To speak or not to speak: depiction in news media silences doubters of the curfew

Article written by Delilah Kealy-Roberts and Annelies Romers

Protesters against the corona measures on Dam square. Photograph: Stéphanie Dewi Ruijter

‘Bloody idiots’, ‘shameless thieves’, ‘scum’, ‘aggressive young people’. These are just a few of the names used in Dutch articles to characterise the curfew protestors. News media presentations appear to influence who can speak and who cannot speak in the societal conversation about the curfew and other COVID-19 measures currently in place in the Netherlands.

While multiple people sympathise with how the protestors are described, considering them to be conspiracy theorists, others are concerned about how such derogatory language is dividing the nation. By side-lining the protestors from public debate, key voices and opinions may go unheard. 

Since the beginning of the curfew which was put in place in the Netherlands on the 23rd of January, people across the country have expressed their anger and agitation about the COVID-19 measures in varying scales of extremity, receiving attention from the news media.

Protest on Museumplein on January 24. Tweet: Dutch news media organisation Het Parool

At first, the Dutch news media largely focussed on the more extreme events and actions of protestors – namely, the riots that raged across cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Amersfoort, IJmuiden, and Urk. However, this characterisation of those who do not agree with the measures has made even people who doubt the corona measures feel uncertain about expressing their views.

Protest on Museumplein on January 24. Video: Stéphanie Dewi Ruijter

Former sceptic Oliver Roders advised strongly against writing that protesters are idiots. This 22-year-old barber has become more sympathetic to the measures over the past month. He explained that these harsh words only play on their emotions and make them want to believe in their opinion even more. “Even after the backlash of my parents and my mates, I was still content with my view.”

Another curfew doubter, Anne, experienced a colleague yelling at her when she questioned the effectiveness of the curfew: “People like you are the problem, people like you got us into this mess.” 

After this event Anne did not want her full name to be published or have any conversations about the curfew: “People only want to hear what they want to hear. But I actually say everything you do not want to hear.”

Us vs them

In articles from major Dutch news organisations NOS, AD, NRC, De Telegraaf, Metro, and De Volkskrant, there were negative depictions of those who are against the curfew. One prominent theme in a selection of closely analysed articles was the ‘us vs. them’ narrative. 

Phrases such as ‘they have nothing to do with the Netherlands’, ‘these people fall into a completely different category’, and ‘a game of cat and mouse’, could be seen to divide the nation into two distinct groups – those who agree with the curfew and those who do not.

You are making up a scapegoat and are creating a massive division in society during a time in which we already have to rely on ourselves.

Heleen Gerritsen

For individuals who are sceptical of the curfew, such as Heleen Gerritsen, a 28-year-old soft skill trainer and coach at an IT-deployment agency, this divisive portrayal of the protestors in the news media is dangerous. Gerritsen said, “You are making up a scapegoat and are creating a massive division in society during a time in which we already have to rely on ourselves. We are already  feeling very lonely.”

As well as painting the picture of ‘us vs. them’ the articles frequently described protestors in terms of one large group, rather than as individuals. 

“The people who are against the corona measures are depicted as a separate group,” agreed Lida Beumer, a 60-year-old primary school teacher who thinks the curfew is not effective and believes the current measures are unreasonably restrictive. “They are not allowed to join the conversation.” 

The protestors against the curfew were also described as ‘youngsters’, ‘young people’, or ‘aggressive young people’, despite the fact that arrests were made of people of varying ages, including people in their 20s and 30s, from different walks of life. They were frequently grouped in terms of their intelligence, with some articles using the word ‘idiots.’  

For Beumer, and many other Dutch citizens, the lack of individual voices in the media resulted in a “black and white” view of the curfew protestors which does not accurately depict the nuanced conversation.

“It is lazy to label the opposing side as stupid rather than work to understand their perspective.”

 Dr Cameron Brick

When Dr Cameron Brick, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, was asked about the potential dangers of negative news media portrayal of the curfew protestors, he said: “It is lazy to label the opposing side as stupid rather than work to understand their perspective. If we had their exact upbringing, their biology and their psychology, we too would probably arrive at the same conclusions.”

What is more, the news media portrayal might have impacted individuals who have expressed their views against the measures, such as Roders. “You kind of feel like you are on your own.” Roders explained when discussing how comfortable he felt in expressing his views against the COVID-19 measures, “No one really agrees with you. You just stick to your opinion. But when someone challenges it and becomes slightly abusive, that is when it becomes difficult.”

Based on his own experience, Roders argued that people’s opinion can only shift if morals and data are discussed. “My opinion of being a sceptic was not strong enough to stay.”

