Death Threats, Racial Abuse & Taunts of Sexual Violence: How Much Online Hate Should Politicians Expect?

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File picture of Finnish Parliament / Credit: News Now Finland
When Finland’s parliament returns for the autumn session this week, politicians will face a continued barrage of hate mail, death threats and personal attacks.
 
While Helsinki police tells News Now Finland they don’t keep specific statistics on the number of complaints that members of parliament make about online threats – nor how many arrests or convictions are made – politicians from across the political spectrum say the level of abuse is getting more vitriolic, fueled by social media and the apparent low risk of getting caught. 
 
Tytti Tuppurainen, MP (SDP) / Credit: @tyttitup Instagram

“They are actual people using their own names, and they take the risk of being revealed and brought to justice, and they just don’t care” says Tytti Tuppurainen, a Social Democrat MP from the northern city of Oulu.

“The attitude” – from society, the public, and other politicians – “is that it’s normal, and you should carry on business as usual”

On the second floor of Stockmann’s Academic Bookstore in downtown Helsinki, Tuppurainen greets well-wishers who stop by her table as she drinks afternoon coffee. She and her Belgian Shepherd are regulars here, and regulars out on the streets of Oulu as well, meeting supporters and talking to members of the public. She hasn’t let continued threats curb her appearances, but they do make her more wary. 

 “It’s not like [the threats] are coming every day. It comes in sequences, and I can see a connection with my statements” she says. As a politician she wants to maintain open lines of communication with voters, but that means threats come on Facebook messenger; in Facebook comments; Twitter; email to her Eduskunta (parliament) address; and via the feedback form on her website. 
 
There are obvious topics that trigger the abuse. 
 
“It’s refugees. Immigration in general. Feminism and sometimes gay rights… I’ve reported it to Eduskunta security, and they will report to the police. I’ve done it a couple of times when I got a death threat. That’s a red line for me”. 
Inside Finnish Parliament / Credit: News Now Finland
 Threats of Sexual Violence
 
Some of the messages are deeply personal, and as a woman she is subject to threats of sexual violence that a male politician would not likely receive. 
 
“One message I got through my web page said ‘I pray that next time you go outside alone, there will be a big black man that will rape you’. That went too far”. 
 
Other types of threats are more commonplace she says, like ‘you should be taken behind the sauna and shot’; or ‘you are an enemy of the people’ or ‘the people will punish you’; and some messages speak to her political identity, ‘in 1918 not enough of those red enemies were shot, it should have continued’. 
 
Other types of online harassment for Tuppurainen peaked as she ran to be chair of her party in spring. The far-right online magazine MV-Lehti was writing stories about her personal life – stories she brands as fake news – and sending them to her family or friends on Facebook. “I found it really tough and hard that my relatives and close friends got links with very dirty content, very disgusting content” she says. 
 
Finnish Police say are working with other agencies to try and tackle the rise in online threats that target politicians. 
 
“They should always report all kinds of threats to the police, otherwise [we] can’t interfere and the behaviour is likely to escalate” says Senior Detective Superintendent Jouni Niskanen of Helsinki Police Department.
 
“The key factor is the position and publicity. The more political power a politician has, the more he or she is visible in the media taking strong sides to some important topic, the more likely he or she is going to fall victim to threats” he adds. 
 
Ozan Yanar, MP (Greens) / Credit: @yanarozan Instagram

Racial Abuse

 For Green Alliance MP Ozan Yanar, who moved from Turkey to Finland aged 14, online criticism is fine:  if people want to take issue with his politics or simply disagree with him. But it rarely ends there. 
 
“The harassment of getting these kind of messages, go back to your country, or you fucking Muslim or whatever they call me, you foreigner, these kind of messages of course they made me sad”. 
 
Yanar’s speedy rise from curious debater to amateur student politician to Green Alliance MP by the time he was 28 garnered a lot of media attention. And that means abusive messages are par for the course. 
 
“Mostly it’s about my background, and I see there is some peaks in these threats. It can be when I speak about issues which are really heated. Immigration policy, or refugee policies, or criticism of some people” he says in a phone interview. 
 
“For example I am a feminist, or when I have been talking about gay marriage issues […] these people might send some kinds of messages at that time”. 
 
In the past, Yanar has reported more serious threats to SUPO, the Finnish Intelligence Service. But while he doesn’t report every piece of hate mail that arrives at his office, death threats cross a line for him. 
 
