Hate speech in Finland stops decision-makers taking part in public debate

Researchers talks to decision-makers in parliament and their staff, city and municipal council members across the country.

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File picture showing exterior of parliament with flowers, spring 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

A new report finds that a third of municipal decision-makers and half of Members of Parliament or their assistants have been targets of hate speech.

And decision-makers think the amount of hate speech in public debate has increased in recent years.

“Hate speech may stem from impulsive actions, but it is also being used knowingly for political pressure. In that case, the aim is to silence a certain person or political view” says Aleksi Knuutila, a researcher from the Open Knowledge Finland NGO, who carried out the study with the University of Jyväskylä on behalf of the Ministry of Interior.

The research team gathered their data through interviews, using machine-learning to study Twitter conversations, and sent questionnaires to municipalities and parliament workers.

They define hate specch as degrading, threatening or stigmatising expressions that relate to the personal characteristics of the subject, or are motivated by intolerance.

Growing political confrontation

According to the study, the growth in hate speech mirrors a growth in political confrontations in Finland.

Many politicians said their involvement in a political party was often ‘justification’ for being targeted for hate speech.

The researchers identified 200 Twitter accounts that are responsible for about half of all hostile Twitter messages to Finnish decision-makers, and most of the hostile communication, around 75%, was identified as coming from a group that is anti-immigration.

Results of hate speech 

Decision-makers on the receiving end of hate speech told researchers it influenced their actions quite strongly.

Half of municipal decision-makers say it reduced their trust in people they didn’t know; while 42% say they became less willing to participate in public debate.

One quarter of decision-makers who hadn’t been subjected to hate speech say that just the threat of it reduces their willingness to participate in public debate, and many were afraid of being subjected to a sustained campaign of hate speech and abuse on social media.

Across all the people who responded to the researchers, there was widespread agreement that measures taken against hate speech were not strong enough.

Election candidates and members of local councils say they’re often left without support when they are targeted by hate speech.

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