Chapter 02

Dark side of people power: Populism and the news media

Cherian George
September 2021

Rising populist intolerance in Asia is posing new challenges for the media to navigate.

Cover Image
Kuba Bożanowski
Dark side of people power: Populism and the news media

Key Insights

  1. As populist intolerance grows, journalists are unsure of how to reconcile the dark side of people power with their professional instinct to reflect their audiences’ viewpoints.

  2. Asia’s news media landscape includes conscientious opponents of this trend, as well as active agents and passive enablers of intolerant populism. But there is little consensus about how to deal with newsmakers who promote intolerance.

  3. The media itself is also a victim of populism, where the defender of the demos suddenly finds itself cast as the enemy of the people, potentially resulting in compromises in the quality of reporting.

A new force

When Asia’s two largest and nuclear-armed states clashed on their disputed Himalayan border in June 2020, their publicity strategies reflected their very different media and political systems. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to feed his country’s ravenous media while countering opposition critics eager to pounce on signs of weakness. In China, President Xi Jinping could command the state’s well-oiled propaganda machinery to shape majority opinion according to his needs.

But there were also similarities in their communication strategies: both sides tried to avoid whipping up nationalist fervour after a hand-to-hand melee that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. In a statement described by media as muddled and confusing, Modi said that those who dared threaten Mother India had been taught a lesson – but he also tried to dial down emotions by stating that China did not intrude on Indian territory. 1

In China, meanwhile, state-run news media mostly tried to avoid the news. When they did report it, they quoted moderate establishment voices. 2 Thus, both sides displayed a wariness of runaway public opinion. Against lesser foes foreign and domestic, the two governments have had no compunction about harnessing their populations’ nationalist fervour, but they also know this is a potentially destabilising force they cannot fully control.

Their caution was understandable. Popular sentiment is a potent – and not always positive – force across Asia and the world. In the last two decades of the 20th century, people power in Asia was associated with freedom from tyranny. Democratic media supported and benefited from mass movements in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. In the first two decades of the 21st century, however, people power is a Janus-faced entity with an ambiguous effect on media and democracy.

It is still capable of playing a co-starring role in emancipatory events. In Malaysia, for example, the Bersih movement helped lay the groundwork for the ruling party’s first electoral defeat in almost six decades. But popular movements are now more likely to steal the limelight for the wrong reasons. Asia has discovered the hard way that newly empowered peoples are not always keen to share their freedoms with communities they find disagreeable. Some see no contradiction in using their free speech to silence the voices of others, or to use their freedom to assemble and protest in order to drive others away.

The rise of intolerant populism the dark side of people power is a profoundly anti-democratic force that poses perhaps the single most complex and pressing set of ethical challenges facing the journalism profession worldwide.

No sooner had Myanmar turned the corner towards democracy than the majority, swept up by Burman-Buddhist nationalism, embarked on the century’s first genocide. In India, people power is expressed as Hindu majoritarianism, which has pushed the republic decisively away from its secular democratic trajectory. In China, socialism with Chinese characteristics has morphed into Han Chinese nationalism – at the expense of Uighurs and other minorities, and to the consternation of its neighbours. In the Philippines – site of the original, inspiring People Power Revolution of 1986 – the people now prop up Rodrigo Duterte, whose methods of dealing with crime and dissent have been autocratic, arbitrary and astonishingly popular.

Democracy, a system meant to settle differences justly and peacefully, has thus been used against itself. It generates mass support to legitimise demagoguery, extrajudicial killings, lynch mobs and war.

The rise of intolerant populism – the dark side of people power – is a profoundly anti-democratic force that poses perhaps the single most complex and pressing set of ethical challenges facing the journalism profession worldwide. Journalists have traditionally equated their democratic role with standing on the side of ‘the people’ against powerful elites. Today, siding with the people, if the people have no great commitment to human rights, can mean trampling on social justice.

