Written by Irina Drexler, National campaign coordinator, No Hate Speech Movement Romania
A (now former) employee at HotNews.ro, one of the biggest news websites in Romania, mistakenly published a link on the company’s Facebook page instead of his own timeline. The link’s caption read “I hope you croak, Victor Ponta.” For 20 minutes no one realized someone had confused the accounts, therefore the post was visible for thousands of people online. Immediately fired, a large number of online readers declared him a hero for having freely spoken his mind, a petition for his reemployment was drafted, a trending hashtag with the caption rapidly caught on with Internet readers, creative websites and memes were largely shared. Despite the impressive number of supporters, there have also been some loud voices questioning the caption, the action itself and the guiding values behind, connecting the incident with hate speech lessons learnt so far.
As I have been privately advised on Facebook by a journalist after having shared my opinion on the incident, I think it is worth the while reviewing the timeline of the story that encroached upon the Romanian Internet for a few days.
On the 1st of November the current Romanian Prime Minister, Dacian Julien Cioloş, answered some journalists’ curiosity about his middle name, Julien, explaining that it comes from Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” novel, which his mother was reading during her pregnancy. “It was a time when it was pretty difficult to get hold of a good book. […] [S]he was impressed by the main character, Julien Sorel, and therefore she suggested Julien as a name.”
On the same day, as a reaction, the former Romanian Prime Minister and 2014 presidential candidate, Victor Ponta, published on his public figure Facebook page a post mocking Cioloş’s declaration with references to various aspects of the plot of the aforementioned novel, while also ironically talking about the supporters of the liberals, touching upon the sensitive topic of the 2015 tragic event at the “Colectiv” club in Bucharest, and making what he thought to be a good joke about the possible consequences of Dacian Cioloş’s mother having read other novels during the pregnancy.
As a reaction to this exchange, the former HotNews.ro employee mistakenly posted on the company’s account (instead of his own) a link to an article, adding a caption that read “I hope you croak, Victor Ponta.” 20 minutes later, a second post was made on behalf of the news website social media team, presenting their apologies to Victor Ponta, informing the readers that the employee’s contract was terminated as a consequence of the “heinous, unacceptable” initial post and reaffirming their commitment to using a decent speech in the public sphere and their “determination to fight by any means so as to maintain a clean public space.”
In the comments section, an overwhelming majority of online readers declared the former employee a “hero for freely having spoken his mind” and more or less jokingly expressed their willingness to hire the person themselves. A petition was launched in this sense, creative memes have been massively shared and a website inspired by another meaning of the slang term used by the journalism student and former HotNews.ro employee was created, making use of the same URL as the hashtag (“#spersacrapi”) that emerged after the initial post of the young man – it was an online space where one could play and “break Victor Ponta into pieces.”
Funny as it may have seemed at first, the story needs to be treated in all earnest. There have been some voices in the comments section of the second post that tried to bring to the public attention why the former employee’s post was not acceptable, why it should not be treated lightly and why he was not a hero. But those voices were too feeble amongst the other ones. With the help of some independent journalists, and that of some contributors to other big news websites however, such concerns are now more visible and available for others to read, as well.
In his article, Cătălin Tolontan challenged the common perception that only the voters of the social-democrats (Victor Ponta’s party) are fanatics and shows “there is no monopoly for either civilization or discrimination.” He goes on to rightly point out that “bigotry is precisely that: I don’t agree with you and, because I cannot change you, it would be better if you croaked.” By having reacted promptly to the initial post the way they have, the editorial office raised the bar back, he further argues, while also pointing out that comments such as the one made by the young man are inciting to hatred and that, in order to raise the bar even higher, Victor Ponta, besides accepting the public apologies, should have also publicly stated that he does not encourage hate speech.
Another insightful reaction came from Andrei Postolache, contributor to the “Republica.ro” news website and president of For Iaşi party, whose members are running for Parliamentary seats on the lists of the Save Romania Union. In a plea for better mutual understanding, he asked his readers to focus on the real issue of the Facebook post, however unpopular a call for seriousness to the detriment of continuing the giggling might be. There are those who, like himself, view Victor Ponta and his party as a symbol for “impertinence and insensibility” and were scared by the mere thought of Ponta becoming Romania’s president; however, he argues that it’s not Ponta who should be the focus of people’s attention, but the 5 million people who did vote for Victor Ponta and his party in the presidential elections of 2014. Postolache advocated for empathy with these people’s backgrounds and political convictions, pointing out that creating such “smart” hashtags like this new trending one does not help with communicating with them, but only keeps us in our own ignorant bubble. Messages like “I hope you croak, Victor Ponta” and the whole wave of support that it gathered create, once more, a chasm between supporters and opponents of this one party and this one political figure, enabling more hatred and hate speech to arise rather than helping with the eradication of the latter. If what drives us in our political preferences is the interest for the greater good, what do we do about these 5 million people? Do we simply laugh at them and let them be in their own misery? It would not be only inhuman, but also a catastrophic absurdity, the author goes on.
The situation is similar to that in the UK with Nigel Farage or in the USA with Donald Trump, Postolache continues, and, looking at the bigger picture, it is of no use to treat it lightly, not even with all the legitimate reasons to laugh at some of the things they say or do. Being willing to understand by lending an ear to others and being open for communication would be more beneficial, he argues.
Another notable reaction comes from Alex Livadaru, founding member of the same news website, who denounces the nationalistic discourse that seems to continue even after the 2014 presidential campaign. He points out that the bar should be raised and that other topics, of more substance, should keep the headlines in the upcoming parliamentary campaign – infrastructure for the benefit of the citizens, health system, educational system and so on. Mocking others, focusing on false topics and on nationalistic discourse can only lead us as a society on a wrong path, towards the past.
We joke, we laugh, we initiate petitions… but about what exactly and to what end? The young man is not a hero yet, at least not for having freely spoken his mind. “I hope you croak” is not an opinion. It is a phrase that contains hatred and incites to hatred, irrespective of whom it is addressed to, and irrespective of who provoked whom in the first place. Our colleagues from the No Hate Speech Movement Germany have chosen to promote as campaign motto precisely this idea: “hatred is not an opinion. Not even on the Internet.”(“Hass ist keine Meinung. Nicht mal im Internet.”)
However little we might side with one political figure or another, from whichever party (and there’s plenty to choose from), we shouldn’t wish them to “croak”. One good turn deserves another – and we (want to) live in a world where the rule of law prevails.
We also want to live in a world where hate speech is not the norm, where our fellow Internet users are more responsible, thinking more before sharing something online, having the skill of dealing with their own negative feelings, while also having Human Rights and constructive, rational dialogue on their minds when engaging with politics. Creating this world starts by improving ourselves in the first place.
We’re looking forward to witnessing constructive debates in a quarreling-free and hate-speech-free election campaign in Romania this month.