I have worked in the media in the field of audience dialogue for many years. In addition to all the good I have seen, I have encountered a huge amount of hate speech. Recently the police contacted a man who had said in an anonymous online discussion that he hoped my family would be killed by an asylum seeker. We met each other through a mediation process. This is what it was like for us.
It is August 2017, and Finland is going through the fearful aftermath of the Turku terrorist attack. I am leaving work and heading home, but before doing so I carry out a familiar security check: I google myself.
Although the idea of googling yourself may sound rather narcissistic, for me the sensation is very different. For me, this is the most frightening part of my work.
And this time, there is more reason than usual to be afraid. Earlier the same week, I had written an opinion piece for Yle News in which I explained how the Turku events had unleashed on social media not only condolences and appropriate expressions of grief, but also rumours, lies and hate.
My article had not been to everyone’s taste. On the ylilauta.org forum I find a conversation thread where people are giving free rein to their thoughts on it: the whole of the Yle editorial team should be killed. According to the participants in the thread, I am seeking to destroy traditional Finnish society by following cultural Marxist doctrine. I am labelled a whore of the Jewish world system and a traitor to my country who will end up paying for my crimes.
One of the participants in the Ylilauta thread says that they would enjoy it if an asylum seeker were to stab my family to death in Turku Market Square. Attached to the message is a cartoon image in which the murder of my family is being celebrated with coffee and cake.
I make a report about the messages to my bosses and to the Yle Security Department, which assists by submitting a request to the police to investigate. Again. The last time was about a week ago.
If you've never been the target of public hate, it's easy to think that such messages can just be ignored. But this is not possible, because you can never know what the reality behind the expressions of hate is. And even if there were to be the tiniest of risks to my family, I have to do all I can to protect them and get help from the authorities.
I don’t report all the hate speech I come across. There isn’t time for that – there is just so much hate.
The existence of weakly moderated discussion forums is defended as being important for freedom of expression, but allowing hate speech has nothing to do with that. Quite the opposite: hate speech is becoming a self-fueling threat to national security, feeding prejudice and extremism at the expense of freedom of expression and equality.
Reporting such incidents is not in general an attractive option, even as hate speech becomes more and more of an everyday thing. Our country’s laws do not actually recognise hate speech as an offence in itself. Of course, there has been some progress. These days the police generally approach the problem with greater expertise and more understanding. Resources are nevertheless still very limited.
Mediation is a good thing, but is it for me?
It is June 2018, and I am sitting thoughtfully in Pasila Police Station on a cloudy afternoon. The Senior Detective Constable has just asked if I would be willing to try mediation.
In principle, mediation is a good thing – despite the fact that wrongdoers may go unpunished as a result. But more than punishment, what preoccupies me is the thought of meeting the person that the police have detained. The person who wrote last summer that they would enjoy it if an asylum seeker stabbed my family to death in Turku Market Square.
What if they turn out to be a complete nutcase?
My willingness to agree is also tempered by thoughts of the possible consequences of the meeting. Although it would be interesting to find out what causes people to broadcast their hate online, I have to consider whether I have the stamina to go on. And what if the mediation fails? What if they turn out to be a complete nutcase?
I haven’t said anything about the messages at home or to my friends because I don’t want to burden my loved ones any more than I have to. I have just quietly trusted that the police, my bosses and the Yle security experts will do their job and be able to help me and my family through this.
Having thought it over, I tell the Detective Constable that I am willing to try mediation.
Street encounter brings a lump to my throat
It is a dark November day. The Christmas lights are shining along Mannerheimintie. I step out from the department store and there he is – on his way to the Helsinki mediation office, just as I am. I recognise him, because I was told his name and then googled him to find a picture.
Our eyes meet for a moment. I’m not sure if he has recognised me, but we nevertheless both look away immediately.
I have never considered in much detail how a hate speaker might appear. But I wouldn’t have imagined that they looked like this. He has more the air of a harmless hipster than a Nazi. He has a sharp eye, a gentle appearance and a casual style of dress.
