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Backlash against hunt for evacuated al-Hol kids spawns anti-racism movement

Finland's "Silakat" movement is a nod to Italy’s anti-nationalist Sardines and aims to combat racism and hate speech.

Silakkaliikkeen Twitter-sivu.
Screenshot of the Silakat movement's Twitter account. Image: Twitter
Yle News

Thousands of people in Finland have joined a new social media movement opposing efforts to reveal the identities of two Finnish children repatriated from the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria.

Known as "Silakat" or Baltic herring, the grassroots social media movement is a nod to the Sardines in Italy who oppose the rise of right-wing politics and related ethno-nationalist and anti-immigrant policies.

The Finnish movement currently has the support of 10,000 Twitter followers and more than 11,000 on Facebook.

The Silakat group said they represent a peaceful force that opposes policies that promote inequality, racism and hatred. It is said to be politically non-aligned and aims to use demonstrations to spread its message.

The movement was founded on 25 December and has snowballed since.

Movement sparked by treatment of al-Hol orphans

Johannes Koski, a user experience specialist with a Finnish game firm, wrote in his blog (in Finnish) that he founded the movement with friends, adding that the discourse around the recent evacuation of children from al-Hol influenced the decision to create the movement.

When the children were brought to Finland, the event was live-streamed on YouTube. According to Silakat, the children were recognisable in some parts of the video. Members of the movement said they fear that officials involved will be targeted and persecuted.

"Hundreds of people watched the streams and wrote derogatory comments about the children, directed the video operators to capture the children and as a group they tracked down the names of the officials involved," Koski wrote in his blog.

Silakat said that Finland cannot be a nation that hounds children under the age of seven, especially during the Christmas holidays.

Another well-known blogger, Saku Timonen also addressed the issue (in Finnish) of the video of the children in a post on Christmas Day.

"The children can be clearly recognised, and their names and whereabouts were feverishly sought after on social media. The name of a Finnish official was revealed and judging by the threats posted, he will be targeted and will receive a mountain of hate mail," Timonen wrote.

Italian protest movement popular among youth

Italy’s Sardine movement has said that it seeks to inspire as it opposes the right-wing rhetoric and policies of politician Matteo Salvini and his La Lega party.

The group was founded by four young adults from Bologna and in just a few weeks it grew to become a mass movement that was active on social media and engaged in peaceful "flash mobs" as a form of protest.

One founder, Andrea Gareffa, told Yle that the movement rejects mud-slinging in politics and the simplistic answers that populism proposes for complex problems.

The Sardine metaphor was adopted to represent the power of a shoal of fish, although individuals may appear to be weak and small.

Pushback against hateful language

Finland’s Silakat aim to act in a similar manner to combat racist comments on social media, since they said they are also concerned about the degeneration of political discourse.

"Even within the blue walls of parliament we hear racism and other inappropriate language on a daily basis. This kind of bad example has a direct effect on how people communicate with each other. Hate breeds more hatred," Koski said.

Although the Italian example has been an inspiration, the Silakat said they want to be a politically independent Finnish movement. They also advocate to combat climate change and to inspire respect for responsible journalism and scientific research.

The group already stirred up controversy last weekend when Finnish Chambers of Commerce chief executive Juho Romakkaniemi said on Twitter that he had been removed from Silakat's Facebook group. The group administrator later said that it was done in error.

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