18 May 2022


OPINION: Killing with text and images – Distorting perceptions

Shahzad Badar (Editor Bahria Tribune)

There are plenty of historical evidence implicating the traditional media for acting as a propaganda tool for ethnic cleansing and producing turbulence in society and its discriminatory policies.

Rumors in Italy in the 16th century, for example, about Jewish people drinking children’s blood circulated on printed pamphlets in Italy. Printing technology gave the rumor legitimacy. Today, those rumors are considered the precursor to anti-Semitism in the world. Der Stürmer, a weekly tabloid Nazi newspaper, was found to have “injected into the minds of thousands of Germans a poison that caused them to support the National Socialist policy of Jewish persecution and extermination”.

Mesmerized by Hitler’s charisma and media propaganda, Germany silently watched as the Nazis massacred the Jews. Like Der Stumer, Kangura the Rwandan tabloid spewed out hate and fabricated stories against the Tutsis preparing the population mentally for killing the Tutsis.

Like the printing press’s disruptive technology, broadcast technologies have also been misused to spread hate – most visibly in Rwanda, where the majority Hutus massacred the minority Tutsis

Social media played a nefarious role like the media in Rwanda in the Rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The U.N. report blames Facebook for playing a role in spreading hate speech amid the mounting Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Marzuki Darusman, who leads the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, states that social media played a “determining role” in the crisis.

Digitization of “text and images” increases their availability, makes them more toxic, more lethal and their impact on society and nations more profound than the previous print version. The conversion of ink into hypertext has increased violent crimes, hate speeches, propaganda, and enabled the extremists to disseminate it much effectively to its niche audience.

Shrinking of time and space has bestowed upon the text and images the magic power of eliciting a massive public reaction and social impact.

The massacre and promotion of hate crimes against Muslims in Manymar, Gujrat, and Delhi, and the massive street protests in response to George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in the USA is testimony to the fact that media is a powerful mover and shaker of society – a double-edged sword.

Metamorphosis of the traditional media into different types of social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatapps, Youtube, Periscope, Vimeo, etc) has increased the flow of information and makes it easier for extremists elements, politicians and policymakers to influence and radicalize the youth and sections of society by manifolds.

As of January 2019, 4.39 billion people had access to the internet. With zero or few gatekeepers, identification of fake news and disinformation is a tedious job that can only be performed by organizations like Google and Facebook. The statistics below give a glimpse of the information tsunami moving around the world.

  • Google processes 3.5 billion queries every 24 hours
  • YouTube saw 4.5 million videos viewed every minute
  • 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • Every 24 hours, 500 million tweets are tweeted on Twitter
  • Facebook reaches 60.6 percent of internet users
  • 73 billion users visit Facebook’s or its products every day


With the introduction of 5G technology, a new dimension will be opened in the realm of information. 5G can elevate data transmission speed by up to 100 times and reduce latency from about 20 milliseconds to one millisecond. Users will be able to download an entire season of a TV series in less than a minute.

With easy access to data and transmission facilities, terrorist and extremist organizations around the world are exploiting the media technologies for radicalizing the youth and section of populations to achieve their political aims. This has become a disturbing phenomenon in crisis situations, war zones, and peacetime. Gabriel Weimann from the University of Haifa, states that “nearly 90% of organized terrorism activities on the internet takes place via social media”.  According to Weimann, terror groups use social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and internet forums to spread their messages, recruit members, and gather intelligence.

Fake news or distorted news is easy and cheap to produce and disseminate on social media, tempting radical extremists to opt for these tools. The impact of social media discourses can be interpreted by using the same communication theories used to dissect and understand the impact of traditional media.

Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was once quoted as complaining that “CNN is the sixteenth member of the Security Council”.  Other senior policymakers, however, have provided a more complex view of the CNN effect. Colin Powell observed that “live television coverage doesn’t change the policy, but it does create the environment in which the policy is made”.

Governments do react or formulate policies under influence from media content and pictures are said to get a far stronger public response than simple text. Body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi a Syrian refugee lying face down on a beach in Turkey changed, temporarily the media debate on asylum to refugees.

Killing with words :

Rwandan cultural anthropologist Charles Mironko analyzed confessions of a hundred genocide perpetrators. His work confirms the thesis that hate messages in the media had a direct effect on the dehumanization of the population that was subject to persistent slander. Several months of this behavior, in the absence of credible reporting, conditioned the population to hate, and kill.

Like Der Stürmer and Kangura the media in India particularly in Gujrat printed fake news and headline like“Khoon Ka Badla Khoon” (Avenge Blood with Blood) to “provoke, communalize and terrorize people” resulting in the massacre of the Muslims by Hindus. Sandesh published fabricated reports before the killings and promoted violent Hindutva policies earning praise from Narendra Modi.

While the Indian media got away for encouraging the massacre of the Sikhs and Muslims, two Rwandan journalists were jailed for life and a third was sentenced to 35 years for fanning the flames of a 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people ending the three-year trial during which the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania heard how the media played a major role in inciting extremists from the Hutu majority to carry out the 100-day slaughter of ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.

