Beyond Fake News: the Central African Republic’s Hate Speech Problem
In the aftermath of a disputed election and targeted disinformation campaigns, divisive rhetoric presents the greatest risk to a fragile peace.
After a recent contested election, the Central African Republic finds itself in a precarious situation. Violence around the election combined with the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 and destructive flooding have caused the humanitarian emergency to reach its worst state in five years. Meanwhile, the CAR government has been accused of engaging in Russian-backed disinformation campaigns targeting domestic civil society, French diplomats and the United Nations peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA), threatening key relationships. Even as the long-simmering issue of hate speech continues to draw fault lines through the country, efforts to combat these campaigns have focused primarily on challenging fake news rather than addressing the underlying fear and prejudice that spoilers use to stoke conflict.
Hate Speech in CAR
Hate speech is any type of speech that is offensive and can lead to discrimination or incitement to violence that targets a group, such as an ethnic or religious identity group — and it is both a symptom and cause of CAR’s ongoing conflict. Hate speech can be used for a variety of reasons, including strategically to mobilize support for an individual, group, issue or platform. Resulting polarization can deepen divisions and exacerbate grievances between groups, increasing the risk of violence.
The most notable example in CAR of the negative effects of hate speech occurred in 2014, a year after a successful coup by an alliance of armed groups from the predominantly Muslim North, the Séléka, who targeted civilians in their campaign. In response, a coalition of community-based self-defense groups, known as the Anti-Balaka, began to mobilize with former presidential guards to oppose the Séléka. They began attacking the Séléka as well as unaffiliated Muslim citizens amid a cycle of retaliatory violence, accusing them of being “foreigners” and rallying around a call to forcibly remove them from the country. This call for violence led to the removal of approximately 80 percent of Muslims from the country and displaced many others. In December 2014, a United Nations International Commission of Inquiry determined that although genocidal intent could not be established, the Anti-Balaka campaign amounted to ethnic cleansing of the minority Muslim population.
This example demonstrates how existing divisions in CAR may be inflamed by hate speech with disastrous outcomes. While there have been many attempts to restore peace since the Anti-Balaka campaign, the results have been mixed. Despite CAR’s eventual transition back to a constitutional democracy and the 2016 election of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, violence continues to be directed at civilians on the basis of religious and ethnic identity as armed groups often select civilian targets for retaliation against their rivals based on the perception that they belong to the same identity group.
The international community remains concerned that CAR has several preconditions consistent with genocide and that violence against historically marginalized populations could worsen, leading to efforts to fight hate speech and disinformation within the country.
Mechanisms to Address Hate Speech
The CAR government and international partners have taken some initial step to establish mechanisms to combat hate speech and disinformation that, while helpful, are still insufficient to respond to the scope of the problem.
In response to another wave of targeted attacks on Muslims in Bangassou in 2017, MINUSCA began tracking hate speech and added it and incitement to violence as sanctions criteria. However, in recent months MINUSCA itself has been the target of a disinformation or fake news campaign by individuals tied to President Touadéra’s political party. The campaigns have threatened MINUSCA personnel and spread accusations of electoral manipulation and collusion with armed groups, calling into question the mission’s legitimacy and impartiality. For its part, the U.N. Security Council has condemned these allegations and continued to reaffirm the mission’s impartiality.
CAR’s High Council on Communication (HCC), the official body tasked with developing and promoting a free press, has also sought to address the issue of hate speech. Re-established in 2014, the HCC is responsible for regulating the media and has the authority to provide regulation to counter misinformation and disinformation. While the Council developed the National Plan for the Prevention of Incitement to Hate and Violence to monitor hate speech, it lacks the operational capacity, finances and professional credibility to be fully operational or effective.
Other initiatives have focused on countering disinformation and hate speech by training journalists and bloggers on how to identify fake news and verify sources. This has been important particularly in the context of election violence and irregularities in late 2020 through early 2021, but has been difficult to achieve given the lack of a fully independent media and limited internet access. Further complicating these efforts are accusations that several disinformation campaigns may be coming from key international partners, Russia and France.
