Gender-based violence is defined as harmful acts directed at an individual or a group of individuals based on their gender. Online gender-based violence is a serious concern in the Nordics and has consequences for both individuals and society as a whole. It threatens gender equality, security, democracy and the freedom of speech.
As part of the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers for Gender Equality and LGBTI in 2021, Finland hosted an online conference “Gender-based Hate, Threat and Harassment on the Internet”. The aim of the conference was to recognize good practices and concrete measures to prevent online gender-based violence in the Nordic region.
The focus of the conference lay especially on online hate, threats and harassment against women. The reason for this was the fact that women – especially women using their voices visibly online – experience online gender-based violence the most.
The conference program was based on recent Nordic analyzes, reports and seminars, including a survey of the affiliation of Nordic men with misogynistic internet communities, The Angry Internet, commissioned by the Danish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2020.
The first section of the conference focused on online gender-based violence as a threat to security and democracy. The other program sections focused on reasons behind the circle of hate, on masculinities and the role of men, on the role of legislation and the police, as well as on supporting victims and the international efforts to address online gender-based violence.
The conference brought together a broad range of Nordic and international experts in the field of preventing online gender-based violence. I want to give my warmest thanks to Gender Equality and Inclusion Expert Elina Nikulainen for gathering these inspiring takeaways from the conference. I hope that the report will be used as a tool to create safer online environments for everyone.
Minister for Nordic Cooperation and Equality, Finland
This conference report presents the key take-aways from the 2-day conference Gender-based Hate, Threat and Harassment on the Internet that was held online on the 10th and 11th of June 2021 and organized by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Finland, under the Finnish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
The conference confirmed several facts and figures behind Gender-based Hate, Threat and Harassment. Women are subject to more online hate than men. Hate directed towards women focuses on their appearance or is often sexual harassment. Online hate is a threat to democracy. Online hate is mostly perpetrated by men.
Online hate may silence some voices in particular and all responses must be intersectional taking the diversity of women (and marginalized men) into consideration.
It was recommended that the term online violence should be used to describe the phenomenon and that online violence should be regarded as part of the continuum of violence against women. Online violence is gendered, yet legal responses are gender neutral and this may lead to unequal outcomes for women and gender diverse people.
The EU’s role as a leader was recognized: it has a great opportunity to define online violence and support its Member States into adopting harmonized laws that can help to tackle the cross-border challenges posed by online violence.
Violence prevention needs to take a gender transformative approach, which means three steps: understanding violence, challenging stereotypical gender norms and encouraging active bystander intervention. Multiple strategies can be used to combat violence: humor, art, peer support, feminist organizing, police interventions (such as net patrols, net tips, preventive discussions with NGOs), using AI in detecting hate speech, employing Facebook’s Hidden Words for Instagram and Women’s Safety Hub.
It seemed clear that a large part of hate speech is produced by a relatively small number of social media users, who are mostly men. This needs to be tackled better. We can also expect more from men. Both from their own behaviour and as active bystanders. Men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, time and emotional labor needs to be tackled as part of the solution to hate communities online.
There are multiple support services available and different initiatives provide promising practices such as specified chats, guidance for political organizations on how to prevent and respond to online violence and regional and municipal initiatives. The needs of marginalized women, such as women with disabilities and trans women, need to be mainstreamed in all support services.
There’s still a lot to do to end gender-based hate, threat and harassment on the internet, but a lot of things have gone forward in the past decade and there is hope that it is currently taken more seriously. Next steps are proper resources and more action.
In the early 10s there was little talk about gendered hate speech and online violence in Finland. There were some initiatives that were addressing hate speech, but they, just as Finnish legislation, were focused on the protected minority characteristics, not gender.
It’s taken a lot of time and effort from the Finnish feminist movement and Gender Equality activists to get to the point where having a conference focused on gender-based hate is possible. A conference that both acknowledges the gendered aspects of online hate and focuses on it and has the Minister for Equality and Nordic Co-operation of Finland, Thomas Blomqvist starting the conference reiterating Finland’s and the Nordic Council of Minister’s for Gender Equality and LGBTI commitment to ending it. It’s important to note and celebrate the efforts that have led to this moment.
