Asia Insight

  1. Asia Insight
  2. Reflections on the Tragedy in Atlanta: The Case for A Community-Hardening Strategy against racist demagoguery, hatred, fake new and conspiracy theories.

Reflections on the Tragedy in Atlanta: The Case for A Community-Hardening Strategy against racist demagoguery, hatred, fake new and conspiracy theories.

Erwin Tan(Associate Professor, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies)

Reflections on the Tragedy in Atlanta: The Case for A Community-Hardening Strategy against racist demagoguery, hatred, fake new and conspiracy theories.[1]



            The recent massacre in Atlanta, USA, of eight people, including six women of Asian background, has taken place a wider backdrop of an emerging a plethora of threats to security of communities at the sub-state level. Whilst debate remains over whether this incident should be classified as an act of Lone Wolf terrorism or a criminally-motivated murder spree, several of the circumstances surrounding the Atlanta shootings underscore social, economic as well as security implications comparable to the threat of Lone Wolf terrorism. This entails challenges that existing, state-centric paradigms of security focussed on ‘traditional’ indices of conventional military power are ill-equipped to face.


Whilst previous forms of terrorist activity and armed violence were generally perpetuated by networks with command hierarchies, Lone Wolf terrorists operate as individuals without an identifiable leadership, thence making it significantly harder for counter-terrorism personnel to infiltrate to gain intelligence on imminent attacks.[2] The increasing occurrence of Lone Wolf terrorism is the convergent result of three salient trends. The first of these stems from a vicious circle of socio-economic marginalisation by mainstream society and youth disillusionment, creating an underclass of disillusioned, resentful social misfits. The latter, facing rejection by mainstream society, are left to fend for themselves in a socio-economic wilderness, leading to a growing crisis of identity and self-esteem, resulting in increased disregard for societal norms – in other words, a life that becomes increasingly characterised by criminal and anti-social behaviour. This trend in turn causes such misfits to become rejected by mainstream society even further, thence driving the vicious circle of increased social stigmatisation and ostracism that, in turn, further fuels increased disillusionment, embitterment and a desire for payback.[3]


A second convergent factor offers a causal explanation for how such disaffected persons may become radicalised, and this comes in the form of the growing proliferation of fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories, a phenomenon that has grown amidst the Information Revolution. Without the injection of fake news as a part of the process of ideological radicalisation, a marginalised section of society is unlikely to develop into anything more dangerous than a sizeable criminal element – still a socio-economic problem, but one whose impact can be mitigated (although not eliminated) by effective law enforcement. In contrast, the deliberate propagation of a narrative based on fake news and distorted information – itself greatly facilitated by the dark side of the Information Revolution - has the effect of cultivating a worldview based on toxic psychological prejudices against other members of a given community.[4] The aggregate result is one in which such social misfits not only find themselves rejected by society, but in which their subscription to fake news and conspiracy theories that propagate a distorted view of the world gives them an external target they can blame their woes on.


The third factor reflects the impact of rhetorical demagoguery from orators and leaders perceived to be charismatic by their followers. From their bully pulpits, such high-profile leaders’ use of populist rhetoric effectively legitimises the views of their followers. In particular, when such leaders publicly endorse bigoted rhetoric and acts of violence against outsiders to the community, it further convinces their followers of their leaders’ support for undertaking violent behaviour against a specified section of society.


These three basic elements – socio-economic marginalisation, fake news and leaders’ abuse of freedom of speech – have comparable impacts in a wide range of differing contexts. The combined effect of socio-economic discrimination against Muslim youth, repeated amplification of the injustices faced by the Islamic world at the hands of the West, and the rhetorical demagoguery of charismatic preachers such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State, had the aggregate effect of projecting a narrative that claimed delivery of violent payback against Western society was justified. The combined effect of these societal factors created a fertile recruiting ground from which disaffected Muslim youths became radicalised into undertaking Lone Wolf terrorist attacks in the belief that such actions had the blessing of the Islamic State.