Could someone who looks like this really be a hate-filled racist and neo-nazi? In my wound up state I laugh at my prejudices and set out to walk along behind him.
Looking at the man's back from 20 metres away, however, starts to make me feel sick, so I switch to the other side of the street, and eventually decide to take a different route.
I start thinking about cancelling the entire mediation process. Doing so at this stage would be a real waste. A lot of people have already expended a great deal of time and effort on investigating what he did. And how much taxpayer’s money would have been used if I had refused mediation and taken this to court? We all pay a high price for hate speech.
At the mediation office, I make sure that we don’t end up entering the door or the lift at the same time. Nevertheless, we find ourselves waiting together in the lobby for several minutes. We sit and make sure we are looking in different directions.
A regular Finnish guy?
“Would you like some coffee? We also have something sweet if you would like that”, say the mediators. Their tone of voice is particularly calm and empathic.
All four of us, the two parties to the mediation and the two mediators, sit at a long table and drink coffee. The gazes of both myself and the other man move between the mediators, the coffee cups and the chocolates. The atmosphere is simultaneously both relaxed and tense, the contradiction serving to render the situation more than a little absurd.
We are still not able to look each other in the eye for longer than the half second glance we first exchanged on Mannerheimintie. I don’t remember ever having experienced anything like this before.
Except perhaps one time when I was young and had a crush on someone. But this is something very different. Like some kind of anti-Tinder: the police have matched up the hater and the victim – two people that would rather never have met.
The two mediators, one woman and one man, are both older than us. They keep the conversation going in gentle calming tones. I munch the chocolates and ask the mediators about their training and background and how they ended up in this line of work. What else could a journalist talk about?
My antagonist is quieter. He doesn’t seem interested in the chocolates.
The mediators’ extensive experience dealing with family and street violence is apparent in the way they speak. This helps me understand that online hate speech is on the same spectrum of violence as physical assault itself.
To begin with, we tell each other briefly what we do, as requested by the mediators. He says he is an ordinary Finnish working father. His children are under school age.
I say that I encounter a lot of hate speech in my work. I also say that I would like to see if mediation can be of help in dealing with the problem of hate speech.
Then the mediators ask me to say how it felt for me to find comments of that kind published online.
The power of mediation lies in everyone being on the same level
Privately, I am shocked to learn that he is the father of small children. How in the world could a seemingly normal father who appears to be in his right mind write that he would enjoy it if another person’s family were killed?
But I don’t talk about this. I look the man in the eye and I start to explain what it is like to be the target of hate speech.
I say that my work colleagues tell me that I must have the hide of an ox. But there is nothing heroic in having to put up with hate speech all the time. Just like everyone else, I simply want to get on with my work and be left in peace.
Nevertheless, I am not completely immune, and I am glad that this is the case. The fact that things can hurt me means that I am still able to react to hate as a normal person should.
I say that if I detect in a message even the hint of a concrete threat which could be directed at my family, I must take action. Otherwise I would never be able to forgive myself if something did happen.
I say that I have bought security cameras for my home because of the hate speech against me.
I say how it feels when I come home from work and see that someone has been in my garden breaking flowerpots or smashing things up and I cannot know whether it’s because of my work – the hate speech directed against me, the result of online targeting – or if it’s simply a coincidence.
I say what it feels like when the phone rings late at night and it is an angry stranger who acts as if they are recording the conversation and says they want to talk, but in fact they just want to rant and rave, insult me and accuse me of things I haven’t done.
I say that I have bought security cameras for my home because of the hate speech against me.
I describe what it is like to google my own name and find in the search results things more horrible than I could even imagine.
I describe how it feels to read messages in which I am told to hang myself or which express the hope that I get sick or something bad happen to my family.
My mediation partner, who is sitting opposite me, is listening attentively. This is very important for me.
When I finish speaking, I feel freer and empowered. I have experienced something like going to confession. It is clear that agreeing to mediation was the right decision for me.