The conference was organized in conjunction with the Finnish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers and represents strong co-operation in the Nordic region in the efforts to eradicate online hate.
The following attempts to represent some of the key take-aways from the 2-day conference.
What seemed clear from all the research presented throughout the conference was that women are subject to more online hate than men. For instance Lisa Kaati Deputy Research Director, from the Swedish Defence Research Agency, Tarja Mankkinen, Director, from the Ministry of the Interior, Finland, Tuija Saresma Senior Researcher, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, Josefine Jacobsson Senior Communications Officer, from the Swedish Gender Equality Agency and Anine Kierulf Associate Professor of Constitutional Law, from the University of Oslo, Norway presented different figures from different studies which had all come to the same conclusion. The only difference was on the specific number of how much more online hate women were subjected to. Furthermore, as mentioned by for instance Katri Viinikka, Ambassador for Gender Equality, from the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender-Based Violence in all its forms and makes looking at online abuse even more important.
The nature of the hate directed towards men and women also differs according to all the research presented. Hate directed towards women online was found more often to be insulting comments about their appearance, especially true for women who have a visible disability, or sexual harassment.
What was also clear was that online hate is mostly perpetrated by men.
Throughout the conference it was showcased that online hate may silence some voices in particular. According to Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter study, as referenced by Asha Allen of the European Women’s lobby, black women were 84% more likely than white women to experience abuse on Twitter. Young women are subjected to more severe abuse than older women as noted by a few speakers. Women with disabilities and transwomen face multiple discrimination and hate offline and online. Men with intersecting identities are also discriminated against and face online abuse. In some case, for instance for women with disabilities even authorities use hateful language and this makes seeking help for abuse harder.
Some of the speakers mentioned that while the internet has given a platform for many marginalized people to be heard and have an audience without traditional gatekeepers such as editors or other media decision makers, it has in addition enabled targeting women and minorities in an unprecedented scale.
It was underlined during the conference that state obligations to freedom of speech are not limited to non-censorship but also require the state to protect the diversity of voices so that no group is silenced by hate speech.
It was highlighted by multiple speakers, including Eva Biaudet, a member of the Finnish Parliament, that the time to take gendered online hate seriously is now. Studies indicate that gendered online hate influences who participates in politics and the public space. For instance in politics, online hate influences both recruitment and retainment: more people are choosing not to engage in politics due to harassment as was mentioned in Finland by political parties before the municipal elections and for instance in Sweden 20% of local politicians are thinking of leaving politics due to harassment. Violence has always been used to silence women and minorities, show them their place and exclude them from public spaces and from power. Biaudet talked about how norms are currently changing and that abusive people are often given a platform due to ideas of “false balance”. Online hate, Biaudet mentioned, is against Nordic values of inclusive societies.
According to Timo Huovinen, Head of Journalistic Standards and Ethics, of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), journalists are used to critical feedback and it is a part of their job. However, he also noted that critical feedback is different from hate speech. During the conference it was also discussed that there is a stigma particularly for journalists to sometimes recognize hate speech and to seek help for it. For this reason peer discussions between journalists, especially between those who have only been journalists in the social media age and those who know how things were before, was mentioned as a crucial peer support tool. One known impact of hate speech is self-censorship and this is particularly dangerous for journalists who are also the watchdogs of Democracy.
Online hate has currently expanded to not only public professions such as politicians and journalists, but also to civil servants, noted Tarja Mankkinen. In addition, it is directed against institutions. Shaming of institutions is a strategy used by some. This is for instance seen in the hate received by female judges, researchers and Gender Equality institutions. Online violence is furthermore linked to fake news and other ways to erode public trust in good governance and the welfare state.
The sentence “Online hate and violence is a threat to democracy” was repeated by multiple presenters during the conference and for instance the Angry Internet report takes this stance clearly. There seemed to be a consensus that repeating it continues to be needed and that the understanding should be followed by action and resources.
Despite the name of the conference, multiple speakers chose to call what happens online violence. Tuija Saresma, presented the suggestion of referring to Hate speech (her choice to call the topic of the conference) as gendered, digitally mediated violence. What is clear from the conference is that whatever we call the abuse happening online, it must be taken seriously as it has serious consequences. Just like physical violence.
