Not funny

By Gabriele Jacobs, November 30, 2020
Image by Markus Winkler
Image by Markus Winkler Unsplash

Currently, Dutch media allow us to follow closely the ins- and outs of fights within the Dutch party “Forum voor Democratie”. Founded in 2016, the “Forum for Democracy” is a right-wing populist party and was hugely successful in the 2019 provincial elections. Lately, the repeated dissemination of racist and anti-Semitic memes and text messages within the youth movement of the party triggered a party-internal crisis.

I feel deeply worried, as a researcher, as a dean and as a citizen about polarization and the increasingly wide spreading of right-wing extremist ideas within our society. It seems as if we as social scientists still largely fail when it comes to developing de-polarization strategies. Yes, we know many elements of it, but where is the practical good theory that helps us developing a toolbox to countering polarization?

Let's start with the straight forward elements we know: Social media contribute significantly to polarization and in the consequence, radicalisation. Together with colleagues from 15 institutions in 10 European member states we are analyzing the mechanisms behind online radicalization within an EU project called PROPHETS. The internet is increasingly used to illegally fund, recruit, train, and incite especially young people against European social and democratic ideals. The highly professional online propaganda techniques of ISIS taught us how the continuous exposure to aggressive and violent online images and texts contributes to a process of desensitizing and undermines our human empathy. Just as ISIS, the extreme political right is particularly handy in using algorithms of social media like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Telegram to spread extremist-content, hate speech, disinformation, fake news and propaganda. Online communication is systematically used to create hostile social environments, and to undermine social cohesion in society. Thus, social media is used to target the heart of our democracy, by polarizing public and private discourses. These processes start in the internet, but intensify their societal influence by being echoed in the mainstream media.

For example, members of the youth movement of the Forum voor Democratie were cited in the media, as being surprised why “innocent jokes” about the holocaust, racism and anti-Semitism were taken so seriously. This can be seen as a sign of desensitization which as scholars we know is part of every radicalization process. Social media allow us to create sub-realities, in which we see the same content in different variations over and over again. This repetition makes us perceive content which we first felt was abusive or cruel over time as acceptable and normal – and, yes, funny. As long as such radicalization would stay within the app group of the youth members of the Forum voor Democratie, there would be a quite clear-cut explanation. A group of young enthusiastic people was manipulated or lost due to specific group dynamics their sense for what is right and what is wrong. 

Unfortunately, it is not that easy. As we have seen earlier this year also within EUC, the sharing of “jokes” about the holocaust, racism and anti-Semitism is a widespread phenomenon. I see it not only at EUC, but also in the chat groups of children at secondary and primary schools. From a propaganda perspective it is an effective approach, that children and teenagers desensitize themselves by sharing “jokingly” cruel memes of all forms and shapes. This continuous spreading of far-right extremist symbols and narratives in the chat and app groups of our students is supported by mainstream media, which seem to be also increasingly desensitized for aggressive or violent content in their attempt to be a pluralistic voice.

Currently, a large part of the mainstream media reporting on the memes and texts spread within the youth movement of the Forum voor Democratie focus on the “soap-opera” going on within the party, while the hate speech and racism expressed by their members is often downplayed as “controversy”. To give a recent example, authors of one of the biggest Dutch newspapers, “De Volkskrant” literally quote anti-Semitic, racist and inhumane speech of one of the leading figures of the party. This party member belittled the life threatening circumstances under which refugees flee to Europe (20.000 are estimated to have drown in the Mediterranean sea since 2014), victims of Ebola (around 11.000 fatalities) and the holocaust (nearly six million Jews had been murdered) . The authors label the respective quotes and tweets as “provocative and ironic” and “controversial, humoristic and tasteless” and contextualize it as “freedom of speech”. This is neither ironic provocation nor tasteless humor, this is abusive, dehumanizing speech. Not funny in any respect.

What is the counter-measure? How can theory and behavioral practice help us to overcome the polarization that we have collectively allowed to seep into our private homes, neighborhoods, schools, universities, parties, and companies?

We know how communication, technology, and media trigger radicalization; thus, we need to learn how to use communication, technology and media to build resistance within our society. Polarization happened in small steps, tweet by tweet, app by app. Thus, we can also counter it by small, but effective steps. It is beautiful to see, that there are already many initiatives that do exactly this, step by step becoming resilient against the influence of hostility and polarization.

It needs new alliances across all sectors and parts of society to jointly develop a powerful toolbox of de-polarization. It needs educators, artists, police officers, consultants, entrepreneurs and many more expertise to re-claim real plurality, diversity and freedom of speech.

A year ago, I was invited to join a pro-bono group of very diverse experts in the field of safety and security. In this “resilience group of experts,” we try to identify best practices and develop innovative ideas to initiate more authentic and deep dialogues across diverse perspectives and to encourage more fruitful democratic fights. We belief in the power of small steps. And we also believe in reflexivity.  Consequently, one small step that we are taking is that the consultancy company Deloitte has funded one of our EUC students to look into how we can learn from our WhatsApp incident within EUC.

We reach out to the EUC community and you dear readers of this blog for co-creating our dialogue toolbox.  Your ideas are welcome! How can we create an atmosphere where we do not need to hide behind violent memes, but can openly stand up for our beliefs and discuss these with opposing proponents in a respectful manner?

It would indeed be wonderful to have humor as part of the mix.

A blogpost by Gabriele Jacobs