Hate speech, threats and sexism on the internet is a widespread yet largely unexplored problem. What does the situation look like in the Nordic region? How can it be dealt with? These questions were discussed at the seminar hosted by the Nordic Council of Ministers, which drew about 60 participants from the Nordic and Baltic regions. Emma Holten, Danish lecturer and gender equality activist, served on the expert panel. She says we must stop viewing the internet and reality as two separate arenas.
‘The struggle against online hate speech has to become more integrated. The whole approach has to change. We need to develop training on internet rights, and we have to link these rights to other rights people have outside the internet,’ she says.
One issue discussed at the expert seminar was legislation regarding online hate speech in the Nordic countries. It became clear that the national legislations need to be upgraded. Holten believes that the Nordic countries have a good potential to become leaders in the area.
‘Governments can regulate the sale of alcohol and should be able to do the same thing with pornography. There should be a license for providers of harmful material.’
The research presented at the conference shows that women are more likely than men to become targets of hate speech of sexual or sexist nature, and young women and girls are particularly vulnerable. Holten thinks this may be a reason not much is being done to combat the problem.
‘I think the debate would be very different if the primary victims were white, middle-aged men.’
Important with an intersectional perspective
Several good examples of what the work against online hate speech and sexism looks like in the Nordic countries were presented at the seminar. Ingrid Aspelund is active in the Norwegian variant of the No Hate Speech Movement, which is a European campaign encouraging young people to act via social media for example by taking over and turning hate campaigns around in comment fields.
‘If somebody sees a hateful comment online, he or she can go to our Facebook page and ask us about a good way to deal with it. Then we figure out a good strategy and implement it together,’ says Aspelund.
She says that the project has drawn a lot of attention in Norway and has managed to put the issue on the agenda. Trainings for actors already involved in work related to gender equality and racism have also been arranged.
‘It is important to make these organisations aware of what’s going on online, so they can integrate what they learn in their own work,’ says Aspelund.
She also emphasises the importance of applying an intersectional perspective in the discussion on hate speech and sexism on the internet. The Norwegian campaign has for example shed light on online hate speech targeting individual with disabilities.
‘The intersectional perspective is essential in my opinion. It’s a complex world. A woman with a migrant background gets treated differently online than a white woman like me.’
New form of violence against women
Icelandic author and activist Thordis Elva Thorvaldsdottir was also part of the expert panel at the seminar. In her home country, she is known for her work against so-called revenge pornography. Revenge pornography occurs when nude pictures and videos of women are spread on the internet without the exposed person´s consent. The perpetrators are often ex-boyfriends who want to discredit their ex-girlfriends, but images that are spread can also be the result of hacking, extortion or falsified images made in photoshop. Thorvaldsdottir points to the importance of understanding who is to blame in cases of revenge porn.
‘It is not unusual for young people to send nude pictures as a way of flirting with each other. Since adults don’t understand this, they often think the women are at fault and wonder why they have taken the pictures. But it is the men who should be held responsible for spreading the pictures without the women’s consent.’
Thorvaldsdottir has written a book about gender-related violence in Iceland. She says that the public undressing of women is the new generation’s version of the violence, and likens it to pulling down a woman’s trousers in the street – with the difference being that a very large number of people can look at the woman’s naked body online for a very long time.
‘I think it’s important to address these issues in school, as part of sex ed. Today in school they talk about using condoms, but a safe sex life on the internet seems to require totally different measures, like a virtual condom,’ she says.
Conclusions will lead to action
The expert seminar against online hate speech was arranged by Denmark, which currently holds the presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The conclusions of the event will be compiled in a report, which in turn will inform decisions in the Council of Ministers regarding joint Nordic measures. Kira Appel, Chairman of the Ministers’ Committee of Senior Officials, believes that the conference shows that the Nordic countries share similar challenges.
– It is clear that there are good opportunities to use and benefit from each other’s specific experiences and projects across the Nordic region. We must build on the work already done. The Nordic exchange of knowledge is crucial for future actions, says Kira Appel.