Ferdinand Nahimana, a founding member of Radio Television Libres des Mille Collines (RTLM), was sentenced to life in prison along with Hassan Ngeze, owner and editor of the Hutu extremist newspaper Kangura.  “Nahimana chose a path of genocide and betrayed the trust placed in him as an intellectual and a leader,” said Presiding Judge Navanethem Pillay. “He caused the deaths of thousands of civilians without a firearm.”

“RTLM broadcast was a drumbeat calling on listeners to take action against Tutsis,” Judge Pillay said. “RTLM spread petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country,” he said.

The international watchdog group Genocide Watch recently issued genocide alerts for Muslims in both Kashmir and Assam. Anti-Muslim venom on Indian social media platforms indicates a serious move by Hindu extremists RSS cadre to mentally prepare the Hindus for killing Muslims.  “Preparation for genocide is definitely underway in India…The next stage is extermination – that’s what we call a genocide,” said Professor Gregory Stanton, the author of the 10 Stages of Genocide in a speech to US lawmakers.

Distance and social media have empowered people to speak in the most hateful ways – something that face-to-face interaction censures and discourages. In 2014, the World Economic Forum called misinformation one of the ten greatest perils confronting society. “It sows the seeds of hate, waters them and harvests them”.

Technology serves not only to amplify disinformation and hate but also creates the scope for its automated spread through bots that are learning to mimic human behavior and imitate legitimate users. This sort of technology has no use for borders, so people and machines in Ukraine can influence public opinion in America, Russian agencies can interfere with the US electoral process. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us how easy it was to manufacture biased information and target it to specific population groups in the USA to help Trump win the election. Social media helped massacre democracy and votes.

Contagion effect:

Social media helps people to isolate themselves in ideological niches by seeking and consuming only information consistent with their views. The internet helps eliminate the barriers of distance and creates a sense of community beyond borders. Acts of terror are promoted and shared and watched in real-time like the mosque shooting in Christchurch which was live-streamed on Facebook.

Online video games are used to entice and indoctrinate young players to hate ethnic minorities. The games are modified versions of classic videogames in which the original enemies are replaced with religious, racial, and ethnic minorities.

James Mendil in The Role of the Media in Promoting Generalized Imitation states that despite being home to only 5% of the world’s population, roughly 31% of the world’s mass shootings have occurred in the United States. As of 2015 a mass shooting resulting in the death of four or more people occurred approximately every 12.5 days. Media he claims increases the probability of imitation.

World Health Organization, citing 50 years of research on imitation, has posted media guidelines on reporting suicides to prevent imitational suicides.

The guidelines include suggestions such as not sensationalizing suicide (e.g., suggesting an “epidemic”), avoiding prominent headlines, not repeating the story too frequently, not providing step-by-step descriptions of methods, limiting the use of photographs and videos, etc.

Social media and traditional media have a tendency of promoting imitation by virtue of its repetitive nature.

Covid-19 and infodemic: “Coronavirus cannot attack black people”

The social media played a vital role in politicizing the Covid-19 and generated fake cures and myths about its cure and blamed minorities. In India, Muslims were accused of Corona Jihad on social media and spreading the virus to the Hindus population. Indian media even blamed Pakistan for sending Corona terrorists for infecting Hindus. Muslims were blamed even put to death due to propaganda on Indian media which urged Hindus to boycott Muslim merchandise. Labeled as Chinese virus due to Trump’s tweets and false claims the WHO head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

As President of the United States Trump’s statements on social media immediately generates mountains of news and debates in the media environment but unfortunately, most are misleading or false, but as this crisis has gone on, many media outlets have been functioning as channels for Trump’s misinformation which reaches the general public producing more right-wing violence against refugees blacks and minorities and spreading myths about the Covid-19, creating severe reaction against lockdowns and doctor’s advice.

Traditional media had a stringent check on the flow of news that is absent or poorly built-in social media platforms. Reacting to government and public pressures Facebook, Reddit, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube have issued a joint statement to check misinformation. Twitter will take extra steps to remove tweets that put people at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus as it rapidly sweeps through communities around the globe.

Twitter has updated its safety policy to prohibit tweets that “could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.”

The new policy bans tweets refuting medical advice on the virus, or encouraging fake or ineffective treatments, prevention, and diagnostic techniques as well as tweets that mislead users by pretending to be from health authorities or experts.

Tweeter and other media were abused by fake doctors making unscientific claims like “if you have a wet cough, it’s not coronavirus — but a dry cough is corona.

“Coronavirus cannot attack black people” was another fake news circulating on the social media. This could have resulted in black African Americans ignoring the corona warnings. The African American population happens to be the most affected racial group by the COVID-19.

Content Accuracy :

Accuracy and elimination of fake news/propaganda content are critical for growth and ensuring media credibility and harmony in society. To ensure credibility Facebook has decided to have stringent rules to check and identify harmful misinformation in collaboration with International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Twitter is labeling and issuing warnings for tweets that violate its policy. Trumps tweets are labeled and fact-checked.

CrowdTangle is a public insights tool from Facebook that makes it easy to follow, analyze, and report on what’s happening across social media. Facebook acquired CrowdTangle in November, 2016, made the tool-free and expanded access from 300 media partners to more than 10,000.

Media and Information Literacy (MIL) based on a comprehensive preventive strategy for reducing the appeal of violent radicalization by media is an effective remedy for countering fake news and disinformation campaigns.  Shahzad Badar