Multiple speakers, including Asha Allen, reiterated, that online violence was part of the continuum of violence against women. It cannot be separated from the discrimination, harassment and violence women are subjected to offline. The root causes are the same, the consequences are the same and women who have experienced online violence very often also have experienced offline violence.
During one of the panels it was suggested that women take online abuse more seriously than men. When thinking about the consequences of online violence it is important to understand that online violence does not happen in a vacuum. All the violence, harassment and discrimination women and minorities have ever faced is present when facing online violence. Attempts to silence women, disregard their opinions or belittle their feelings are so common and experienced since girlhood, that it all adds up.
As Eva Biaudet mentioned, online violence is linked to the war on women’s bodies, as seen heightened currently for instance in some European countries. And with social media, the hatred can come closer to you as you might experience it in your normally safe space such as home. Lines are blurring between public and private spaces (but also otherwise) through social media and it can sometimes feel like there is nowhere to escape from the public harassment. It is also not a coincidence that privacy violations, such as doxing or non-consensual image sharing, are used to oppress women and gender diverse people and are among some of the most common forms of online violence.
María Rún Bjarnadóttir, Director for Internet Safety, from the Icelandic National Commissioner for Police and Moa Bladini, Doctor of Laws, Senior Lecturer, Sweden presented detailed comparative information on the situation of legislation in the Nordic Countries. One of the striking conclusions was that despite leading most if not all global rankings on Gender Equality none of the Nordic countries has legal protection against hate crimes based on gender. In Finland, legislative change is currently under construction.
A few of the presenters talked about this and noted that sometimes gender neutrality can lead to the law serving men, women and gender diverse people in different ways. Seemingly neutral formulations do not guarantee neutral implementation, as unconscious bias influences people’s judgement. Furthermore, as pointed out by Bjarnadóttir, laws are (currently still) made by people and reflect the history of power structures of society and patriarchy in general.
From Bjarnadóttir and Bladini’s presentation and from the panel of police officers later, it was shown that much more relevant legislation related to online violence currently exists in the Nordic countries than commonly perhaps known (see for instance Picture 2) but the response to online abuse women face is very fragmented: in criminal law it can be placed under defamation, sexual crimes, threats and in policy it can be categorized under threats to democracy, men’s violence against women or simply internet safety.
Picture 1 “Legal Protection Against Hate Crimes” From Bjarnadóttir and Bladini presentation
Picture 2 “Legal Protection against Sexual Violations of People’s Integrity” From Bjarnadóttir and Bladini presentation
Linnéa Claeson, a human rights activist and a Master’s in law, Sweden, shared an example of the challenges implementing existing laws: posting about Human Rights and receiving hundreds of threats within one hour. It would be impossible to report those to the police one by one.
Even though the webinar was a Nordic one, some of the speakers referred to EU and its important role in tackling online gender-based violence. Lack of consensus naming the violation and lack of a legal definition were mentioned as challenges everywhere in the EU and was experienced also throughout the conference. Asha Allen presented European Women’s Lobby’s (EWL), which is one of the leading women’s organizations advocating for legal change on the European level related to online violence, demands as follows:
Individual countries in Europe have been making new laws and there has been some progress. For instance in 2020, Belgium introduced a law against non-consensual image sharing. France introduced articles on the same topic into its criminal code as did Italy with law number 69. However, these laws do not go far enough according to the EWL and face the before mentioned challenges of Gender Neutrality. In addition, a good practice from Sweden was brought forward: extending responsibility to moderators allowing hate speech and not only perpetrators of hate speech.
The EU has a great opportunity to define online violence and support its Member States into adopting harmonized laws that can help to tackle the cross-border challenges posed by online violence. This is a moment in time for the EU to show true leadership, not only in Europe but also globally.
Anna Lindqvist, the Director of MÄN, Sweden, presented the organization’s Gender transformative approach to violence prevention which has three key components: Understand violence as a spectrum, challenge stereotypical gender norms which expect men both to use violence and to endure it and encourage active bystander intervention responding to violence in constructive ways. The Swedish initiative Locker Room Talk was mentioned as good practice in violence prevention in the conference. For ten years now MÄN has been doing comprehensive violence prevention work in Sweden, including online anonymous psycho-social support for men who have used or are at risk of using violence.
