Facts Against Fear
Political campaign, 2017
In March 2017, the Netherlands was suddenly the center of the world’s attention. The right-wing populist PVV (Party for Freedom) party was leading the polls in the election with proposals to close all Mosques, stop refugees and Muslim immigrants from entering the country, forbid the Quran, and leave the EU. Its popularity inspired larger moderate parties to copy its rhetoric, making anti-Islam and anti-refugee sentiments more accepted. As a concerned citizen I wanted to take action against this fearmongering.
The Netherlands is one of the safest, happiest, and richest countries in the world. Unemployment is one of the lowest in Europe. Crime has been dropping for the last eleven years, and the number of murders is among the lowest in Europe. The Dutch are also very socially active, they do more voluntary work than any other country in Europe, and according to the UN the Netherlands is the best country to raise your kid in the world. So what are the Dutch suddenly so afraid of?
To find out I teamed up with Stephan Okhuijsen, a data-analist who publishes graphs on his platform Datagraver. I read the election programmes of the political parties, collected quotes by politicians, and organized them by theme. The most discussed themes this election were terrorism, security, immigration, refugees, Islam, pensions, and healthcare. Stephan took graphs and data sets that he collected over the years, and we looked for recent statistics on the themes. From all the material we collected, it showed many statements by politicians were either exaggerated or false.
Fear of Muslims
‘Is Islam a threat to Dutch society?’ was actually a question during two political debates on Dutch television. Asking the same about Christianity or Judaism would be unfathomable. This normalisation of xenophobia was only possible through the strong anti-Islam rhetoric from the PVV party which had introduced the word ‘islamification’ in the Dutch political language. Their election programme said: ‘Millions of Dutch are fed up with the islamification of our country’. VNL, a new right-wing populist party said in their programme: ‘The largest problem is the mass-immigration, the tidal wave of islamification’. We understood the use of the term ‘islamification’ is problematic in itself, but since it was such a big topic during the elections, we felt we had to address it.
We looked into CBS data on religion in the Netherlands. It showed that the number of Muslims was 4.5% in 2010, and had barely grown in five years to 4.9%. In comparison, during the same five years the number of Dutch that classified as non-religious rose with 4%. There was a discrepancy between the imagined rise of Islam in the Netherlands and the reality. A European-wide poll from IPSOS showed that the Dutch estimated the number of Muslims in their country at 19%, while it was in fact 4.9%. It was clear that this so-called rise of Islam in the Netherlands was not based on any facts.
Fear of Terrorism
Terrorism was a big topic during the election. Recent attacks in Europe such as Brussels in 2016 and Paris in 2015 let many Dutch to believe an attack in the Netherlands was imminent. Parties on both the political left and right proposed strong security measures and invested both in military and police. The government had proposed a new law for dragnet internet surveillance. Two parties proposed to reinstate the military draft, making military service mandatory. People’s fear of terrorism should be taken seriously, but we were wondering if these strong measures were proportionate to the actual dangers.
At Datagraver, Stephan had made a graph with all the terrorist attacks in Western Europe since 1970. It showed that the number of attacks in 1970-1990 was much higher than it is now, with groups like the IRA, PLO, RAF and ETA which were highly active in Europe. The number of terrorist attacks had increased since 2004 compared to 2000, but it was nowhere as high as during the 1980s. We also looked at Max Roser’s graph on battle deaths from Our World in Data. It clearly shows the world is a much safer place than it was ever before in the twentieth century. A third graph showed the causes of deaths in the Nederlands between 2000 and 2015 using CBS data. The percentage of deaths by terrorism was 0.0004%, and deaths by murder or manslaughter was 0,1%. Compared to deaths by accidents (2%), suicide (1.2%), or traffic deaths (0.6%) the chances of dying from violence are extremely small.
The risks of terrorism are difficult to quantify since it concerns possible threats. An attack might happen tomorrow and change the risks. But even if you consider an attack in the Netherlands such as the one in Paris or Brussels will happen, terrorism poses an extremely small risk for our safety, compared to traffic accidents, falling down stairs, or drowning. Learning to swim and safer traffic regulations will be much more effective than anti-terrorism measures. Nonetheless the threat of terrorism has led European governments to militarize public space with soldiers patrolling the streets. Many European politicians propose stronger safety measures and privacy-invading eavesdropping measures. Given the small risk that terrorism poses to our well-being, it begs the question whether these measures are not needlessly disproportionate.
A month before the election, the website titled Stemmingmakerij went live. It is a Dutch saying meaning ‘fearmongering’ or ‘ballyhoo’. The word stemming means voting or mood. Stemmingmakerij was an independent political campaign which we completely funded ourselves, without ties to any political party. Stephan and myself worked hard to produce 25 graphs in a few weeks, each with different facts on the main election themes. Each graph reacted on a statement from a politician or a political party. As a data-analist, Stephan’s expertise helped to make sure our data came from recent and reliable sources. The majority of data was taken from the CBS (Statistics Netherlands), others from the UN, the World Bank, Global Terrorism Database, PRIO Battle Deaths dataset, and the Institute for Economics and Peace.
The website featured all 25 graphs, accompanied by a longer statement about where we found the data, what choices were made, and links to the actual data-sets for transparancy. Each graph could be easily shared on Facebook, Twitter, or by E-mail. We produced all graphs under a Creative Commons license so they could be shared for free.
All graphs were made in reconizable formats that were easy to read for a wide audience. We used the most ‘boring’ formats; lists, bar charts, and pie charts. The blue/purple colour was chosen because it had no political party affiliation. Typography was kept simple in a narrow sans-serif set in large sizes so all information could be read on smart phones. Titles were set in Pressuru, a typeface by Roman Gornitsky that is related to the ultimate meme typeface: the Impact. The design concept was that the graphs should look recognizable, but not too designed, not too high-brow or too low-brow, so a wide audience from all political sides could potentially share it.
During one month, the website received 100.000 page views, our tweets were viewed almost 500.000 times, facebook posts were viewed 167.000 times, and we had more than 30 mentions in news articles. The PVV did not end up winning the election, but the populist right did win seven seats in parliament, while the left lost 20 seats. What is more frightening is moderate parties had taken over a watered-down version of right-wing populist ideas, calling it ‘the good kind of populism’. Whether Stemmingmakerij made a difference during the election is impossible to say, but for us it was important to have another voice out there against fact-free politics.