Online hate speech and the often fractious nature of political debate on social media and online forums has deterred many people from running in the upcoming local elections, representatives of Finland's biggest political parties have told news agency STT.
"SDP's candidacy has been affected by the fraught culture of discussion," Jenny Suominen, the party's Head of Organisation, said. "According to the results of a survey, almost a third of those asked to be a candidate have stated that the reason they declined was because of the negative climate of debate."
The phenomenon was also reflected among the ranks of potential candidates for the Left Alliance and the Green Party.
"The most common reason for refusal is that there is not enough time or the current life situation is not suitable. But yes, there are more people than before who drop out because of hate speech or a hostile online debate," Green Party Secretary Veli Liikanen said.
The Centre Party, the Swedish People's Party and the National Coalition Party also told STT that they had similar experiences, but the cases were mostly isolated.
Among Finland's main parties, only Simo Grönroos of the Finns Party and Asmo Maanselkä of the Christian Democrats reported that the issues of hate speech and online debate had no effect on their acquisition of candidates.
Women targeted more than men
A government commissioned study into the impact of hate speech on public decision-making, called Viha vallassa (Anger in Power), found that municipal politicians have also experienced an increase in hostile feedback. According to the study, two-thirds of municipal decision-makers felt that there had been an increase in hate speech.
One of the authors of the report, Tuija Saresma, a Senior Researcher of Contemporary Culture at the University of Jyväskylä, told Yle that hate speech flares up most often in discussions about immigration and the rights of sexual minorities.
"In addition, hate speech is quite clearly gendered and women are on the receiving end of it much more than men," she said.
The political party representatives interviewed by STT agreed it is usually women — as well as minorities or those who talk about minority rights — who are most exposed to hate speech.
"We have become aware of individual cases where a candidacy has been revoked because the candidate belonged to a sexual minority, and there were fears that the candidacy would be detrimental to their loved ones," Left Alliance party secretary Mikko Koallinen said.
However, hate speech does not always require a particular reason, one party representative pointed out.
"Harassment can happen even if the candidate or delegate is in no way a provocative person, and it seems to target women in particular," the Centre Party's election coordinator Juha Iso-aho said.
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The government study further found that hate speech and ill-natured online debate are having a knock on effect on democracy. Forty-two percent of municipal decision-makers who responded to the survey said their willingness to participate in public debate had diminished.
Many participants in the study also said that hate speech and harassment have led them to consider giving up politics.
Saresma said this is a "serious threat" to democracy, as it reduces people's willingness to participate in social debate. However, she added that studies show that only a relatively small number of people engage in hate speech, and this small group produces the largest part of it.
"If, for example, there is reprehensible hate speech on social media, accounts should be closed. There should be zero tolerance for committing crimes," Saresma said.
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