Like political parties, news media organisations have responded to this reality in a variety of ways. Some have committed themselves to human rights norms, standing up for the dignity and welfare of vulnerable minorities, even at the cost of alienating their own audiences. At the other extreme, others reflect and amplify populist intolerance, thus becoming agents of hate. Most journalists seem unsure how to reconcile the dark side of people power with their professional instinct to reflect their audiences’ interests and viewpoints. Journalists need to develop a stronger and more refined commitment to democratic values, emphasising equal rights as a key pillar of peaceful and just societies.

Simon Berger
Most journalists seem unsure how to reconcile the dark side of people power with their professional instinct to reflect their audiences’ interests and viewpoints

Populism and hate

In today’s context, populism as an anti-democratic force can be understood as a form of identity politics that constructs one’s own group as authentic and pure, and the ‘other’ – often including traditional elites – as a corrupt or alien enemy. 3 Such tribal mentalities militate against democratic deliberation and the search for common ground. Since 2016, this form of populism has come under the microscope in both academic literature and in the press. That was the year when the liberal West was finally awakened to the reality that democracy could be undermined by the very publics that it was trying to empower.

The Leave campaign’s success in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 United States presidential election dispelled illusions of some natural progression toward liberal values. What was alarming was not the winners’ policy platforms as such, but their open use of hate propaganda against immigrants and minorities, as well as their mobilisation of industrial-scale disinformation. Among their extreme supporters, even their sense of right and wrong – not only in choosing values, but even when assessing facts – seemed determined by tribal membership rather than by conscience or evidence.

Matt Brown
Brexit supporters rallying in 2016
Brexit supporters rallying in 2016 outside Westminster Palace, London.

Such tendencies were associated with largely unsuccessful extreme right groups. Western liberals had, until 2016, believed that such antidemocratic tendencies would remain on the fringe, and that reason would prevail in electoral and media marketplaces. Analysts might have been better prepared if they had paid closer attention to developments in Asia in the preceding decade. There, the threats had been plain to see.

The first time I spoke about the ‘dark side of people power’ and ‘populist intolerance’ was probably in Jakarta in 2010, at an event of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists. I was just naming something my hosts already knew too well. For some years, liberal journalists in Indonesia had been saying that the biggest threat they faced was coming not from the state but from hardline Muslim organisations and their unruly followers – the ‘mobokrasi’.

Most jurisdictions in Asia do criminalise such speech, but many apply the law selectively. They use legislation to protect the culture and beliefs of dominant groups, while punishing minorities for speech and practices the guardians of majority communities deem offensive.

In India, these tendencies went back even further. Narendra Modi’s rise through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and then to the apex of government in 2014 was aided by disinformation-assisted hate propaganda far more extreme and effective than what the pro-Trump Alt Right would later use. In a country that is home to the third largest population of Muslims in the world, the BJP’s winning slate of candidates in 2014 included not a single one of Islamic faith. 4

Another sign of how majority rule could conflict with minority rights emerged in 2015, when democracy darling Aung San Suu Kyi did not include a single Muslim among the 1,151 candidates that her National League for Democracy fielded in Myanmar’s historic elections. 5 Also in Myanmar, human rights defenders had been pleading with Facebook to clean up online hate speech for several years before American and European media elites and lawmakers took the problem seriously. 6 When tracing the global epidemic of social media manipulation, it is the Philippines – not the United States or Britain – that is now recognised as ‘patient zero’: digital disinformation techniques were piloted in Duterte’s campaign for the presidency. 7

Hate propaganda

The ugliest aspect of populism is the uptick in majoritarian hate. Hate speech can be defined as any expression that demeans a group’s identity – its race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and so on – and thus causes harm to its members. 8 Notwithstanding the right to freedom of expression, states should prohibit by law any incitement to hatred that results in discrimination or violence, says Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 9

Most jurisdictions in Asia do criminalise such speech, but many apply the law selectively. They use legislation to protect the culture and beliefs of dominant groups, while punishing minorities for speech and practices the guardians of majority communities deem offensive.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is one of the most notorious examples. Among the main victims is the Ahmadiyya sect, whose members are banned from declaring their faith publicly. In addition, the state-sanctioned discrimination against Ahmadis has encouraged vigilante violence, including targeted killings. This is the opposite of what human rights law demands: that states should be protecting vulnerable minorities against dominant groups and elites, who can usually look after their own interests without help from the law. The fatal deficiencies of Pakistan’s blasphemy law are well known to the country’s human rights defenders, but the status quo is rendered untouchable by vigilantes who treat criticism of the law as itself blasphemous.

