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Ombudsman: Racism survey sabotaged by online forum

The survey was hit by a crowdsourced campaign that submitted fake answers and subjected an employee to racist harassment.

Ufoka Eugene.
Human rights activist Yfoka Eugene said that politicians also use racist hate speech. Image: Matti Myller / Yle

A survey on racism and discrimination experienced by African-background people was subjected to a campaign of sabotage, the office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman said on Tuesday.

"The online questionnaire produced for the report was targeted by crowdsourced harassment and instructions on how to sabotage from an online forum," Acting Non-Discrimination Ombudsman Rainer Hiltunen said in a blog on Tuesday.

The acting Ombudsman noted that when the survey link was launched, the sabotage campaign kicked off, spreading information about the link with suggestions on how to answer, including guidance on providing fake answers that would later be used to discredit the survey.

"Many of the answers given to the online survey contained racist language that had no connection with the respondent describing discrimination experiences. Responses to the survey also contained coded language and memes used by the far right, or the response was formulated as a racist stereotype," Hiltunen wrote.

Apart from the attempt to sabotage the survey and invalidate its results, Hiltunen said that an employee of the Ombudsman’s office was also singled out for racist harassment, with the individual’s personal information shared in an online discussion forum, a practice known as 'doxxing'.

"In addition, anonymous racist and disparaging messages were written about the civil servant, hate mail was sent, and pictures of the civil servant were distributed," he added.

Survey finds majority experience racism in Finland

The office said it salvaged the survey by filtering responses in two phases to remove fake answers as reliably as possible. In the first phase, obviously false contributions were filtered out by the Ombudsman’s office, while in the second phase an external researcher cleansed the information. As a result it obtained 286 responses that were used to produce the final report.

The survey, which was aimed at respondents 15 years and older, found that 67 percent of people of African descent educated in Finland said they faced discrimination on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

Moreover, many reported early experiences of racism, such as before starting school in early childhood education, as well as in the first grades of basic education. In addition, respondents recounted primarily experiencing racist discrimination and harassment in public urban environments, in education and on the job, and when seeking employment. Respondents said that they also experienced racism during interactions with public services, such as social and health care services.

"Hate speech can be seen in public transport such as on trains and a friend of mine has been targetted and even attacked. Politicians can also use openly racist speech, such as Ano Turtiainen [ex-Finns Party MP] did a few days ago on Twitter," African Anti-Racist Society founder and human rights activist Ufoka Eugene said.

Some 61 percent of respondents said they do not report their experiences of discrimination to authorities, most commonly because they do not believe it will result in any change. Additionally, only 37 percent said they are aware of their rights in situations where they encounter discrimination. An English summary of the report is available here.

Harassment a response to human rights issues

The Ombudsman’s office said that the survey, which was rolled out in autumn 2019, aimed to produce qualitative information about underreported cases of discrimination experienced by persons of African descent, rather than qualitative research. It hoped to use the results to understand the reasons for underreporting and to develop the Ombudsman’s work.

The Acting Ombudsman said that harassment and doxxing usually occur in cases dealing with fundamental and human rights, such as racism and LGBTIQ rights.

"On a societal level the aim of crowdsourced and systematic harassment of equality data collection is to weaken the advancement of human rights of vulnerable people, and to undermine the advancement of equality," he noted.

Hiltunen noted in his blog that crowdsourced harassment has not been criminalised in Finnish law and that the term does not even exist in the legal code. He said that it therefore cannot be addressed by current legislation.

However he noted that the Justice Ministry has just completed a draft bill that would make unlawful threats against an individual based on their position or work in public office an offence subject to public prosecution.

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