We’re playing with fire

The use of language that incites hatred and deepens societal divisions might offer a temporary political advantage, but who will be left holding the bag?

A Martian landing here by mistake could be forgiven for thinking we are choosing gladiators, not MEPs, in the 8th June European elections. Some of our politicians have been vowing to pursue a relentless “holy war”. Others are all set to “defend the country” from attack by “traitors”, whatever it takes. It has become far too common for parties and candidates to refer to their political opponents using divisive terms and insults that could have a serious negative impact on the tone of political debate.

Political campaigns all across the democratic world have long relied on the strategic use of language. This involves political parties making ambitious promises to voters, criticising their opponents, and presenting themselves as the answer to the country’s woes. A history of political divides has long characterised Maltese society. However, this polarisation has now morphed into a new monster, with social media platforms acting as a powerful tool for disseminating divisive topics at an unprecedented pace.

An examination of political content shared during this campaign exposes a troubling pattern: highly divisive and polarising content garners the most engagement. This mirrors a global trend where social media posts critical or mocking of opposing viewpoints (the “out-group”) significantly outperform positive posts promoting ideas or candidates from one’s own political sphere (the “in-group”).

Studies exploring online “virality” reveal that content using highly emotional language, especially anger or moral outrage, gets shared more. However, research suggests that mentioning opposing political groups is even more effective – nearly five times more impactful than negative emotions and seven times more than moral outrage – in boosting shares. In essence, social media platforms are inadvertently incentivising divisive content due to its high viral potential.

Like a weed seed

In the competitive world of politics, as elections approach parties prioritise mobilising their base. This often leads to portraying their opponents in the worst possible light, emphasising the dangers they supposedly pose to the country’s well-being. In the meantime, they talk about national unity as an ultimate goal, ironically to be achieved by punishing the other side as much as possible.

On the 10th of June, one – or more – parties will celebrate their successes in the European elections following a fiercely-fought campaign. They might find that the use of language that deepens societal divisions might have granted them a temporary political gain – but who will be left holding the bag when the longer-term consequences arise?

Politically divisive language can be like a weed seed: easy to toss out in the heat of the moment but, once it takes root, it grows into a thorny tangle, choking out the delicate flowers of understanding and respect. Left unchecked, this invasive weed can spread throughout the national garden, leaving behind a fractured nation.

Former Prime Minister and Labour leader Alfred Sant put his finger in this wound in a post he uploaded on his Facebook profile earlier today, triggered by the attempt on the life of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico last week. He described this tragedy as yet another evidence – if, indeed, it was necessary –  of the harm caused by violent speech in democatic political life.

Slovak Opposition party leader Michal Simecka has described the assassination attempt as an attack on democracy, adding that he, his wife, and their child had received death threats. Reuters news agency reported that “his experience is not uncommon, a measure of the extreme political and personal animosities in Slovakia and across Europe…”.

When he was elected Labour leader in 1992, Alfred Sant put his money where his mouth is and wasted no time to purge the party of violent elements and unscrupulous characters that had been left unchecked since the 1970s. He is also credited to have been one of the main drivers behind the eradication of political violence from Malta.

“In a well-functioning democracy there are no enemies but political opponents who have the right to an equal voice in the life of the country and to deliver their messages to the people, and they must be treated as such,” Alfred Sant wrote on Facebook. Moreover, he warned that “very harsh (not to say violent) speech is not a monopoly of the so-called ‘populists’ but is being used more and more by so-called ‘moderate’ or ‘centre’ political forces who then continue to pretend that they are a beacon of the best political behaviour. After all, we have seen this thing happen and it is happening in our own country.”

Good thing he only had eggs

At an event held by the Labour Party in Vittoriosa to mark Freedom Day a few weeks ago, we watched nervously as a candidate of one of the smaller parties climbed unhindered on stage as the Prime Minister and party leader, Robert Abela, addressed the audience from behind a podium. As he approached the Prime Minister, he dropped eggs at his feet as a sign of protest at what he deems a breach of Malta’s constitutional military neutrality status by the present government. While security eventually intervened, a few seconds felt like a long time for the Prime Minister’s safety to be at risk. It’s a reminder that serious political incidents can occur even in today’s Malta, and therefore vigilance is necessary.

High-ranking politicians across the board are doing well to regularly appeal for calm but their calls will be useless if, at the same time, they close their eyes to the continued widespread use of divisive language by those around them. While inflammatory content attracts clicks, likes, and shares, it’s time to turn our stated commitment to the national interest into concrete action.

Having positively impacted so many lives through its policies over the past eleven years in Government, the Labour Party has the potential to be a powerful, leading force for de-escalation. A sustained focus on its plethora of success stories and on its beneficial new proposals would showcase Labour’s well-developed plans and commitment to continue improving people’s lives, standing in clear contrast to those who lack such preparation. In fact, many have been asking what the main party in Opposition would have actually focused on during this electoral campaign had the conclusion of the magisterial inquiry into the hospital deal not fallen onto their laps like manna for heaven on the same day election nominations opened. Theirs has so far been a negative campaign in the hope to cut the ground from under Labour’s feet.  This political Armageddon strategy has clearly not been delivering the results that the PN had hoped for, as the latest opinion polls reveal.

Investing in positive messages

While negative campaigning does help political parties consolidate their respective core vote in the short-term, it is undoubtedly a factor that has been contributing to the alienation an ever-growing chunk of the electorate, including young voters. According to a new Eurobarometer survey, turnout for next month’s European elections is expected to be low among young adults in Malta. Almost 30% of people under 30 say they will not participate, which is the highest rate in Europe.

The rise of the politically agonistic should seriously worry us. Let us create exciting campaigns that are not centred almost exclusively on the core vote; campaigns that ignite people’s passion for shaping their future through democratic participation.

Main image: ‘Pollice Verso’, an 1872 painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme.

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