A similar process accounts for the rage-fuelled populist sentiment in conservative communities in the contemporary United States that contributed to Trump’s rise to power in 2016, and whose effects in the post-Trump era is reflected in the Atlanta tragedy. The proliferation of AI and robotics-based-applications in the economy, at the expense of human labour, inflicted socio-economic disruption to less-educated, working-class Americans. The latter’s difficulty in keeping pace with such rapid change, combined with the growing rich-poor divide in the US, constituted a fertile breeding ground of disillusioned youth who saw Donald Trump’s willingness to cast their socio-economic woes on more recent migrants to the US as payback against an unjust socio-economic system.[5] This has been more recently exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular the death toll, the economic slowdown, and the issuing of cumbersome public health measures such as social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing. Furthermore, the COVID-19 virus’s origin in China was exploited by Trump in the form of inflammatory rhetoric that scapegoated the Asian-American community in an attempt to deflect blame away from his inept response to the pandemic during the 2020 election cycle. In so doing, Trump’s introduction of such appellations as ‘Kung Flu’ effectively conveyed to his followers an implicit endorsement of violence against members of the Asian-American community as a response to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.[6]


Such challenges underscore the case for what I refer to as a ‘Community Hardening Strategy’ that affirms solidarity between members of communities against shared threats – not only  Lone Wolf terrorism, but also against other challenges that pose a common threat to the shared human race, such as pandemics and climate change, that require a ‘whole of society’ approach. Moreover, the hardening of communities necessitates affirming shared civic values such as commitment to responsible use of freedom of speech (as opposed to irresponsible demagoguery) and efforts to promote communal harmony in ensuring that efforts to promote multiculturalism do not degenerate into a Huntington-styled ‘Clash of Civilizations’.[7]

To the best of my knowledge, the term ‘Community Hardening’ has not yet appeared in the academic lexicon. This concept had multiple sources of inspiration, including the aftermath of the December 2014 Lone Wolf terrorist attack on a Sydney café. Amidst fears of a surge in Islamophobia, Australians from every community begin sharing the Tweeter hashtag ‘#IllRideWithYou’ to signify their willingness to accompany Muslim Australians to protect them from harassment. The importance of communal solidarity was similarly expressed by Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim who risked his life to protect Jews during the 2015 kosher supermarket siege in Paris. Reflecting on the experience, Bathily remarked that ‘it's not a question of Jews, Christians or Muslims, we're all in the same boat’.[8]


Elsewhere, in 1984, Singapore unveiled its ‘Total Defence’ doctrine.[9] The Social, Psychological and Digital aspects of Total Defence are noteworthy for the purpose of this discussion. The Social Pillar denotes the importance that Singapore placed on commitment to maintaining ethno-religious harmony in a multicultural society; the closely related Psychological Pillar affirms the need to maintain national unity against foreign attempts at subversion to sow societal discord. The more recent addition of Digital Defence reflects the growing threat posed by malicious use of cyberspace, including the potential that fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories may be used to sow mistrust between the populace and their institutions. Likewise, in 2018, the Swedish Government updated its Cold War-era ‘If War Comes’ booklet to reflect the growing threat posed by fake news, foreign subversion, fake news and Lone Wolf terrorism.[10]


A further source of inspiration occurred during my forthcoming paper for the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, ‘South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan take on Coronavirus’.[11] Particularly impressive was the ‘whole-of-society’ approach that enabled Taiwan to suppress the COVID-19 outbreak within its territory with minimal economic disruption and a low death toll. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and strains in cross-Strait relations, Taiwan has faced a proliferation of fake news and misinformation via cyberspace from Mainland China in an attempt to. Against this, the netizens of Taiwan responded by affirming their trust in the institutions of their government and media. Concurrent to this has been the high level of civic engagement by the people of Taiwan in addressing the threat posed by Chinese mainland efforts at online subversion. This took the form of the Mainland’s injection of fake news and misinformation, not only amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, but also during the earlier, run-up to the 2020 Taiwanese Presidential elections in an unsuccessful attempt to undermine President Tsai Ing-Wen of pro-independence DPP and skew the result in favour of the pro-unification Han Kuo-Yu of the KMT. Set against this threat, the high level of civic engagement between the Taiwanese populace and their institutions blunted the impact of mainland-orchestrated subversion. For instance, when cyber-debates went viral, experienced Taiwanese netizens are quick to check the IP address and posting records of persons posting dubious information.