Pakistan’s religious discrimination in favour of Muslims – like Sri Lanka’s and Thailand’s in favour of Buddhism – is enabled by such laws. Even if states do not intend to discriminate as a matter of policy, their interventions often end up with a majoritarian bias. Governments’ handling of ethnic issues lean towards administrative and political expediency rather than towards a rights-based approach. Former British colonies such as India, Malaysia and Singapore have retained colonial-era laws prohibiting offensive speech that wound racial or religious feelings. These were designed to suppress expression that might stir up communal sentiments and thus disturb public order.

China’s hate speech regulation, similarly, has historically been most sensitive to the risk of social conflict. 10 The bias towards order tends to restrict or penalise any questioning of the political and cultural status quo, which serves to entrench any discrimination being suffered by minorities, including the state’s collective punishment of millions of Uighurs in the name of anti-terror efforts.

New twists in an old tale

‘Hate spin’
uses conventional hate speech to vilify out-groups, coupled with manufactured indignation and offence-taking to rile up in-groups.

Hate propaganda is as old as mass media, and has been used to lay the groundwork for all manner of large-scale human rights abuses, from settler colonisation to imperial conquest, slavery, apartheid and genocide. 11 In the 21st century, aside from the obvious proliferation of digitally mediated extremism, what I term ‘hate spin’ has evolved in two key ways. 12

First, traditional hate speech has been supplemented by strategic offence-taking: agents of intolerance seize on instances of perceived insult and whip up outrage for political ends. In contexts where it is no longer acceptable for political elites to vilify openly an ethnic or religious community, playing the victim and manufacturing indignation can be a potent weapon in culture wars.

One high-profile case was the ousting of Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama in 2017 amidst accusations by Muslim hardliners that the ethnic Chinese and Christian politician had blasphemed the Quran. 13

Hate propaganda is as old as mass media, and has been used to lay the groundwork for all manner of large-scale human rights abuses, from settler colonisation to imperial conquest, slavery, apartheid and genocide.

It is very difficult for those accused of transgressing offence laws such as blasphemy in Indonesia and lèse majesté in Thailand to defend themselves because offence is highly subjective. In effect, such laws side with the most vocal offence-takers , giving them a heckler’s veto over expression they do not like. The loudest complainants are not always members of the majority community: Muslims and Christians in India and Singapore, as well as ethnic minorities in China, have been able to trigger censorship of insults by members of the majority. But even if intolerance is mutual, the burden falls disproportionately on weaker communities.

A second and even more alarming trend is the open glorification of physical violence. Vigilante mobs in the social media age often maim and murder in full view of their own phone cameras. Crowdsourced photos and videos of hate crimes feed into the hate speech cycle, ‘meme-ifying’ and normalising participatory violence. This is people power at its darkest.

In one of post-Suharto Indonesia’s most outrageous hate crimes, multiple videos captured the mob killing of three Ahmadi men in 2011 in western Java. 14 In India, the Hindu Right’s cow protection movement has engaged in dozens of lynchings in broad daylight. 15 Mobs provide some protection for the assailants, since it can be difficult to identify who did exactly what in the flurry of bodies. But in many cases there is no need for the killers to evade blame because society is eager to give them credit. Political leaders rush to justify the hate crimes and even celebrate the perpetrators as heroes, garlanding them and cloaking them with the national flag. A few have even been put up as election candidates. 16

Dilemmas for media

Media professionals, educators and activists have been devoting a great deal of attention to two of the most obvious manifestations of intolerant populism: online incivility and viral untruths. Majoritarian groups do not monopolise these methods, but when they do adopt such practices, their toxic content can flood the marketplace of ideas, making it much harder for public discourse to self-correct. Abusive comments on news outlets’ websites reflect poorly on their brands and can put off prestige-conscious advertisers. A post-truth society is not good for the business of journalism either, since people rendered cynical and apathetic by disinformation would have little need for professional news media.

