Meeting the Authoritarian Populism Challenge 2: “Hate Bait,” Framing, and Escalation


Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

December, 2018

Referenced Resources and Photo Credits found at the end of the transcript.


This is the second in our series of posts suggesting specific steps that could be taken to advance both our narrow partisan interests and our broader interest in strengthening democracy, opposing authoritarianism, and limiting the many destructive conflict dynamics that threaten our common future. This post focuses on the need to resist deliberate efforts to promote hate as well as the need to resist destructive conflict dynamics associated with the base mobilization trap, the scapegoating effect, distraction-based propaganda, and the "boiled frog" effect which leads us to neglect serious but slowly accumulating problems.

Full Transcript

Lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess, with the second in our series of posts on strategies for Meeting the Authoritarian Populism Challenge. In this post, I'm going to focus on something that we call "hate bait" and strategies for addressing it, escalation dynamics in some of their various combinations and permutations, and the importance of framing conflicts constructively.


This and all other posts in the Conflict Frontiers Seminar Series are offered as preliminary ideas for discussion. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Slide 2. As I indicated, this is part of a longer series of posts outlining how our strategy of massively parallel peacebuilding can be applied to authoritarian populism. The first post gives more detail on what we're trying to do with this series of posts. On the website, there is a lot more information on how we think that massively parallel peacebuilding can be applied to authoritarian populism.

Slide 3. Resisting the "Hate Bait" -- Perhaps the best place to start is by talking about something that I call "hate bait." This is a strategy that either cynical divide- and- conquer, authoritarian, plutocratic wannabes or just "mobilize the base" politicians can use to drive the escalation spiral and get folks on their side so riled up that they'll vote. In general, the strategy is to convince people that the other side is so terrible that the prospect of actually working together becomes pretty much unthinkable. They have to be defeated. Injecting these ideas into a society is something that has been done over and over again over the last many decades. It's something that anyone with a large media presence can do to accelerate and intensify an already existing escalation dynamic.

This post is part of a series of posts on Authoritarian Populism Name & Logoand strategies for more constructively addressing the red/blue divide.

It is also part of the larger Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Name / Logo seminar series.

In the figure, I have two arrows, a blue one and a red one, that indicate things that folks on the left or the right could do that's provocative and hateful. For the trap to work, it has to also have what I call a "tell them off" appeal. Most all of us (especially in our angrier moments) tend to think that it is really fun to hear somebody "tell off" the other side. If I look at my email or social network feed, I see all sorts of outrageous things that strike me as funny jokes or political statements by somebody telling the other side "the way it is." (It is sometimes called "speaking truth to power.") Coming from a more liberal base, I tend to get more Democratic than Republican jokes. Republicans, obviously, tend to get the opposite.

The key thing is that, if you look at these jokes and statements from the other perspective, they are likely to be seen as pretty disgusting and dehumanizing. Folks on the left think that Donald Trump is very good at this sort of thing. And, if they are honest, they would realize that Democrats are pretty good at playing a similar game. Both sides know how to make public policy pronouncements and do all sorts of things that really make the other side mad and, by making them mad, make their supporters cheer.

Immigration is a great example. So, let's go back to what is a classic positive sum feedback loop diagram. The basic idea is to do something that your supporters will cheer, but will horrify your opponents. This takes you to the bottom (or top) of the loop in the figure where the provocative action generates a counter provocation. This is because people are so horrified at what the other side said that you get a counter-action. This is something that will cheer the the other side but horrify supporters of the original provocation who are likely to conclude that these guys really are crazy and they will do something that's even more provocative. The cycle goes round and round with intensifying hostility. All you have to do is inject some hateful stuff into the system from time to time, and the divisiveness is quite capable of sustaining and even intensifying itself. This can reach the point where the original provocations are almost invisible. Probably more than anything, this is the dynamic that's ripping our society apart.

Slide 4. Now, in theory, there are some ways to try to fix this. You might call this "hate-bait resistance." The idea is that you refuse to take or at least cheer the hate bait. When somebody on your side sends you a "off-color" joke that demeans the other side, don't send it around to others. Or, if you do, maybe also ask, "hey, have we gone a little bit too far here?"  It's also worthwhile to, if we get a chance, to explain and condemn this hate bait propaganda trick and help people understand how cynical actors are trying to manipulate their minds with it and stuff like it. 

