News / 10.12.2013

Does hate speech on the internet stifle freedom of expression?

Linus Atarah

Do attacks on the internet stifle freedom of expression and restricting the diversity of opinions in public debate?

A new study published three weeks ago by the Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Communication (COMET) of the University of Tampere, finds that hate speech on internet forums has a tendency to restrict diversity of opinions in public debates because victims of hate speech are reluctant to publicly voice their opinions.

The study however, found out that mainstream journalism uses hate speech generated on internet forums selectively guarded by ethical considerations.

When politicians or other public figures utter anti-immigrant or other hateful sentiments on internet forums, mainstream journalism tend to report the issue directly, at times copy-pasting what was circulating on the internet into the newspaper without comments, in a subtle show of disapproval of that sort of behaviour by public figures on the internet, said Reeta Pöyhtäri, one of the authors of the study.

But on the other hand, when the target of hate speech on internet was, for instance, a minor from the immigrant community who commits a crime, then journalists tended to avoid reproducing the hate speech circulating on the internet order to protect the young person. It was found that a lot of caution was also exercised by journalists in reporting hate speech when it is deemed punishable by law.

“So there is a lot of ethical considerations by journalism concerning hate speech and cyber hate”, she said. The finding appears to dispel the widespread public perception that journalists thrive on hate speech to sell their products, even though there is some evidence that newspapers sometimes report on aggressive hate speech to attract readers.

The study also found that a female journalist who writes on immigrants and immigration issues is more likely to become a target of hate speech than a male counterpart. According to Pöyhtäri, this is because anti-immigrant sentiments are in many cases intertwined with anti-female sentiments.

Pöyhtäri presented the findings of the study last week in a well-attended seminar by Finnish and Swedish experts and advocates of freedom of information organised by the Swedish-Finnish Cultural Foundation, Hanasaari, to commemorate the 247th Anniversary of world’s first freedom of information passed in Sweden in 1766 championed by Anders Chydenius, a Finnish priest.

 The publication, “Hate Speech restricting Freedom of Expression”, was grounded on four recent landmark cases concerning immigrants, minorities and other vulnerable groups which generated an aggressive hate speech discussion on internet forums.

The authors interviewed journalists and experts on their experience in public discussion and the threats posed to freedom of expression thereof, as well as the circulation of hate speech discussion between mainstream journalism and internet forums. They also examined the moderation practices of news media discussion forums in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and the Great Britain.

Hate speech poses a dilemma with regards to freedom of speech. On the one hand it is likely to create an atmosphere of fear with a consequent reduction of diversity of opinions in public debate. Yet on the other hand it raises a question whether restricting hate speech would also constitute a violation of freedom expression of individuals in the society.

Until recently, hate speech in Finland specifically targeting immigrants was to a large extent under wraps. But the floodgates of verbal attacks on immigrants were apparently thrown wide open in the aftermath of the municipal elections in 2008 when the populist anti-immigrant party, The Finns Party, gained inroads in the municipals councils for the first time.

The electoral success in 2008 was followed up three years later in 2011 with a spectacular win of 19.1 percent of the votes making the Finns Party the third largest party in the Finnish parliament.

Following from that journalists and researchers who wrote on immigrant issues became free game for anti-immigrant attacks in public debates, especially on internet forums.

To some extent, hate speech has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression, according to the findings of the study. According to Pöyhtäri, some journalists say they found it difficult to get researchers working on immigration issues and members of the immigrant community to appear on television to tell their views on the issues. Other writers have also resorted to some sort of self-censorship for fear of being publicly.

However, other journalists who were highly motivated in their work expressed determination to continue working on the issues and would not be cowed by hate speech, thereby handing away their freedom of expression, said Pöyhtäri.

According to the study’s findings, journalists on the whole were not disturbed by anti-immigrants attacks; rather their primary concern was the threat to their personal security and that of their families.

Journalists who became victims of anti-immigrant attack on the internet however were dismayed to realise that their bosses in editorial offices had no laid-down procedures to protect them in such situation and therefore let down.

According to Pöyhtäri, journalists she interviewed during the study even spoke of having received death threats and yet their newspapers did not do much to help them, not even filing a criminal case on their behalf with the police.

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