Then comes his turn.
“You can wreck my life”
“I know that you have the power to wreck my life both financially and emotionally,” he begins.
He is clearly very distraught. His voice betrays feelings of regret and fear. He has clearly been thinking for months about his actions and this situation.
At this point I know that the threat is past. I can let go of the anxieties I had about him.
“I have no desire or intention to crush anyone,” I say to him. “I simply want to know why you wrote what you wrote. What made you do that?”
On hearing this, he starts to untense. He tries genuinely, and for a long time, to find an answer, but is not able to give any reasonable explanation for what he has done.
He says that if someone wrote about his family the kinds of things he wrote about my family then he would feel the same as I did and react in the same way.
The fact that he is also afraid is a relief to me.
For him, thoughtlessly writing stuff online has been a way to let off steam.
He seems to be speaking from the heart. He seems to be a completely normal man, with a healthy sense of empathy. He doesn’t seem to be involved in extremist groups, or sympathetic to them, or even politically active, making the point that it wouldn’t be a good thing in his line of work.
He says that he was not intoxicated when he wrote what he wrote. Writing thoughtless stuff online had become a way for him to let off steam.
He says that he deeply regrets his actions and at several points asks my forgiveness in a way that seems genuine. I say that I forgive him. I know that this man can no longer hurt me and that he would never do anything bad to my family.
I also know that when I get home I will finally be able to tell my partner everything. And I do, that very evening.
What is done cannot be undone
We agree together that he will anonymously help me to write this article, and he stays true to his word.
We return to the question of his reasons, first a couple of months later and then again three months after that. On both occasions, he is still sorry both for his hateful message and for the fact that he is still unable to give a proper explanation for it.
“Sami, I am truly sorry for what I have done and I ask again that you forgive me. Through my own pure stupidity, I put you in a situation which I would never want anyone to find themselves in.”
He says that some discussion platforms serve as “the internet’s sewers and rubbish dumps”. The stuff written there he refers to as “toilet wall scribbles” and “shitposts”.
Wishing to revisit some of the issues that we had already talked about during the mediation session, I send him a few questions, and he emails the following responses.
Would you have written what you wrote if such discussion forums did not exist?
You have not been able to give a proper explanation for what you wrote. Would it be true to say that you got carried away in a discussion where others were directing abuse at me?
“Yes, pretty much. :(”
Do you believe that you could end up again in a similar situation and write a similar kind of message?
What are the most important things you have learned from this whole process?
“Things like what I wrote should never even be thought. This whole time I have thought about my actions in writing what I did, because it goes totally against my character. I hope that you know this. What is done cannot be undone and I am still disgusted by what I did :( .”
The excruciating wait before mediation
I ask him what he had expected from mediation.
He says that ten months after he wrote the message on the forum he received a text message from the police asking him to contact them. He phoned the police the following day and then went to the station, where he felt the official handled the situation appropriately.
The several-month wait between the police interview and the mediation session was a very difficult time for him. What made it even more tortuous was that I could at any point have broken off the mediation process and taken the case to court.
I'd think ‘so here it is then, my whole future now decided'.
“For months afterwards, if I saw in my letterbox any remotely official looking letter, my heart would start racing and I'd think ‘so here it is then, my whole future now decided.’ I couldn’t bring myself to open them right away,” he said.
“The same feelings returned when I saw that I had got a message from you. I mean that if you had not wanted the mediation process then it would have been the end of me, personally and financially.”
Do you think we should speak more about hate speech in Finland, or do you think the problem has been exaggerated?
“If we want to talk about hate speech, we should truly focus on its roots and who is really promoting it and why. This way we would be able to nip it in the bud, before the prejudices have time to grow and cause the worst kind of damage.””
Should the police have more resources for monitoring online and social media discussions?
“If websites are properly moderated, the police should be able to get all the information they need, because proper moderation is necessary for the forums to continue operating.”
