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Nearly half of MPs, aides report being targets of hate speech

Many parliamentarians said they had left or considered leaving politics because of the feedback.

Eduskunnan istuntosali.
Image: Mauri Ratilainen / AOP

One third of municipal decision-makers and almost half of MPs or their aides have been the target of hate speech due to their work, according to the findings of a new collaborative survey from Open Knowledge Finland, the University of Jyväskylä and Punos Research.

Two thirds of the lawmakers responding to the poll said they believe that public discourse has triggered more hate speech in recent years.

“Hate speech can often be prompted by impulsive actions, but it can also be used deliberately to exert political pressure. In these cases, the aim is to silence a certain individual or political view,” says Open University Finland researcher Aleksi Knuutila.

Respondents to the survey who had been the target of hate speech said it affected their work significantly. Half of municipal decision-makers said it had reduced their trust in people they did not know, and 42 percent said they were less willing to participate in public debates. Many said that had left or had considered dropping out of politics because of the feedback.

The first of its kind, the study entitled "Ruled by hate: Hate speech aiming to influence decision-making in society" explored the extent and nature of hate speech and its impact on decision-making. It made use of 14 thematic interviews, interactions on Twitter, and more than 1,300 questionnaires that were returned from the Finnish Parliament.

For purposes of the study, hate speech was defined as "degrading, threatening or stigmatising expressions that relate to the personal characteristics of the subject or are motivated by intolerance".

200 accounts responsible for half of hostile Twitter messages

Many politicians who participated in the study said they felt that their involvement in a particular political party was the reason for the hate speech. The aim of hate speech was not just to influence the party’s decisions, but also to persecute decision-makers for being a member of the certain party, the report on the survey concluded.

The study identified 200 Twitter accounts that were responsible for about half of the hostile Twitter messages sent to lawmakers in Finland. About 75 percent of the offensive tweets came from people who are against migration.

The report also linked decision-makers' social media activity with the amount of hostile feedback they received. As a rule, MPs who tweeted more than 500 times during the research period were exposed to significant hate speech. In Finland, party leaders do not tend to be as active on Twitter, but during the 2019 parliamentary elections, each of the chairs received hate speech communications, with the exception of the Blue Reform party's Sampo Terho and the Swedish People's Party's Anna-Maja Henriksson.

"Men with immigrant backgrounds, like the Social Democratic Party (SDP)'s Abdirahim Hussein, the Greens' Ozan Yanar, SDP's Hussein al-Taee, and the Left Alliance's Suldaan Said Ahmed sent far fewer tweets, but nevertheless encountered a lot of harassment," the report reads, adding that the results show that candidates with immigrant backgrounds are easily targeted.

The survey suggests that the threat of hate speech alone impacts political participation. Even decision-makers who reported no hate speech say that the threat of it has reduced their willingness to participate in public discussions.

Inadequate measures to address problem

The survey and the interviews both found that lawmakers consider current measures against hate speech in Finland to be inadequate. Election candidates and members of municipal councils say they are often left without support in the face of such harassment.

The researchers behind the report propose other measures to clamp down on the problem, beyond legal actions. They make a case for stronger value leadership, whereby decision-makers would condemn hate speech more harshly. They also advise that Finland define the limits for acceptable speech in political activities, and encourage more responsible social media platform monitoring.

The survey was carried out as part of the implementation of the Government’s plan for the analysis, assessment and research activities in 2018.

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