The Message Is The Medium
Lessons from Rwanda genocide tell us to worry about hatred on WhatsApp.
Written by Sushant Singh | Published:March 28, 2017
The fake messages, hate videos and mean jibes that we get on WhatsApp and other digital forums cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant.
“The graves are not yet full.” This was the slogan broadcast on the privately-owned Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC) during the worst modern-era genocide: In 1994, about 800,000 Tutsis were killed in 12 weeks by the Hutus in Rwanda. The genesis of the genocide lay in Rwandan colonial history but the trigger and direction was provided by the media, particularly the radio. It became a powerful weapon to incite and direct the Rwandan genocide.
Twenty three years have passed hence, and India is miles away from Rwanda, but the lessons offered then hold great relevance today. The fake messages, hate videos and mean jibes that we get on WhatsApp and other digital forums cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant. Put together, this narrative of animosity portends dangerous times as part of a larger project of “Hatriotism”.
From early 1990, anti-Tutsi articles and graphic cartoons had begun appearing in the Kangura newspaper. In June 1993, the RTLMC began broadcasting in Rwanda. The radio station was rowdy and used language of the street — like any other popular radio station, there were disc jockeys, pop music and phone-ins. It was designed to appeal to the unemployed, the delinquents and the gangs of thugs in the militia. As Linda Melvern, a British journalist, noted, “In a largely illiterate population, the radio station soon had a very large audience who found it immensely entertaining.”
The transcripts of RTLMC’s broadcasts are available in Duke University’s International Monitor Institute. A lot of attention has since been focused on the radio station’s efforts to direct the extermination — broadcasts told people to “go to work” and everyone knew that meant get your machete and kill Tutsis. But what has escaped greater scrutiny is the manner — by demonising the Tutsis and encouraging hate and violence — in which the radio station prepared the ground among the people of Rwanda for genocide.
The transcripts reveal RTLMC’s efforts to claim authority over the telling of Rwandan history whereby the hardline Hutu extremists exercised a monopoly over the truth. These encounters with the truth provided the basis on which genocide became justified. “Slavery” is a term repeated through the transcripts, with guests on the radio station recalling the state of Hutu slavery during colonisation. Drawing on such a vocabulary, the radio broadcasts characterised the Rwandan genocide as a slave rebellion. The RTLMC was, Hutus came to believe, helping them unpeel the layers and discover their true history, as opposed to the one told by the colonisers and the local elite.
If radio was a powerful medium then, where you only needed a transistor and a few batteries, we have the smart phone and WhatsApp today. The plethora of hate messages we get on WhatsApp mirror the phenomenon of the RLTMC, a concerted attempt to fabricate a newer version of history. Slotted amidst entertaining GIFs, videos, memes and jokes, these crude stories of hate, vitriol and victimisation provide the justification for political action. Some of us find these tales — that Nehru died of AIDS or there is a satellite tracking chip in the new Rs 2000 note — absurd but that is essentially how they work. It is akin to the Nigerian 419 scam with deliberately implausible emails which maximise the scammer’s efforts by entrapping only the most gullible, a kind of self-selection. When fake WhatsApp tales make it to top television news stories, we know that the most gullible include those who should know better.
Technology is value-neutral and what makes WhatsApp popular also makes it more dangerous than the radio or platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Unlike them, it is a targeted mass-broadcast. The platform has made it extremely easy and swift to disseminate hate-messages, by allowing people to record and spread audio and video messages among a select group. At the push of the button, these passion-inciting messages are passed on to the selected people, with the highly inflammable raw emotions in them intact.
In the past few years, several instances have come to light where communal clashes are being planned or instigated through false videos circulating on WhatsApp. The police acknowledged that WhatsApp groups were used to incite the Muzaffarnagar riots in UP in the run-up to the 2014 elections. The gau rakshaks, the Jat agitators, and protestors in Kashmir also take advantage of WhatsApp groups to organise themselves. The government has responded by banning internet in such instances, making India the global leader in imposing internet blackouts. That is a tactical solution which prevents immediate violence. But the graver challenge of creating a fertile environment of hate, round-the-clock, by distorted story-telling continues unabated.
It is not just the poor and semi-educated who are taken in by the alternative narrative of political propaganda on WhatsApp. The educated elite are equally guilty. It is a reminder of what Fergal Keane, the renowned BBC journalist noted about the killers who participated in the Rwanda genocide: “A few gave the appearance of being truly psychopathic individuals. The mass of others were ragged and illiterate peasants easily roused to hatred of the Tutsis. Perhaps the most sinister people I met were the educated political elite, men and women of charm and sophistication who spoke flawless French and who could engage in long philosophical debates about the nature of war and democracy. But they shared one thing in common with the soldiers and the peasants: They were drowning in the blood of their fellow countrymen.”
Rwanda gives us a warning. Only if we would care to heed.