While these efforts show initial promise in helping to identify and combat rumors and fake news, they fail to confront the deeper, more complex issue of hate speech. The emphasis on fake news is likely a result of an international focus on Russia’s growing role in spreading disinformation in CAR and other parts of the world.
“Peace in CAR depends also on the nature and the quality of the discourse between the women and men of the Central African Republic,” said Rhosyns Ngatondang Zalang, president of the Association for Youth on the Move for Development in CAR (AJEMADEC). To that end, USIP has been focused on developing not only an understanding of hate speech and its effects, but on offering an alternative discourse.
A Lexicon of Hate Speech Terms
In partnership with the PeaceTech Lab and AJEMADEC, USIP conducted research on the nature of hate speech in the Central African Republic from October 2020 to March 2021. This coincided with the election, which saw profound upheaval as both process and results were contested and prompted a significant realignment of armed groups. The resulting increase in violence and worsening of the humanitarian crisis coincided with the fake news and propaganda thought to originate from Russia and France. All of these factors contributed to a tense security environment and are reflected in the hate speech data that we collected.
The findings from the research present a snapshot in time of the issue of hate speech and represent an initial step toward mapping its full extent. The lexicon of hate speech terms includes an overview of the problem of hate speech within CAR, along with a list of the 17 top terms with definitions, examples and explanations of why they are harmful. The annex also includes insights about how survey respondents encounter hate speech in their own lives. Several key themes emerge that can help authorities and community members prevent and respond to hate speech.
First, many of the terms identified in this study have their origins in old stereotypes and prejudices. Among the terms are derogatory references to nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, place of origin and armed-group membership. Many of the terms cast these identities as being different in a negative way, for example by claiming that they do not belong to this society or by dehumanizing them through comparisons to animals. One particularly concerning theme that emerged was the use of hate speech to insinuate that someone was a terrorist or member of an armed group based on their religious or ethnic background, such as by referring to Muslims as jihadists.
Second, while much focus has previously been on hate speech in social media and news outlets, the most common places that our survey respondents reported encountering hate speech were in public spaces or at events such as on public transportation (18.4%), at political rallies (16.7%) or at the market (14.6%). A smaller percentage did report encountering hate speech in the workplace and social media and news platforms. This suggests that the mechanisms in place to address hate speech that focus on online, print media or radio are unlikely to be sufficient on their own.
Recommendations for Policymakers and Practitioners
There are clearly significant gaps in the current efforts to address hate speech in CAR, including the focus on disinformation and online or news media platforms. “The Lexicon of Hate Speech is a ground-breaking resource on hate speech in CAR. What is important now is that USIP and others work to ensure that this resource is used by policymakers and community leaders to prevent and counter hate speech in a way that responds to the nature of the problem,” said Elizabeth Murray, a senior program officer working on CAR at the Institute. USIP and AJEMADEC have used the lexicon to train community leaders on countering hate speech and provided them with funding to conduct small projects in their own communities, but more work is needed.
As a first step, the CAR government, civil society and international partners need to prioritize hate speech in its own right alongside disinformation and misinformation. While there may be overlap in these issue areas, countering hate speech needs to go beyond recognizing false claims or fake news to address the ways in which offensive and inflammatory speech can lead to discrimination and violence against targeted groups. Addressing this appropriately includes further research into the sources of hate speech, including in-person and offline sources.
In addition to developing a better understanding, the CAR government and international partners should address issues of hate speech and division as a part of plans to reinvigorate the peace process and hold a national dialogue. The outcomes of both processes should be connected to the national reconciliation plan, and ideally would draw on the existing local peacebuilding committees to tailor an approach for the community level.
Finally, another key recommendation for political, religious and social leaders of CAR as well as prominent international partners is to commit to combat hate speech at both an institutional and an individual level. This means that these figures should become educated about hate speech terms, refrain from using them and speak up when they encounter them. This effort will be particularly important because hate speech is often used by leaders to mobilize support, so accountability among these actors will likely be necessary to create the change needed for peace and reconciliation.
Brianna Ferebee is a research assistant for the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Africa Center.