Jannicke Stav, Unit manager and specialist in clinical psychology, from the Alternative to Violence, Norway, presented about the importance of talking about violence in honest words and directly to children and its impact. Even though the word violence was not in the title of the conference, many of the speakers adopted it during the two days. Naming the incidence as violence can be a powerful tool to understand what has happened and is in line with the seriousness of the incident, also in prevention work.
During the conference, multiple strategies to combat online violence were presented. Thordis Elva Chair of Nordref, Iceland entertained the conference participants by showcasing her strategy of using humor to respond to trolls. Humor can be a great way to deal with harassment, if one has the energy and head space for it. Another common way to process feelings related to online hate, as was suggested, was art. Some speakers also mentioned online activism and trying to change online conversations to more positive tones from the start. Moreover, the amount of positive and negative comments in relation to each other matter.
Aura Salla, Public Policy Director, Head of EU Affairs, Facebook presented the Hidden Words initiative for Instagram, an app that helps you manually censor certain words you don’t want to see. Furthermore, she mentioned the Women’s Safety Hub Resource Center on Facebook which is now available for users.
Using Artificial Intelligence for detection of hate speech as presented by Laura Kettunen, Doctoral researcher, Helsinki University, Finland, can provide some support though detecting context is hard. Thordis Elva for instance mentioned the classic harassment used against feminists “make me a sandwich” (meaning go back to the kitchen, shut up) that without context can go undetected.
A panel of police officers discussed the role of the police in ending online violence and different initiatives and progress going on in the Nordic countries currently. An important topic that resonated with participants was Pål Tore Haga’s, Police Chief Superintendent, from the Western Police District, Norway, focus on police sensitivity and regaining the trust of women and minorities. Reporting violence, especially online violence, has sometimes been known to be retraumatizing due to police attitudes. Online violence, especially when it is targeted at women or minorities, is not often taken seriously. Daði Gunnarsson, Detective Chief Inspector, from the Metropolitan Police, Iceland presented the progress in Iceland: the police can take over domains, net patrols and preventive discussions in co-operation with NGOs (Norway). In Finland people have the opportunity to leave a net tip easily online to alert the police and in the hate crime report data is sex disaggregated, as presented by Måns Enqvist, Chief Superintendent, National Police Board of Finland.
It seems that a large part of hate speech is produced by a relatively small number of social media users. The Angry Internet report (2020) mentioned that it’s around 850 men in the Nordic countries that are responsible for the most hateful content on three social media platforms: Twitter, Reddit and 4Chan. Also, Lisa Kaati’s research had indication of the same phenomenon: around 10 users produced 20–30 percent of the hateful comments about journalists in one of the largest discussion forums in Sweden.
In the light of these numbers, it seems even more clear that social media platforms and other internet service provider companies must take responsibility for the safety of online spaces more seriously. Removing the perpetrators – permanently if need be – must be an actively used response to reports.
The first afternoon of the conference and throughout the two days, men’s role in ending online violence against women was discussed. Men can do so much better, as Anna Lindqvist mentioned. Men can take more responsibility over their own and their friends’ actions. Christian Mogesen, Specialist Consultant, from the Centre for Digital Youth Care, Denmark, and the co-author of The Angry Internet report, mentioned that individual men do not think as conservatively, but in groups conservatism increases. Nitin Sood, Founding Member of anti-racist organization Fem-R and feminist men’s organization Miehet ry, Finland talked about the importance of relatable role models to men: white heterosexual cis men are also needed to champion Gender Equality for their peers. Sad as it may be, they will be considered more objective by their peers and can more effectively reach them.
Norms around masculinity and power were also discussed at length and Mogesen mentioned how men control each other’s behaviour: “We do the toxic masculinity to each other”. People in general will choose being part of a social group over their own moral values as “sociality trumps morality” and they have a strong need to belong which are other reasons why men themselves must work hard to build more progressive communities for themselves that are based on respect for diversity, women’s and minority rights.
In addition, the conference speakers discussed the important role of fathers as caregivers, not just providers for the family. There are a lot of things that need to be changed in especially how boys are brought up, for example that systematic life skills and anti-violence education should be embedded in schools. Asking for help should be a sign of strength, also to men, and it is behaviour that can be learned. Lindqvist reiterated that no man or boy is born violent and that violence is preventable.