Do you think that politicians, the media, researchers and other members of society should take a stronger stand against hate speech?
“Based on my age and gender, I perhaps belong to that well-known category of ‘angry young men’. I don’t have any figures, but I have a hunch that people of my age group/gender make up a large proportion of hate speech writers. This should be given more attention. The institutions you mention do not necessarily understand the issue from the perspective of the ‘angry young man’, and so they turn it into lurid stories, ‘click bait’, and airy filler pieces.”
“I still do not want to defend my earlier behaviour, but I get the sense this vibe is still there.”
Hate breeds hate – can we afford to let that happen?
This is how I would interpret what my mediation partner is saying: We have not even begun to understand the phenomenon of hate speech and its significance. It has not been sufficiently researched for us to understand who the people are who benefit from it. In the media, we have written about it far too superficially. Because nobody knows enough about who is writing hate speech and why, people’s perceptions of the whole issue have become distorted.
When sites spreading hate speech are not moderated and there is no intervention in social media discussions, the problem festers and grows. Complaining about it seems to have little positive effect, but rather serves to make it worse. It is time to take action.
At no point in the mediation process did my mediation partner want to shift the responsibility for his own actions onto others. In legal practice, the responsibility for writing a message that breaks the law normally lies with the writer of the message themselves.
The legal and ethical responsibility, depending on the situation, may also lie with the discussion moderators and discussion forums. They have not, however, prevented the growth of hate speech. In principle, the solution is simple: better monitoring.
If you offer space for public discussion and want to generate a good dialogue, you must make sure that it is appropriately monitored – whether you are a discussion website, a media company or an international social media giant. Effective cooperation with the police is vital in order to deal with unpleasant situations as and when they arise, but your basic task of monitoring the quality of the discussion cannot be outsourced to the authorities. It is your own responsibility.
What are the use of laws if the police does not investigate, the prosecutor does not prosecute and the judge does not judge?
It is essential that hate speech legislation be brought up to date, even though disinformation and hatred can never be completely eradicated from the internet. For this reason, freedom of speech must be protected from fascism, racism and other ways of thinking that promote inequality.
Freedom of speech and the equality of all people are at the heart of Western democracy. At the same time, the deterrent effect of criminal legislation is one of its basic principles. In practice, fascism sets itself in opposition to these things. It has led not only to restrictions on freedom of speech but also crimes against humanity.
Whether the laws are changed or not, the important thing is to think on a practical level and remember the reality on the ground. What is the use of laws if the police do not investigate, the prosecutor does not prosecute and the judge does not judge? The handling of hate speech cases in Finland has been uneven to say the least.
If we truly want to bring hate speech under control in our society, we need to decide on the resources we use to tackle it, our attitude towards it and the training we provide to deal with it.
Hate breeds hate and constantly draws new people into its grasp. In anonymous discussions it is too easy to forget that even though the hate expressed might not really amount to anything much, the target of that hate cannot know if this is the case or not.
The fact that the target of that imprecisely splurged hate is in fact another living, feeling human being does not even enter the minds of some. Completely normal fathers and mothers can be drawn into discussions oozing with hate as if it were a form of entertainment.
They can do so because hate-filled discussions currently exist with the blessing of our decision makers. Forgetting this fact may – for this, the happiest nation in the world – turn out in the end to carry a bewilderingly high cost.
Doing this article has been the most difficult writing process I have ever experienced. I wrote it because I believe that Finland must become properly aware of the economic impact of hate speech, its effect on the health of the nation, and the risks it poses to the maintenance of social harmony.
The author is Head of Audience Dialogue at the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle. He promotes journalistic transparency by strengthening the dialogue between Yle and its audiences in his role as media ombudsman. He also trains Yle journalists in areas such as dealing with hate speech.
Photos: Niklas Mäkinen, graphic design: Mikko Lehtola, translation: Rupert Harding and Lingsoft Language Services, editorial coordinator: Henna-Leena Kallio, producer: Anna-Leena Lappalainen
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