News organisations, therefore, have a vested interest in the outcomes of these trends. Not surprisingly, most large news organisations rein in user comments, removing hate speech and other trolling behaviour. Many require users to register before they are allowed to post and posts are also moderated. Some media close comments on topics that seem to degenerate almost automatically into a free-for-all.

As for misinformation, many Asian news organisations have launched or partnered with fact-checking initiatives, as laid out elsewhere in this report. In Indonesia’s 2019 elections, more than 20 news organisations and non-governmental organisations collaborated on a platform to counter information manipulation, providing real-time fact-checking during the presidential debate. 17 Such efforts are welcome correctives to the common tendency to define objective reporting as factually reporting what major newsmakers say and what the public thinks – regardless of the truth of those positions.

Covering hateful newsmakers

There is much less clarity and consensus about how journalists should cover newsmakers who promote intolerance. On the one hand, the public needs to be told what such politicians and religious leaders are saying, not just to be fair to them but also to allow others to counter their harmful ideas in open debate. On the other hand, media coverage can give such speakers’ viewpoints a legitimacy and amplification they do not deserve. In countries with multiple 24-hour news channels, there appears to be a symbiotic love-hate relationship between producers hungry for sensational content and political and religious leaders happy to oblige with extreme speech.

The anthropologist Benedict Anderson famously described modern nation-states as ‘imagined communities’ and identified newspapers as key spaces for forming that collective imagination. 18 Out of myriad strangers who will never meet, the news constructs among some a sense of belonging to one community, while also excluding others. News media vary greatly in how they define in-groups and out-groups, and whether those boundaries should be hardened and constricted, or widened and relaxed. Intolerant populism thrives when influential media promote exclusivist forms of nationalism, thus facilitating the othering and scapegoating of communities who are deemed not to belong. These tendencies are resisted by media that have internalised a more inclusive, multicultural and cosmopolitan notion of citizenship.

Apple Daily newspaper advertisement from 2012
A 2012 newspaper advertisement in Apple Daily comparing mainland Chinese to locusts that swarm the city and consume its resources. The full-page ad was funded through an online campaign.

Asia’s news media landscape includes all kinds: active agents and passive enablers of intolerant populism, as well as conscientious opponents of this trend. The state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper is an active producer of anti-Rohingya hate speech. 19 Others with a poor record include Utusan Malaysia, whose cultivation of Malay nationalism has involved portraying the ethnic Chinese minority as ungrateful and untrustworthy immigrants. 20

Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper that was closed down in June 2021, was celebrated as a defender of democracy, but was simultaneously a vehicle for anti-mainlander Chinese xenophobia, once even accepting a full-page advertisement that depicted mainland Chinese immigrants as locusts. 21

Probably more numerous are the unintentional enablers. These media are not necessarily ideological bedfellows of hate propagandists, but their habitual newsroom practices unwittingly facilitate the spread of intolerance. For example, by treating the exception as more newsworthy than what is normal, media often give undue prominence to more extreme actors. They also perpetuate long-held stereotypes about minorities, thus helping to reproduce the cultural conditions amenable to discrimination. In China’s state media, for example, Muslims make the news mainly as terrorists – a bias that probably contributes to Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslim Chinese. 22

Robert Couse-Baker
By treating the exception as more newsworthy than what is normal, media often give undue prominence to more extreme actors.

Risks in taking on populists

Media are also victims of populism. Autocrats who wish to silence those who would speak truth to power have found in populism a convenient weapon to use alongside their traditional state and corporate levers. Demagogues such as Rodrigo Duterte portray themselves as insurgent men of action who will finally rescue the people from the clutches of a corrupt establishment – including the ‘fake news’ press. Even Singapore’s highly technocratic and traditionally anti-populist ruling elite has found the populist temptation irresistible, inciting nationalist hostility against its domestic critics, including independent journalists. When the targets are women, the attacks are often gendered: trolls try to humiliate and silence female writers with sexual profanities and rape threats, for example.

