In an Akava Works survey, a fifth of researchers stated they had received targeted harassment online. Unusually, researcher Karin Creutz has engaged in conversations with hate mail senders but does not recommend it to everyone.
University of Helsinki researcher Karin Creutz was already told she was ‘an enemy within Finland’ twenty years ago. Creutz has studied sensitive subjects such as immigration, extremist organisations, and extremism in general. Near the start of the 2000s, she ended up on an online list which stated in a threatening manner that her contact information was public — in case ‘someone wants to do something’.
During the 2015 refugee crisis, Creutz was flooded by angry and threatening emails, calls, and social media messages after every appearance. Creutz has chosen an atypical approach — she has begun to converse with the people sending her hate mail.
“I became interested in understanding why people are prepared to go out there under their own name and threaten someone they don’t even know, using language that could have legal repercussions.”
She still remembers the first extremely intense message. The writer wished Creutz would be raped and if she had children, they would too.
“I asked them if they understood how sick that sounded. They responded with ’sry’ (sorry) and talked about their own wellbeing in a less than coherent manner.”
Creutz has conversed with dozens of people. Usually, the worst hate already subsides after the response. Later, she has done field work with certain hate mail senders.
Creutz has not been afraid. On occasion, she and her supervisor have determined the writer’s behaviour has seemed concerning. Creutz has been driven by her research interests. She emphatically points out that replying to such messages is not a good solution for everyone and absolutely does not suggest everyone to do what she does.
“My position is different from people who are targeted by hate campaigns due to their national or religious background or because they are racialised researchers or part of gender or sexual minority groups. People do not need to carry any responsibility whatsoever for hate aimed towards them.”
Grant-funded researchers also need support
Many researchers have experienced distress over harassment they have experienced, which easily escalates in the social media age. In recent years, the concept of targeted harassment has entered the conversation. This refers to the act where someone, either by themselves or by mobilising others, begins organised harassment of a target. This may happen through social media abuse, threats, or sharing private information.
In a survey conducted in the spring by Akava Works, a fifth of university employees stated they had experienced targeted harassment. When interpreting this data, it should be noted that people who had experienced targeted harassment may have been more likely to respond to the survey. The term “targeted harassment” could also be construed in different ways.
Mia Weckman, the Director of Advocacy of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, is concerned by the apparent fact 44 percent of FUURT members that have experienced targeted harassment say they told their employer, who then did nothing about the problem. 24 percent say their employer had taken action. In terms of Finnish Union of University Professors members, these percentages were 25 and 13 percent respectively.
“At the universities, guidance for harassment situations is rather lacking and focuses on matters between employees and students and employees.”
Weckman believes employers should devise a strategy to tackle external abuse and targeted harassment. When such problems arise, the employee should contact their employer, shop steward, or occupational health care services. The most important thing is not to be left alone.
“Document all contact: print the emails, screencap the messages. Even if you aren’t planning to take the matter forward, you can’t know how the harassment might escalate.”
The employer can also notify the police of any threat directed towards their employee because of their work. Weckman points out grant-funded researchers also need the university’s support.
Varying views on criminalisation
Akava and FUURT see targeted harassment as a threat to the rule of law. Approximately two out of three FUURT and Union of University Professors respondents either fully or partially agreed that participation in targeted harassment should be punished by law.
“Even though there are provisions related to this in the Criminal Code of Finland, they are not used to an appropriate extent. If targeted harassment had been defined as illegal, that would remove ambiguity from the situation and the harmful effects of targeted harassment could be mitigated”, Weckman says.
Jukka Heikkilä, Chair of the Board of the Finnish Union of University Professors, is doubtful about the effects of criminalisation. In some cases, a police investigation and a courtroom may be disproportionate responses, while in other cases taking legal action is difficult. According to Heikkilä, harassment towards researchers often stems from inappropriate bickering of ‘bubble communities’. Truly organised acts such as email flooding or denial of service attacks may originate from abroad or there may be so many participants that the courts are powerless against them all.
“If you experience targeted harassment, you should contact occupational safety and health services. Together, you can contact the opposite side and tell them, ‘Hey, you’re trying to interfere with my work.’ If talking does not help, the current legal methods such as taking legal action against illegal threats or defamation may be enough. Threats of violence are police business.”
Silencing researchers is concerning
Mia Weckman of FUURT says it is harmful to society if researchers begin to avoid certain research topics or public appearances.
“The problem is not just how many experience harassment or get targeted, but also how many are afraid of experiencing it.”
Researcher Karin Creutz believes researchers should be offered training on how to handle harassment. In addition to fear, becoming a target of hate can create a feeling of shame. Creutz understands why some of her colleagues have reduced their public appearances. However, she herself has never skipped an interview because of fear.
“However, I haven’t wanted to see my interviews afterwards. It’s difficult for me not to see them through the kind of eyes some people see my appearances through”, says Creutz.
Text: Terhi Hautamäki
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro
English translation: Marko Saajanaho