It also makes sense to call out the folks who are actually using these techniques and ask them not to. Now, some folks, who are trying to "mobilize the base" in this way are just angry and may not even have thought about how they are helping intensify the hate problem, rather than helping resolve it. I certainly know that I've said and thought some things when I'm angry that I probably shouldn't have.

It's also important to distinguish between the cynical propagandists who are spreading hate on purpose from the folks who are getting caught up in this hate cycle unintentionally. You can oppose the propagandists, and I think you should, but also try to give them a face-saving way out of the propaganda lifestyle. More importantly, you want to reach out to their followers and try to prove to them that their propaganda and their evil image about you is wrong.

Slide 5. This can actually lead to a reversal of the hate cycle. In this figure I imagine a reversal of the feedback loop. One side makes some kind of conciliatory gesture— one that has a "we're better than this" appeal. This, in turn, tends to moderate both supporters and opponents. Ultimately you can, in theory, can get a cycle of concession and counter-concession with ever more moderation and more concessions. In theory, that's the peace spiral.

Slide 6. The problem that we're dealing with here, though, is that at the same time you're trying to damp down this cycle of hate, there are other folks who are trying to intensify it either because they feel that they have to mobilize the base, or because they're cynical authoritarian wannabes pursuing a divide and conquer strategy. I think, unfortunately, that we are going to be stuck for a while in kind of standoff, where some people are trying to tamp things down, while other people are trying to intensify the conflict. Still, if you don't try to tamp it down, it's likely to explode, and that's what could lead us closer to violent confrontation and, potentially, civil war. 

Slide 7. The Boiled Frog, Distraction, and Scapegoat Traps -- The other thing to think about in this context is that there are there are lots of destructive conflict dynamics (you could call them traps) that are all wrapped up around this.  One of those that I talked about this in an earlier post is the boiled frog syndrome. Here the frog is sitting in a pot of water that's slowly getting warmer and warmer and he isn't noticing that it is time to jump out.

Similarly, we have been letting the hateful rhetoric escalate over a period of decades, really. And, the time has come for us to say that this has gone too far. We should "jump out." While I know it's not that much worse than it was just last year, it's still time to jump out.

Another game that gets played here, again by the authoritarian wannabes, is a distraction game where they do something that they know the public as a whole would condemn. They don't want the public to pay attention to things like a gigantic corruption scandal or tax plans that really are giant giveaways to the rich. There are lots of other possibilities on both the left and right. So you do something hateful that grabs all the headlines. It is a giant distraction, where you do what you really are trying to do is in the background. That's how magicians trick us all the time--and politicians do the same thing.

There is also a scapegoating trap which is, unfortunately, a really practical and effective strategy. When things are going wrong, you pick on some small group that nobody much cares about. Generally, they are a little bit isolated, at least from your supporters, and often the larger society. You then blame them for everything that is going wrong. That is one of the underlying mechanisms behind anti-Semitism. We also see that getting played against immigrants and refugees and all sorts of other folks.

I think that each one of these things are things that one could imagine a small group of people trying to make better by coming together and trying to highlight scapegoating efforts or distraction ploys, explaining why we shouldn't fall for them and how their purveyors really need to stop acting that way. 

Slide 8. The "Base Mobilization" Trap -- One of our big problems, at least in the United States, and I suspect in lots of other places as well, is that the mobilize-the-base strategy (which is based on convincing non-voting members of one's base to actually vote). Data show that this tends to be more effective at winning elections than appealing to the swing voters in the center.  Here are some statistics: the number of non-voters (folks who might vote if you make them mad enough, in the US, is about 40% of the electorate). The number of persuadable, swing voters is between 5 and 13%. This is why it is so politically advantageous to drive the escalation spiral. We have to figure out some way out of this. I haven't figured it out yet, but I'm working on it! I invite you to work on it, too.

Slide 9. Another challenge in our Massively Parallel Peacebuilding action list is more constructively framing or thinking about the conflict in "big picture" ways. There are lots of ways to approach this. 

Slide 10. Destructive Conflict Is the "Enemy" -- One idea is to get people to move beyond "us versus them" thinking, which is how so many of us are approaching this problem. But rather than trying to leap to an unrealistic "we're all in this together / we can negotiate agreements that will resolve everything" frame, we think it would be much more promising to try get people to think about destructive conflict as an enemy.

Slide 11. For the slide, I imagined that some of us have fallen into the deep, dark hole of destructive conflict. (In this drawing it's maybe not so deep or so dark.) Still, it metaphorically illustrates two things that could be done to address the problem. Some people could come together and to try to warn others about holes and traps. In essence they would be putting up stop signs saying don't go there, it is dangerous, it will make things worse. There's also a need for folks willing to help people who are caught in conflict traps to climb out, by again, in my sort of cute diagram here, providing a ladder.

