25 January 2022

Democracy is based on participation. Voting is the first step, but no democratic system can function properly without candidates participating in elections and, when elected, assuming public office. Politics needs politicians, just as any other profession or calling needs practitioners. 

Open criticism and debate are a natural part of the political process, and politicians are used to being in the public eye and under scrutiny. However, public discourse, especially on social media, can be harsh, abusive and hateful at times. Online harassment can reach industrial proportions. It is also far from gender-neutral. 

A recent study titled Abuse of Power: Coordinated Online Harassment of Finnish Government Ministers, published by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence based in Riga, Latvia, found that government ministers in Finland face coordinated online harassment. I consider the report recommended reading for anyone interested in or dealing with the problem of online abuse. 

The Government of Prime Minister Sanna Marin, appointed in 2019, is unique: it is a coalition comprising five parties, all led by women. This Government—composed of 19 ministers, 11 of whom are women—is gender-balanced.

The report examined how the coalition cabinet ministers were being discussed on Twitter. It found that the overwhelming majority of abusive messages targeted women ministers. In fact, women ministers received about 10 times the volume of such messages as their male counterparts. One could argue that politicians in general attract a great deal of criticism, but the disproportionate number of abusive messages targeting women ministers is colossal.

The same abusive attention is reflected in a 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) report, which also showed that women in politics are targeted for harassment because of their gender. Such harassment can involve sexist abuse and threats of sexual violence. Its ultimate aim is to discourage women from participating in politics.

Interviews with and studies of women politicians in Finland have shown that this happens all too often. Women limit their own political ambitions and even leave politics altogether. The hostility they experience can dissuade them from even running for public office in the first place.

Cover of the report "Abuse of Power: Coordinated Online Harassment of Finnish Government Ministers". Designed by Kristina Van Sant, Rolf Fredheim and  Gundars Bergmanis-Korāts.

More gender-equal participation in politics and public life is an important goal that is well reflected in United Nations policy. An inclusive political system produces more inclusive results. Equality leads to good politics. True democracy cannot be achieved without the whole population being equally represented. As the study of the online harassment of Finnish ministers points out, we must be mindful of the hostile environment and harmful dynamic facing women politicians, who are targeted and abused in social media because of their gender. They bear an additional burden, which in its worst cases pushes women away from politics altogether. 

What can we do? Is abuse and harassment on social platforms just something we have to live with? I would like to think that there are effective ways to change this situation. 

Part of the solution in curbing online harassment is to hold social media platforms more accountable for the content they host. Things are moving in this direction, with social media companies starting to take action. The kinds of actions they can take are not easily defined, and difficult questions can arise in determining what measures will be effective and appropriate. For instance, where does one draw the line between protection from harassment and freedom of expression?

Language can also be a barrier. Identifying hate speech and harassment in all their linguistic diversity can be a challenge for even the best-intentioned and equipped moderator, and the most capable artificial intelligence tools.

Fundamentally, the whole dynamic needs to be reversed. We need to move away from the current situation in which the victims of hate speech themselves have to take action by reporting abusive comments, and compel would-be perpetrators to take responsibility and rethink posting abusive remarks. Ultimately, social media platforms must stop publishing such messages. 

Another potential tool for combating online harassment is legislation. In Europe, codes of conduct for social media platforms, aimed at countering hate speech, are already in place. The European Union is now proposing laws that would better define the responsibilities of its member nations and hold social media platforms accountable. In Finland, legislation has been proposed to classify hate speech and harassment based on gender as aggravating circumstances in sentencing. Another practical step was to make illegal threats to public officials subject to public prosecution instead of leaving victims to seek justice from the courts as private complainants. 

Jukka Salovaara, Permanent Representative of Finland to the United Nations, co-chairs the first meeting of the Group of Friends on Digital Technologies. United Nations, New York, 21 November 2019. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Legislative means for controlling online harassment naturally require a strong rule of law system that also protects freedom of speech. The United Nations has a vital role to play in this area. For example, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) launched the Generation Equality initiative, bringing together diverse action coalitions focusing on ways to make progress on gender equality. Finland is co-leading the Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation, which includes major technology companies and social media platforms that are committed to curbing gender-based hate speech online. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is also working to prevent the harassment of children online. There are many other good examples—progress is being made.

Only through collective action between governments, the private sector and civil society can we achieve a future where people can discuss societal issues online free of abuse, regardless of their gender. Social media has provided unprecedented opportunities for more accessible public discussion, but in practice, it has come with the high price of less accountability and an unacceptable degree of impunity for purveyors of hate speech.

Keeping democracy vibrant and serving society as a whole should be our common goal. Ensuring safe spaces for discussion that are inclusive and free of gender-based harassment is an essential step.

 

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