters more than winning power, friendship matters more than party machine, kindness and fairness come into play. But they’re discreet attitudes, since good manners happen in the quiet corners.  Rancor likes center stage.

When Adolf was just a man in the crowd

Adolf Hitler - in the days when he was just one in the crowd

A worst case scenario: we could all become little Hitlers.  It’s easier than we might first imagine. Let’s start with resentment of someone we think is stealing our future, and blog about him or her.  Hitler did the equivalent in his own time.  His resentments crystallized and became a book that blamed a conspiracy of Jews for Germany’s demise, and, oh dear, a critical mass of people wanted to believe it.  They got behind him and propelled him to leadership, which he secured with the most extraordinary propaganda films.  Too far fetched?  Us?   Little Hitlers?   Nah?   Not seriously?

Poor victim, Adolf, got the perfect storm of circumstances to fulfill his Aryan utopia.  The whole world got war, European Jews a holocaust.  It was unimaginable suffering and loss of life remembered mostly by people born in the 1930’s or earlier.

In the US, people have assassinated presidents and other leaders whom, they believed, had eclipsed their Utopian dreams. They’ve shot up their schools, they’ve  bombed federal buildings.

Other disaffected groups with the same sense of deficit, have flown planes into buildings, and now they deploy suicide bombers, and roadside bombs.

Nahaah!  My chain email propaganda, and bitter blogging can’t be likened to this!  Oh, really?  Perhaps, not yet.

So what’s an alternative to fixing blame for our unease upon leadership, political parties, ethnic groups, or conspiracies of the elite?  I like Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s advice on this, in the semi auto-biographical book of his life by Clayborne Carson.  King says if you want to influence decisions you must be prepared to do the humbling work of persuasion.

I recall from my University days, Australian Historian, Charles Manning Hope Clark, liked to say, “If you have something to say have the humility to get up and say it.”  But he presumed it would be with some sense of dignity and respect for others.

Since we are all gifted so differently we need to be realistic about how we might be persuasive, and how much influence we can expect to have.  I’ve been amazed here in Massachusetts how readily my federal congressman and senator have, through their staff, listened to me and responded over and above my expectations to particular concerns I’ve raised.  I suspect, when we are such mobile people, it’s too easy to forget to begin in our own neighborhoods.


~ by cgilbertlpmedia on October 27, 2009.

One Response to “The Seeds of Online Hate Speech”

  1. Two follow up remarks – the one comment that was submitted here was the mirror reverse of the problem I’ve outlined. It ranted against the “idiots” who want to believe chain email and pass it on. Not persuasive, not helpful. It just nurtures the rancorous divide. And as a footnote: Another Facebook posting I received wants to believe AP wrote a story that proves Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii. It has been denied by AP. Here’s the text of the response I got from Jack Stokes of the AP New York Office.

    “The Associated Press has never reported that U.S. President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. In fact, AP news stories about the state of Hawaii have confirmed that he was born there. The Kenyan paper that you cite rewrote a 2004 AP story, adding the phrase “Kenyan-born.” That wording was not in the AP version of the story.

    Jack Stokes
    Manager of Media Relations
    The Associated Press”

    I hope this will assist those still wondering.

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