Government’s analysis, assessment and research activities
Study: Hate speech deters decision-makers from participating in public debate

Government analysis, assessment and research activitiesMinistry of the Interior 4.10.2019 11.59
Press release 501/2019

A third of municipal decision-makers and almost half of the Members of Finnish Parliament or their assistants have been subjected to hate speech due to their official duties or positions of trust. In addition, about a third of the decision-makers consider that hate speech in public debate has increased in recent years. These are the results of a recent study.

“Hate speech may stem from impulsive actions, but it is also being used knowingly for political pressure. In that case, the aim is to silence a certain person or political view,” says Researcher Aleksi Knuutila. 

The study ‘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. This is the first study in Finland on how decision-making in society may be influenced by hate speech. The research data consists of thematic interviews (14), Twitter discussions classified using machine learning models, and answers to a questionnaire sent to municipalities and Parliament (N = 1393). 

In this study hate speech means degrading, threatening or stigmatising expressions that relate to the personal characteristics of the subject or are motivated by intolerance.  

Political confrontation has escalated 

According to the study, increased hate speech is a reflection of escalated political confrontations in Finland. Many politicians who participated in the study felt that their involvement in a particular political party was the reason for being selected as subjects to hate speech. The aim of hate speech was not just to influence the party’s decisions, but being a member of the party as such was seen as a stigma that could motivate hate speech. 

Political confrontation is evident in social media as well. The study identified 200 Twitter accounts that are responsible for about half of all hostile Twitter messages. These accounts can be divided into two groups that represent opposing ideological perspectives. Most of the hostile communication (about 75%) came from the group that is against migration. 

A list of the about 60 politicians who received large numbers of hostile messages on Twitter during the 2019 elections will be published as part of the study.

Hate speech affects decision-making by silencing its target 

Those subjected to hate speech say that it has influenced their actions quite strongly. Half of the municipal decision-makers say that it has reduced their trust in people they do not know, and 42% say that they became less willing to participate in public debate. Many of those who participated in the study had left or were going to leave politics or were at least considering this. 

The threat of hate speech alone has impacts on political participation. One quarter of the decision-makers who had not been subject to hate speech say that the threat of this has reduced their willingness to participate in public debate. Many decision-makers are afraid of being subjected to a “stoning campaign” in social media. The results show that harassment motivated by intolerance has impacts on who participates in public debate and seeks positions of trust in Finland. 

Current measures against hate speech are inadequate 

According to both the questionnaire and interviews, measures against hate speech are considered inadequate. Especially election candidates and members of municipal and city councils are often left without any support when subjected to hate speech. Besides legal actions, the study lists other ways to combat and prevent hate speech. The measures proposed by the researchers include stronger value leadership and condemning of hate speech by the decision-makers, defining the limits for acceptable speech in political activities, and responsible action by social media platforms. 

The study was conducted by Open Knowledge Finland, University of Jyväskylä and Punos Research as part of the implementation of the Government’s plan for the analysis, assessment and research activities in 2018.  

Link to the publication: Ruled by hate: Hate speech aiming to influence decision-making in society 

The permanent address of the publication in the Institutional Repository for the Government

  

Inquiries: Aleksi Knuutila, Researcher, Open Knowledge Finland, tel. +44 756 308 95 87, [email protected] and Tuija Saresma, Adjunct Professor, University of Jyväskylä, tel. +358 40 8053 841, [email protected]