Although this notion of Community-Hardening is a work in progress, the aforementioned antecedent elements point to the following components of interest:

  1. strengthening the  social and psychological resilience of communities against non-traditional threats to our shared existence as human beings, including Lone Wolf terrorism, pandemics and climate change;

  2. efforts by government agencies, non-government organisations, civil society institutions and other stakeholders to maintain the capacity to implement, at short notice, civil defence measures to cope with unexpected  and emerging challenges;

  3. the maintenance of high levels of trust between the populace and their institutions to ensure the whole-hearted cooperation of the general public during the implementation of policies to protect the public interest;

  4. the active participation of populaces in the civic life of the country to ensure that everyone has a committed stake in the smooth functioning of government policies;

  5. the obligation of government leaders to demonstrate clarity, precision and transparency behind public service measures that, although irksome to the liberty of individuals, is also necessary to advance the interests of society as a whole;

  6. An obligation for governments, civil society, the general public, media organisations and other stakeholders to appreciate the implications of the borderless nature of cyberspace, including:

    1. The threat of bot-generated fake news, misinformation and deep fakes (bearing in mind that many such forms of misinformation can be manipulated to achieve an extremely high level of realism)[12];

    2. Recognition of foreign malicious entities’ willingness to exploit cyberspace sympathetic members of their diaspora population to undertake influence operations and espionage;

  7. The obligation that individuals and the media have a duty to:

    1. undertake fact-checking;

    2. critical evaluation of statements from their leaders (bearing in mind the possibility that politicians may attempt to propagate falsehoods);

  8. Ensuring community solidarity in the face of attempts (foreign as well as domestic) to divide and polarise society.


Even as the notion of Community-Hardening may be necessary to meet emerging non-traditional security threats, the author nonetheless emphasises that this strategy should not be seen as a panacea to these challenges. Although the author’s outlining of Community Hardening drew inspiration from Singapore, Sweden and Taiwan, various incidents in these three countries underscore that these countries still face, to varying degrees, the threat of Lone Wolf terrorism, their respective versions of Community-Hardening notwithstanding. This was evident in the arrest of an anti-Muslim Singapore youth in December 2020[13] and a 2017 vehicle-ramming terrorist attack in Stockholm.[14] Even Taiwan, which I consider the most effective illustration of Community-Hardening, is not immune to occasional racism and bigotry.[15] Such a reality underscores that, for communities to be truly ‘hardened’ against the emerging threats of our time, it will be necessary to recall Thomas Jefferson’s observation that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of democracy’.



[1] The author expresses his sincere thanks to the students of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Keimyung University and the University of Malaya for the insights that formed the basis for this paper’s discussion of the notion of ‘Community Hardening’.

[2] Daniel Byman, ‘Can lone wolves be stopped?’, Brookings Institution, 15 March 2017,.

[3]Scott Sayare, ‘How Europe’s ‘Little Losers’ Became Terrorists’, The Atlantic, 10 May 2016,.

[4]Dan Sabbagh, ‘Growth of far right networks 'fuelled by toxic political rhetoric', Guardian, 7 Oct 2019,.

[5] Chris Jancelewicz, ‘Michael Moore was right about a Donald Trump victory, and now he has a plan’, Global News, 9 November 9 2016,.

[6] Laura Kelly, ‘Trump, GOP 'dog whistle' over coronavirus inflames anti-Chinese rhetoric online: analysis’, The Hill, 18 March 2020,.

[7] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).

[8] Cited in ‘Muslim Employee who saved Jews in Kosher Supermarket Attack to Get French Citizenship’, Reuters, 16 January 2015,.

[9]Ministry of Defence (Singapore), ‘What is Total Defence?’,.

[10] Civil Contingencies Agency (Sweden), ‘If Crisis or War Comes’, 2018.

[11] Tan, ‘South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan take on Coronavirus’, forthcoming for 2021, with Konrad Adeneauer Stiftung.

[12] James Vincent, ‘Watch Jordan Peele use AI to make Barack Obama deliver a PSA about fake news’, The Verge, 17 April 2018,.

[13] Fabian Koh, ‘Parliament: Singapore has been strengthening laws against terrorism, says Desmond Tan’, Straits Times, 16 February 2021,.

[14] BBC, ‘Stockholm truck attack: Who is Rakhmat Akilov?’, BBC, 7 June 2018,.

[15] Milo Hsieh, ‘As Taiwan Develops, Can Racism and Discrimination be Avoided?’, Taiwan Insight, 31 August 2020,.