For every man using the internet the question must be asked: What can you do to change the online space you occupy into a safe space for everyone?
The Angry Internet report as presented by Stine Helding Rand, Psychologist, from the Centre for Digital Youth Care, Denmark, showed the participants what drives many to online hate is actually sadness rather than anger. What could be inferred from the report findings and subsequent conversations was that the men’s sense of entitlement was partly what brings them to bitterness and radicalization. The big challenge remains: how can positive approaches be created for these men fulfilling their need to be heard and belong without strengthening their sense of entitlement.
Even if the Nordic Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) or other Nordic men actively participating in online misogynistic hate were not planning attacks and murder, like for instance the Incel murders of Toronto in 2018, there’s no doubt that the misogyny they spread leads to sexualized violence, as women and their bodies are seen and openly propagated as men’s property. It is important to remember this when discussing the physical danger the men from hate-filled communities pose. Immediate threats are not the only cause or indication of violence, including intimate partner violence or rape, globally very common forms of violence experienced by women.
One of the big questions to remember is to keep public discussions and approaches on Gender-based online violence survivor-centered, even if individual initiatives focus on working with perpetrators. At the heart of all work on anti-violence need to be the rights of the victims.
The consequences of online violence on a personal level are multiple. Biaudet for instance talked about shame and the violated integrity of bodies. Asha Allen talked about the range of traumatic effects such as insomnia, anxiety and physical pain.
A panel during the second day was dedicated to supporting the victims of online violence and the speakers presented the conference multiple initiatives and concrete ideas.
Saara-Sofia Sirén, Finnish Member of Parliament and Chair of NYTKIS ry – the coalition of all political parties Women’s organizations – presented their campaign #VaalitIlmanVihaa which focuses on getting all the political parties to do their election campaigns without any hate speech. The campaign has also provided guidance to women experiencing online violence and recommendations for all political organizations, such as have specific guidance on the prevention and response to online violence and identifying a responsible person to contact in an event of violence.
FOJO Media Institute’s Hanna Andersson, Project Manager, presented their work building bridges between journalists and police. Many of the speakers expressed having had challenges with the police. It’s been clear that in none of the Nordic countries police has been able to take online threats seriously. Part of the solution to online violence must be the sensitization of the police.
Women’s Line in Finland has been working on a project called Turv@verkko (Safety net) since 2018. The project led by Louna Hakkarainen, Project Manager, Women’s Line, has both produced data on the experiences of women who have in particular experienced tech-facilitated intimate partner violence and develop specialized support services (such as chat and peer support groups) for women victims of online violence. Even though online violence is part of the continuum of violence against women, specific capacity is required to support the needs of victims of online violence. A specialized service also helps to name the experience violence.
The discussion on online violence is very relevant to women with disabilities who are often active online as illustrated clearly by Sanni Purhonen, Communications officer, Kynnys ry, Finland. Women with disabilities should not be invisible or unheard in the initiatives and discussions related to the response to and prevention of online abuse. All support services from shelters to chats needs to be accessible (e.g. sign language, plain language, ramps) and use language that is not ableist. Furthermore, collecting data specifically on the experiences of women with disabilities of online violence is crucial in ending the online violence against all women.
Specific support is also needed for transwomen, as highlighted by Susanna Viljanmaa, Secretary, Transfeminiinit ry, Finland. For instance, misgendering trans women – online or offline – is something that should never happen when supporting trans women who are victims of violence or when reporting about such abuse. Transfeminiinit ry has good experiences of anonymous online peer support groups: anonymity may help lower the threshold of help-seeking behaviour for transwomen.
Hanne Bjurstrøm, Gender Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud, presented a good initiative in Norway which has been regional ombuds who provide support for survivors and their parents. Regional and municipal level work, such as FOJO’s work brining local politicians and journalists together to discuss how to improve the debate culture of local politics, are needed despite the ungeographical nature of online abuse.
Conference day 1
Conference day 2
Key Takeaways from the Conference “Gender-based Hate, Threat and Harassment on the Internet” on 10 - 11 June 2021
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