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The election of Finland’s woman-led government brought hopes of a more equal future. Sadly, thatâ€™s not happening on the internet.
A new report from the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, based in Latvia, has found that the Finnish government, headed by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, is overwhelmingly targeted by misogynistic online harassment.
The country made headlines in 2019 when all the leaders of its five-party center-left coalition were women, but women ministers received “shockingly high levels of abusive messaging” over the course of the Centre’s monitoring period, said researcher Rolf Fredheim in a presentation on the findings.
“The five most targeted ministers, all female, were overwhelmingly victimised by misogynistic abuse attacking their values, demeaning their decision-making skills, and questioning their leadership abilities,” the report states.
Some Twitter posts included in the Centre’s findings targeted the prime minister herself, using misogynistic epithets and tropes about women and household duties.
Many in the Centre’s findings were more explicit.
In part, misogynist online abuse discourages women from participating in government. A 2019 study found that 28 percent of municipal officials targeted with hate speech said they were less willing to participate in decision-making as a result.
This is in line with the experiences of Iiris Suomela. The Green politician, whose party is in the ruling coalition, said in an interview that for both herself and her colleagues there’s a “fear factor” involved in taking certain decisions that are likely to unleash a torrent of abuse they’re all too familiar with.
“If I’m really tired, or if I’ve had a really heavy working week, then I do notice that I’m less likely to talk about these issues, or I think a lot of people try to find ways in which to address these issues in a softer, less direct way to avoid getting harassed as badly,” she said.
“And that seems to be something that men don’t have to do as much, even progressive men, anti-racist men can be more open and direct about these issues without getting harassed as badly. That certainly is a fear factor.”
In trying to get people to run in upcoming local elections, Suomela has noticed young women and minorities are particularly reluctant. She said they point to fear of online harassment as a reason why, adding that this has a “severe impact on democracy.”
Finland’s first Black woman MP Bella ForsgrÃ©n â€” also a member of the Greens â€” has had a similar experience: “I must think at least twice which discussions to take part [in],” she said. “Always it’s not a matter of the subject â€” it’s a matter of how women or POC [people of color] are allowed to talk! Any criticism isn’t wanted. Anyhow, I feel it doesn’t affect my public policy, yet.”
“I think here in Finland we really should have a better legislation what comes to hate speech or online harassment,” ForsgrÃ©n added.
Fredheim, the researcher, was keen to point out that Finland’s case is still better compared to other countries, where it’s “even worse.”
The report found that the majority of these messages do not come from “bots” but from genuine accounts â€” most of them anonymous.
That poses a problem for policymakers. “It’s quite easy to get everybody to agree that it’s a problem that we have bots posing as citizens disseminating these fake opinions from outside the country,” Fredheim said, adding that it’s harder to police authentic online content: balancing the tightrope between maintaining free speech and limiting hate speech isn’t easy.
And while Fredheim and his fellow researchers conclude that governments should “raise public awareness on the issue,” they hold that the responsibility for content moderation lies with the platforms themselves.
The algorithms used by the likes of Twitter to optimize engagement are far more advanced than the algorithms Fredheim’s team used to detect harmful content, he said, adding that social media platforms could be doing a lot more.
“They do not throw the same kind of effort and money at these problems as they do at some of the other problems that are more core to their business. And that is a question of priorities,” Fredheim said.
Disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz, who also wrote Malign Creativity: How Gender,Â Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online, pointed out that tech companies are “dominated by cis-gender white men” who “can’t conceive what it’s like to be on the receiving end of one of these campaigns.”
Like Suomela and ForsgrÃ©n, she said she has to think twice about what she says online.
“These multibillion-dollar companies should be able to do a lot more.”
But Suomela feels there is more the Finnish government could be doing, namely enforcing hate speech laws, giving police the resources and skills to â€œreally tackle online harassment,â€ and better identifying when people are working in groups to coordinate online attacks.
As for the EU, she recognizes harmonization of laws on this subject will be tricky â€” but holds that some level of action is needed.
â€œI know that criminal law is something that nation states aren’t keen to completely harmonize on, but there are definitely some basic requirements that should be fulfilled,â€ she said. â€œI think all countries should strive to fulfil some basic criteria on properly tackling criminalizing hate speech.â€
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