Cyber racism and Covid-19: Expert weighs in on hate speech in Malaysia

Foreign workers and migrants in Malaysia have become the target of cyber-racism after the recent spike in the number of new Covid-19 cases. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Foreign workers and migrants in Malaysia have become the target of cyber-racism after the recent spike in the number of new Covid-19 cases. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 29 — Cyber-racism and online hate speeches or comments are nothing new in Malaysia and around the world.

However, the issue has seemingly become more prevalent in recent months during the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement control order.

Racist hate comments started to dominate the social media ever since the “tabligh cluster” was identified after a religious gathering which was held in Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur in February and accounted for almost half of the total Covid-19 cases in Malaysia.

Internet users then found refugees, immigrants and foreign workers as the "new victims" to blame over the recent spike in the number of new Covid-19 cases.

But what sparks such an attitude among Malaysians?

According to Universiti Putra Malaysia government and civilisational studies department senior lecturer Murni Wan Mohd Nor, racism is a complex problem with several root causes.

But in the context of Covid-19 pandemic, she said the biggest attribute which fuels racism could be due to fear of “others” not from within their group, and the threat they pose on their community.  

“These feelings are amplified during such uncertain times as people become paranoid about their life, physical security and economic livelihood.

“If you read between the lines of the hate speech that started from the ‘Wuhan virus’, then evolved to the tabligh cluster, and later extended to illegal migrants and foreign workers—you will find that fear is what fuels these hateful statements,” she added.

Murni, who has worked on several research papers on racism and hate speech over the past 10 years, also said that such sentiments have always existed beneath the surface for many people across different ethnicities and nationalities.

However, she added, the pandemic had amplified their fear and paranoia, and for many, they translated their feelings into expressions of hate speech.

Effects of prejudice on society

According to Murni, racism has tremendous effects on the victim and society as a whole.

“Victims of racism are stripped of respect and dignity by the vile and abusive comments being made.

“As a result of continued abuse, they may suffer from depression which could lead to a host of other physical and mental problems.”

She added that the degradation of self-worth could inevitably result in the victim’s withdrawal from society, which damages their rights to participate equally in the democratic process of their country.

“They are often afraid of voicing their opinions or playing an active role in the community for fear of their tormentors.

“In some cases, their withdrawal results from their own self-loathing and their refusal to participate in society is strengthened by their belief that their voice amounts to very little or nothing at all."

On a bigger scale, Murni added that hate speech can potentially be detrimental to the good relations of society’s members comprising of different races and religions.

This, she said could result in violent racial and religious tensions which in turn would affect not only public order but also jeopardise peace of a nation.

Racism in the digital age

Although the roots of racism go back centuries, Murni said social media has aggravated the issue faster than any other platform in recent years.

“Online culture has encouraged and normalised the expression of our every thought and actions online.

“Many neglect to exercise consideration and caution in their statements, and this has led to a surge in hate speech around the world.”

Murni also pointed out that the problem would be exacerbated when hate speech is shared on social media globally.

“A racist on social media can influence racism in so many followers, which affects many more victims than before."

To prove her point, Murni referred to the recent Covid-19 crisis where Asian-looking people or those perceived to be from certain religious groups were demonised for being the cause or carries of the virus.

She also said the way social media was used today had promoted a culture of compulsion and obsession across all age groups.

“We neglect to edit ourselves to see if the statements we share are kind, considerate, or even true,” she said.

Citing recent studies, she said it was shown that content which is novel, sensational, or negative is shared faster and wider than content that is more factual in nature.

Monkey see, monkey do

While social media serves as a fertile ground to disseminate hate speech, Murni said any racist comments by influential figures can potentially cause more social damages than when it’s done by ordinary people.

These include personalities, people in fiduciary positions such as teachers, law enforcement officers, politicians and leaders.

Ultimately, Murni said when someone influential uses stereotypical or hateful speech, their followers will perceive that its usage is justified, valid, and legitimate.

Looking at past events, she pointed out that many acts of violence and even genocides was started by the usage of hate speech with an aim to dehumanise a particular group of people.

“It was said that the terrorist responsible for the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand last year was inspired by many Islamophobic leaders, including Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic.

“We can’t underestimate the impact of hateful words — especially when said by influential people.”

How to tackle racism and hate speech?

According to Murni, there were many approaches which need to be taken simultaneously to tackle racism and hate speech.

First, she said the legal framework in Malaysia needed to be improved.

Current laws, she said were vague, general, and wide enough that might allow any kind of speech to be criminalised for its ‘improper usage’.

“Many democratic countries have specific and comprehensive laws on hate speech or racial-related comments not to make penalising speech easier — but to address the various legal issues in detail so it would reduce the risk of having the law misused or abused,” she added.

Although it was important to have well-defined regulations for the issue, Murni said the legal method may not be the only answer to tackle the problem.

“It is one way to help address the problem, but it does little to avoid it from happening.

“Education may seem like a cliché answer but it is still the key.”

According to her, racism and hate speech are being used by people of different socio-economic and ethnic groups which indicates that the problem is deeply rooted in society.

“We need to emphasise on lessons of kindness and consideration towards all people, and these lessons need to be imparted in all educational levels in various ways to suit the age groups.

“For example, students in secondary school and at the university level need to be taught the ethics and etiquette of using social media, which is a common course in other countries."

Additionally, Murni said the narration that is being perpetuated by leaders and the media need to be diversified.

“Instead of only focusing on sensationalised stories and negative narrations, there needs to be more emphasis on the common values that we share, which are many.

“This is fundamental in reducing the fear of ‘the other’ and bring down our walls so that we may understand that just because someone is different it doesn’t mean they will threaten our livelihood, physical security and the way of life.”

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