Thus, a profession with a self-image as defenders of the demos suddenly finds itself cast as the enemy of the people. Some of this hatred is inauthentic, conveyed by cybertroops and hired mobs. It can nonetheless succeed in demoralising and intimidating journalists.

Gauri Lankesh
Gauri Lankesh, killed in 2017, was one of Asia’s most prominent recent victims of anti-media hate.

Whether hate crimes against media are centrally coordinated or just tacitly endorsed, the effect is to spread a culture of fear. The serial murders of ‘secular bloggers’ in Bangladesh is a case in point. According to Amnesty International, more than a dozen writers, bloggers and activists with liberal or secular outlooks were killed by unidentified assailants between 2013 and 2020. 23

In India, one signal event was the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh outside her home in 2017, apparently for her vocal opposition to the Hindu right and to Brahmin dominance. It is not just the extreme violence that is alarming, but also the impunity – and even brazen celebration – surrounding many such acts. In the case of Gauri Lankesh, tasteless social media comments greeted her murder. 24

The hate spin technique of offence-taking is particularly well suited to media targets, since media generate a voluminous stream of content from which it is easy to fish out words and images to spin into controversy. One example was the way in which hardline Muslim groups hit back at the Jakarta Post after it took the unprecedented step of endorsing a candidate for the 2014 presidential elections. The elite English-language daily declared its support for the eventual winner, Joko Widodo, arguing that his opponents included ‘hardline Islamic groups who would tear the secular nature of the country apart’ and ‘religious thugs who forward an intolerant agenda’. 25

Proving the point, those very groups accused the Jakarta Post of insulting Islam. They found a convenient target: a syndicated cartoon published the day before the paper endorsed Widodo. The cartoon had taken aim at the militant group emerging in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State (ISIS). The drawing showed militants carrying out executions behind the ISIS flag, which incorporates the Arabic phrase, ‘There is no God but Allah’. A complaint of blasphemy was launched against the paper. The police declared chief editor Meidyatama Suryodiningrat a suspect. 26 Although prosecutors did not pursue the case, perhaps because the controversy was widely reported by international media, they never closed it either.

Progressive media’s vulnerabilities

For Asian media trying to promote democracy and progressive causes, ‘mobokrasi’ has thus emerged as a major threat, alongside the familiar problems posed by governmental and corporate power. The media’s reluctance to take on hardliners is not necessarily because hardliners command the support of a majority of the population. In Indonesia, for example, Islamist parties have tended to do worse at the polls than secular parties.

This is a paradox that Indonesia shares with many other countries: majoritarian power is often based not on numerical superiority, but on the ability to mobilise vigorous hostile action against opponents. Media dread the crowdsourced harassment and intimidation these groups are able to activate in an instant, from mobs protesting outside their premises to having to complete time-consuming police reports.

Tribun News / YouTube
Hundreds of Islamic Defenders Front activists arriving at the Jakarta headquarters of Tempo in 2018 to protest against the magazine’s publication of a cartoon mocking the group’s leader.

The problem is heightened by weak rule of law: when journalists lack confidence that they will be protected from illegal attacks, they are more likely to soften their reporting and commentary. Progressive media are most vulnerable where public opinion works in tandem with state power, as is the case of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar.

Most domestic media outlets have not challenged the government’s handling of radical Buddhist nationalism and the Rohingya crisis. Even celebrated pro-democracy outlets Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma slipped into using the government’s preferred term ‘Bengali’ when talking about Rohingya. 27 Mainstream media have circulated dubious images supposedly showing Rohingya burning down their own homes. One outlet that has been more independent than most on the Rohingya issue, Frontier magazine, has had to couch its criticism carefully to avoid antagonising both the authorities and popular opinion. The media community is itself split on the issue: many nationalistic journalists do not take kindly to their peers sympathising with the Rohingya or their international supporters.

Many journalists are also understandably cautious in countries with a history of communal violence. Media ethicists advise that when prominent political actors engage in inflammatory speech, media should report them with sufficient context and fact-checks to ensure the newsmaker does not get a free pass. 28

But such diligence is rare in Asia, even among quality media. An excess of caution when covering intercommunal disputes leads to just-the-facts reporting. Media gloss over key details, and are reluctant to engage in the kind of interpretive reporting that could educate readers about the political motives of newsmakers. Their approach tends to be guided by the imperative of self-protection more than the ethic of social responsibility: they hope that by saying less, they can avoid being sucked into the controversy.

