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‘Hate Speech Scares Women Away from the Public Debate’

The sexism in everyday life and internet-based harassment is receiving attention at the Nordic level. If women are scared away from participating in the public debate, society has a democracy problem, says Kira Appel, chair of the Nordic Committee of Senior Officials for Gender Equality.


‘More opportunities to express views and opinions, also anonymously, is good for democracy. The flip side of the coin is that we’re also seeing more hate speech, threats and harassment.’ says Kira Appel, chair of the Nordic Committee of Senior Officials for Gender Equality. Photo: Private.
 ‘More opportunities to express views and opinions, also anonymously, is good for democracy. The flip side of the coin is that we’re also seeing more hate speech, threats and harassment.’ says Kira Appel, chair of the Nordic Committee of Senior Officials for Gender Equality. Photo: Private.

Women are disproportionally affected by sexist comments and hate speech in the public debate, says Kira Appel.
‘This seems to be a growing problem both nationally and globally, including in the Nordic countries. Men are criticised for what they say, while women, regardless of what the debate is about, are often harassed because they are women. There is a huge difference.’

At a meeting in May, all Nordic gender equality ministers expressed deep concern about the development. Denmark, the country currently holding the presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, was asked to arrange a seminar on everyday sexism and internet harassment later this year.

The seminar is part of the Nordic cooperation programme on gender and gender equality in the public space. The objective is to point out best practice and give practical recommendations to relevant Nordic actors.

Appel hopes that the causes and effects of sexism in everyday life will be unveiled.
‘Studies on stalking show that harassed women often become fearful and withdrawn and may even change their behaviour. If women are scared away from participating in public arenas and in the public debate, society has an important democracy problem.’

Unique Nordic report

 ‘The police must signal that they take internet harassment seriously. We also need to add some nuance to the image of the perpetrators,’ says Helga Eggebø, senior advisor at the KUN centre for gender equality in Norway. Photo: Karoline O. Pettersen
 ‘The police must signal that they take internet harassment seriously. We also need to add some nuance to the image of the perpetrators,’ says Helga Eggebø, senior advisor at the KUN centre for gender equality in Norway. Photo: Karoline O. Pettersen

In 2013, the Nordic Council of Ministers published the first ever report to address antifeminism and right-wing extremism, including online, in a Nordic context. The list of concrete measures is based on the input from 25 experts (see infobox).

Helga Eggebø, senior adviser at the KUN centre for gender equality in Norway, is currently analysing the results of a new study on experiences of interned-based harassment. She points out that the victims are not limited to individuals active in the public debate.
‘Electronic violence has become part of the violence in close relationships. Today people tend to stay connected and therefore accessible 24/7, making it increasingly difficult to resist attacks.’

Women are often harassed because they are women, but also men are attacked on the basis of personal factors, such as sexuality.
‘Somebody might say you’re crazy or that you don’t have a right to express your views due to your age or position. Or somebody might say they know where you live or where they can find you.’

Whose freedom of speech?

The issue of freedom of speech poses a challenge to the work against hate and sexism in the public debate.

Appel sees the increased number of channels where more voices can be heard as a positive development.
‘More opportunities to express views and opinions, also anonymously, is good for democracy. The flip side of the coin is that we’re also seeing more hate speech, threats and harassment.’

Eggebø refers to US research showing that the freedom of speech has become a rhetorical weapon: Feminists opposing something somebody says or does are often accused of trying to limit other people’s freedom of speech.
‘You think there’s consensus about who’s attacking and who’s attacked, but there’s a conflict. Both sides can feel attacked. There’s no agreement on how the situation should be defined.’

Ombudsperson calling for action plan

In a report presented in April, Sunniva Ørstavik, gender equality and discrimination ombudsperson in Norway, called for a comprehensive national action plan against expressions of hate. She wants to combat both legal and illegal hate speech, for example through research and preventive work in schools, measures she says will not limit people’s freedom of speech.
‘Internet trolls are generally perceived as pathetic loners,’ says Eggebø.

‘This image can serve as a coping mechanism, but is not always true. We have interviewed victims who have been able to identify the perpetrators, and according to them they can be totally normal people.’

Latest updated 2 May 2020