A shift in the narrative

On Tuesday the 15th of March, there was a new development. The court ruling in favour of Viruswaarheid (Virus Truth) against the curfew regulation spelt victory for anyone opposed to the curfew – albeit briefly. Later that day, a higher court ruled that the curfew would in fact remain in place pending an appeal on Friday the 18th. After this, an emergency law was approved by the Senate, meaning that the curfew would remain in place after all.  

It seemed that nothing substantial had changed after the court rulings. However, there was certainly a shift within the Dutch news media’s portrayal of the curfew protestors. 

After the court rulings, the analysed articles more often included names and quotes from individuals

They also tended to show more sympathy for the emotions and the views of those who were still protesting or breaking curfew. For example, a curfew-breaker in one article from NRC published after the court rulings was described as such: “She has heard many people talk about emotional stress, and she herself is less happy than usual.” 

Speaking up

As the media coverage became more sympathetic to the protestors, more doubters and protestors have spoken up about their views on Twitter, even though the curfew remained in place.

 Number of tweets that use the word ‘avondklok’.

The number of tweets containing the word ‘avondklok’ (the Dutch word for curfew) went from roughly 2.000 tweets the day before (exactly 1.951) to more than 124.0000 on the day of the court case (exactly 124.497). This means sixty times more tweets. The day after, the number of tweets was about 35.000 (exactly 35.050). The graph above shows the number of tweets about the curfew per day (this is on the Y-axis, the number prior to the slash) and per hour (this is on the Y-axis, the number after the slash).

Evidently, people do seem to have felt more comfortable expressing their views openly online after the court date. However, the number of tweets decreased after the day of the court ruling. 

Nevertheless, the court ruling got more people talking about the issue on Twitter, even if it did not result in the removal of the curfew.

It also appeared that people were explaining more often why they had a certain opinion. The graph underneath shows that tweets about the curfew which included words to explain the writer’s reasoning (such as ‘omdat’, ‘want’, ‘aangezien’, ‘namelijk’ – Dutch variations on because) increased a lot after the media publicized the court ruling.

Number of tweets that use the words ‘avondklok and ‘omdat’, ‘want’, ‘aangezien’, and ‘namelijk’.

A word cloud of these tweets, which is presented below, shows that most people seem to have appealed to the judge and the cabinet. They often noted their freedom. The Dutch word ‘alleen’ appeared to be used a lot, which can be translated to only or alone.

A word cloud made up of the most frequently used words in the ‘avondklok’ tweets that use the words ‘omdat’, ‘want’, ‘aangezien’, and ‘namelijk’. The word cloud with black words and white background is an English translation.

When asked why people might have felt more comfortable voicing their views after the court ruling, Dr Brick explained: “People will look for any source of support: it doesn’t matter whether it was scientists, the courts, or the government – if any had come out against the curfew, people who already were suspicious or unsupportive will take that as support for their preferences.”

Despite this evidence, individual curfew doubters do not all feel this way. For some, the fact that the curfew remained in place meant that the court case wasn’t as big of a turning point in the conversation as it could have been. 

“I felt glad that there was also recognition from a judge,” explained Gerritsen, “but that does not immediately change the general opinion in society.” 

Beumer agreed, explaining: “For me, the court ruling does not really make a difference. I do not hear anyone talk about it.” However, she did notice that because the pandemic has continued for so long, more people want to gradually open up society again. 

Moving the conversation forward

Although the court case appears to have made a difference in terms of news media representation and how vocal Twitter users are about the curfew, doubters such as Gerritsen believe there is still a long way to go in changing the way that the protestors are presented in the news media. 

“In essence, we all want to make sure that everyone is healthy, that we are safe and that we are free.”

Heleen Gerritsen

When Gerritsen was asked about the role that protestors and doubters of the curfew should have in the public debate, she said that they should have an equal role as the people who agree with the curfew. 

She went on to say that people should listen to each other and start a conversation, even if it appears as if they are standing on opposite sides. “I think a lot of times people want the same thing. In essence, we all want to make sure that everyone is healthy, that we are safe and that we are free. So, it is very manageable to find common ground, but for that to happen we have to dare to listen.”

We need to move past divisive strategies argues Dr Brick. He explains that name-calling in the news media is “horribly unproductive for conversation and denigrates the opponents. The opponents cannot possibly change their opinion to agree with certain measures, because it also includes accepting that they are (or were) bad.”

When asked about the best way to move forward he explained that the news media should base their depictions more on “genuine, sincere human connection, followed by questions and listening.”

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