Simon Elo, MP (Finns Party) / Credit: News Now Finland

Friendly Fire Threats

It’s not just left-leaning politicians who have noted an increase in the amount of abusive messages they receive. As head of the “New Alternative” parliamentary group, Simon Elo had a summer of discontent when he and fellow MPs broke away from the populist Finns Party to start the process of forming their own new political party.
 
“There’s no privacy when it comes to the internet” says Elo, over lunch in a cafe near parliament where an older Finnish man asks to shake his hand, and pose for a photograph. 
 
“People say you are traitors, or fuck you. That’s what people do most. In email it’s often the same people emailing every day” Elo notes. 
 
“The worst is on a personal level. If it’s about your family it gets under your skin more”: Elo made headlines in early summer when it was revealed he had an extra marital affair around the time of the 2015 parliamentary elections. He says this news was leaked by his political opponents to discredit him. 
 
“If I would be killed, it’s about me. It’s on my conscience. If someone hurt my family it would be worse than something happening to me. Because I put myself into this position voluntarily”. 
 
Elo keeps a folder in his email account where all the abusive messages go. He shows some of the most recent, random, messages which range from the oddly threatening – ‘I hope you would be killed, monkey’ – to the much more sinister ‘you are a traitor to the country and the party and your wife’ – to the outright threatening ‘you and your family including your son should be hanged’. 
 
Some of the threats that Elo receives clearly fall into the category of ‘friendly fire’ – people from his own party or who share his political ideology, but resent the way he spearheaded the summertime Finns Party split. 
 
“Being in the Finns Party was almost like a shield from certain individuals. You see they way the treat Mr Halla Aho [Finns Party Chairman] with his issue”. In the spring, Hallo Aho was outed by his long-time mistress on Facebook, with whom he has a child. It came as a surprise to his wife and family. 
 
“They tell me I am a traitor to my wife, but with Mr Halla Aho they say ‘it doesn’t matter’, or they say ‘oh, it shows he’s a man’. The only explanation I can give is that I’m not in that party any more, so I’m fair game”. 
 
Inside Finnish Parliament / Credit: News Now Finland

Dealing with Threats

There’s no one-size-suits-all when it comes to dealing with threats to politicians, especially with the new ‘growth industry’ of social media abuse. 

“During the past two decades the threshold for people to openly and rather aggressive criticise politicians has changed a lot in Finland, and one major reason for this must be the possibility to find peer groups in social media, no matter how narrow or niche your own view or agenda might be” explains Totti Karpela, a former two-decade career Finnish police officer and expert in the assessment and management of targeted violence, who has worked with politicians providing advice on how to deal with such threats. 
 
“In closed groups critical thinking disappears and what’s left is often very polarised opinion with the support from like minded people. Social media sub-groups should be called ‘mutual agreement machines'”.
 
Karpela says that aggressive and threatening behaviour can be divided into two broad categories: impulsive, and predatory behaviour. 
 
The impulsive comments can be driven by emotions, and meant to express frustration, anger or fear. They can still be dangerous he notes, as most physical violence is spontaneous as well, but more often than not, impulsive behaviour works as a sort of ventilation mechanism. 
 
‘Hunters and Howlers’
 
Predatory or targeted behaviour however, is goal-oriented, premeditated and planned, where the intention is to create fear in the target, or elicit a highly emotional response – even through posting trolling comments on social media. But Karpela cautions that predatory threats seldom lead to physical aggression. 
 
“The concept of ‘hunters and howlers’ does seem to fit in many of these situations. People who threaten politicians are rarely the ones who attack them. The ones who actually attack, rarely communicate about their actions beforehand” he says. 
“Who Wants To Be A Politician?” 
 
Members of Parliament Tytti Tuppurainen, Ozan Yanar and Simon Elo each worry about the impact the growing number of threats has on politicians, and people who might consider a career in politics. 
 
“Who wants to be a politician, who wants to be a public figure if it’s going to be like that?” asks Tuppurainen. “How strong a personality do you have to be?”
 
 “I’m worried about it. I see kids with multicultural backgrounds and seeing racism in this country and so I am worried about these kids” says Yanar. “I have integrated. I have done things mostly right. I have been a good citizen. But this is not enough for these people [who send the threats]” he says.
 
“I deleted most of the messages when we got hundreds of messages per day. I didn’t have the time and strength to look at them all” concedes Elo. “I am doing a job that has a meaning. It has a purpose. It has an effect on peoples’ lives and that’s part of the reason some people hate us so much”.