IncitementIncitement to violence is rarely explicit – here are some techniques people use to breed hate

By H. Colleen Sinclair

Published 27 January 2021

As senators plan for an impeachment trial in which former President Donald Trump is accused of inciting his supporters to mount a deadly insurrection at the Capitol, there is a growing concerns about threats of violent unrest in multiple countries, and the role played by the proliferation of dangerous speech on line – and by political leaders. U.S. law reflects the assumption that dangerous speech must contain explicit calls to criminal action. But scholars who study speeches and propaganda that precede acts of violence find direct commands to violence are rare.

As senators plan for an impeachment trial in which former President Donald Trump is accused of inciting his supporters to mount a deadly insurrection at the Capitol, global concern is growing about threats of violent unrest in multiple countriesincluding the U.S. The United Nations reports the proliferation of dangerous speech online represents a “new era” in conflict.

Dangerous speech is defined as communication encouraging an audience to condone or inflict harm. Usually this harm is directed by an “ingroup” (us) against an “outgroup” (them) – though it can also provoke self-harm in suicide cults.

U.S. law reflects the assumption that dangerous speech must contain explicit calls to criminal action. But scholars who study speeches and propaganda that precede acts of violence find direct commands to violence are rare.

Other elements are more common. Here are some of the red flags.

Firing Up Emotions
Psychologists have analyzed the speeches of rousing leaders like Hitler and Gandhi for their emotional content, assessing how much fear, joy, sadness and so on were present. They then tested whether the levels of emotion could predict whether a certain speech preceded violence or nonviolence.

They discovered the following emotions, particularly combined, could ignite violence:

  • Anger: The speaker gives the audience reasons to be angry, often pointing out who should be held responsible for that anger.
  • Contempt: The outgroup is deemed inferior to the ingroup, and thus unworthy of respect.
  • Disgust: The outgroup is described as so revolting they are undeserving of even basic humane treatment.

Constructing the Threat
By studying political speeches and propaganda that have inspired violence, researchers have identified themes that can stir these powerful emotions.

Targets of dangerous speech are often dehumanized, depicted as fundamentally lacking qualities – empathy, intelligence, values, abilities, self-control – at the core of being human. Commonly, outgroups are depicted as evil, due to their alleged lack of morality. Alternatively, they may be portrayed as animalistic or worse. During the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches in Hutu propaganda.

To build a “story of hate,” a good guy is needed to counter the villain. So whatever dehumanizing quality is present in the outgroup, the opposite is present in the ingroup. If “they” are the Antichrist, “we” are the children of God.

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