Slide 12. In this context, I ought to be clear about what I mean by the destructive conflict dynamics that I see as our real enemy. Here, just to take a few ideas from this slideshow, it includes things like the "boiled frog" syndrome that I talked about just a little bit ago, or the distraction or scapegoating strategies. It also includes the escalation spiral that I'll talk about in a few minutes and a subset of that, the hate bait cycle. There are an awful lot of these destructive dynamics, and these are just a few. Over the course of this series of five slideshows on authoritarian populism, we'll certainly raise a lot more, and if you go into the full Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Action List you will find lots of other ones. We need to find ways to collectively come together and oppose each of these dynamics.

Slide 13. Another big cluster of things surround one of the most important Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Challenges--Limiting and Reversing the escalation spiral. This is really crucial. And, there are several additional videos that Heidi has put together that explore this topic in more detail. But figuring out how to slowly walk back this escalating conflict is really key to avoiding an awful lot of the problems we've been talking about.

Slide 14. Ratchet Down, Not Up -- We certainly need programs that can help communities ratchet down, rather than ratchet up the rhetoric. This article, from Media Matters, outlining Fox News's midterm engagement strategy, illustrates the opposite, a ratchet up strategy. According to this article, Fox News has been really telling its viewers that if the Democrats win, they're coming to kill them! So obviously, you better not let them win! That is an extreme case of throwing out the kind of hate bait that I talked about a little bit ago.

How should one respond to something like this? You can turn around and push back in ways that further drive the cycle. Or, maybe it would be better to talk about how this kind of fear mongering is completely "over-the-top" and making things worse rather than better. One could then go on and talk about while there are obviously deep differences over a lot of issues, there are a lot of things that the two sides have in common and that one of those things is a commitment to the safety of our fellow citizens.

While this can be done by individuals, it can also be done by community groups coming together and identifying inflammatory information and language that is having major and detrimental impact on their community. They could then go on to talk about how that's not right and model a more reasonable way of addressing the same issues.

This is the kind of group would, of course, need some way of distributing their thoughts to the larger constituency. One obvious option would be to do it online. There are also a lot of communities that have "crisis response teams" of one sort or another, who are committed to helping ratchet down inflammatory rumors (for instance, following something like a police shooting). But what about following any provoocative, highly escalatory action?  The broad idea here is that we need community efforts to ratchet down the rhetoric.

Slide 15. Persuasion and Exchange Not Force -- Another cluster of things that is critical to limiting the escalation spiral is a willingness to focus on persuasion and exchange as a group's primary strategies for protecting and advancing their interests. Force should be used only as a last resort. We have another whole post on the power strategy mix with more detail on this approach. The thing about force is that if you force people to do something that they don't want to do, it inspires resentment, backlash, counterattack, and continuing conflict. And right now, both sides are trying to force the other side to acquiesce or to submit. Instead, we should try to reframe our efforts to protect our interests through persuasion. We want to explain why a particular course of action is a good thing for all.

Or, we can use an exchange-based strategy to pursue our interests --- if you do something that I want, I will do something that you want. The goal is to take advantage of his many mutually beneficial trade-offs as possible. Persuasion and exchange-based strategies produce far more stable change. While there will be people who try to attack this approach and prevent it from working, we need to push back and emphasize that this is both effective, and a much less dangerous alternative to the destructive-conflict-as-usual practices that we have been facing.

Slide 16Truth, Apology, and Forgiveness -- Another big thing to do is to help people cultivate opportunities for truth, apology, and forgiveness. This was a big deal in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and apartheid in South Africa. I think a modified version of this approach also applies here in the US. Our history, especially on the side of dominant groups, has been characterized by a long history of unrightable wrongs. Now, it's to everybody's advantage to help people walk away from those past wrongs by admitting and correcting the kind of misbehavior that led to these events. It's also important to give folks a face-saving way to disavow the past. The BI Knowledge Base has a whole series of posts on the interlocking set of ideas associated with truth, truth and reconciliation commissions, apology and forgiveness, and face saving that offers a constructive way of dealing with a history that has so many difficult issues associated with it.

Slide 17. In the next post in this series, we're going to look at the additional massively parallel peacebuilding challenges associated with communication, fact-finding, collaboration, governance, and economics.

Referenced Resources

Photo Credits