In Indonesia, for example, liberal media can and do critique how blasphemy law is used as a political weapon. But these discussions tend to take place when temperatures have cooled, not in the heat of a controversy. In the weeks when Ahok was pilloried by hardliners, major news organisations that represent more moderate and liberal views such as Kompas, Tempo and Jakarta Post did not offer much resistance.

Another situation in which liberal media turn a blind eye to the dark side of people power occurs when they identify with a movement’s broad ‘pro-democratic’ thrust and are therefore willing to overlook its uglier specifics. This was the case with Hong Kong’s 2019 protests, romanticised by many media in Asia and the West as an epic struggle against the might of mainland China. These media routinely underplayed or ignored details that did not fit their chosen narrative. The inconvenient facts included one of at most two deaths attributable to protest violence: the killing of a 70-year-old cleaner by a protester who threw a brick at him. The cleaner had been trying to clear the street of bricks left by protesters. The pro-democrats were unapologetic, and critised media that covered the victim’s funeral. A memorial erected at the site of the attacks was vandalised.

The incident exposed the tip of the iceberg of xenophobic hate directed at mainland Chinese workers and students living in Hong Kong. Most media treated this starkly anti-democratic tendency within the movement as being of secondary importance, highlighting instead Hong Kongers’ mass support for the protests. Once again, numbers on the streets were treated as more newsworthy and persuasive than the rights of minorities to be free from violence.

People power slips too easily into the tyranny of the majority. The tendency is visible across the spectrum of Asia’s diverse political systems.

Broadening journalism’s democratic mission

Over the past few decades, media and society in Indonesia, Myanmar, and many other Asian countries have benefited from democratisation. Even in non-democracies such as China and Vietnam, people’s voices play a much bigger role in public affairs than they did decades ago. But this democratic wave has emphasised popular sovereignty more than the equally important principle of equal rights. As a result, people power slips too easily into the tyranny of the majority. The tendency is visible across the spectrum of Asia’s diverse political systems.

News media have a crucial role in redressing this imbalance. Journalists in Asia generally accept that they have a democratic mission, but their understanding of this mission tends to privilege freedom and the popular will over equality. This is not surprising since the media are among the main beneficiaries of freedom of expression. Furthermore, the mission of reflecting public opinion helps justify the media’s commercial drive for high circulation and ratings. Championing their audiences’ interests against governmental and corporate power often yields rewards in the form customer loyalty.

On the other hand, striving for the human rights of marginalised groups has little financial upside. Indeed, championing the rights of unpopular minorities may place the media in conflict with their own audiences. It requires speaking truth to people power and challenging popular prejudices, which means rejecting the commercial mantra that the customer is always right. But if the media are to fulfil their democratic role, they will have to confront intolerant populism with greater honesty and moral courage.


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    Shafiur Rahman, ‘Myanmar’s “Rohingya” vs “Bengali” hate speech debate’, The Diplomat, 21 December 2019, https://​thediplomat.​com/​2019/​12/​myanmars-​rohingya-​vs-​bengali-​hate-​speech-​debate/​.

  28. 28

    Kelly McBride, ‘How to report on Quran burning and other hate speech’, Poynter, 9 September 2010, https://​www.​poynter.​org/​reporting-​editing/​2010/​how-​to-​report-​on-​quran-​burning-​and-​other-​hate-​speech/​; Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, ‘New ethics guidelines to help journalists reporting on hate speech and extremism’,, 17 March 2020, https://​www.​cbaa.​org.​au/​resource/​new-​ethics-​guidelines-​help-​journalists-​reporting-​hate-​speech-​and-​extremism.

Image of the author Cherian George

Cherian George is Professor and Associate Dean for research at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication. He researches media freedom, censorship and hate propaganda. His books include Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy. He received his PhD in Communication from Stanford University. Before joining academia, he was a journalist with The Straits Times in Singapore.

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