Harassment in Cyber Space

The World Wide Web is perhaps the largest network of resources known to man. It is a veritable playground, with few rules governing its use. Unfortunately, this atmosphere has made it extremely difficult to protect oneself from those who intend harm. Internet harassment and in particular hate email is of constant agony for many victims. Luckily there are laws that one can call upon, but when the bullying or outright threats are anonymous, it is extremely difficult to trace the culprit.

Cyberbullying, net hate, harassing on the Internet… The phenomenon has many names. It can be defined as actions that use information and communication technologies to support deliberate and repeated hostile behaviour by individuals or groups intended to intimidate, control, manipulate, falsely discredit, humiliate or threaten another person. The channels are web pages, discussion groups as well as SMS text messages sent with the intention of harming and scaring the recipients. Targets for net hate are minority groups, public figures like royalty, politicians, journalists, actors, musicians and athletes.

Researchers make a distinction between ‘flame mail’ and hate mail. Flame mail is an email whose contents are aimed to inflame and enrage. Hate mail is pure hatred including prejudice, hypocrisy, racism, sexism etc. in an email. The profiles of serial bullies are defined as attention seekers, wannabes, gurus and sociopaths.

The press has taken up many flagrant recent examples of net hate against public figures. The web version of Radio Sweden of 7 February 2013 under the headline “Swedish women break the silence on net hate” told that female journalists, opinion makers and bloggers have spoken out about the vitriol they face on the web with hate mail, death threats and insults published in comment fields, social media platforms and private emails. Much of the online is misogynist with sexual harassment threats.  Åsa Linderborg, culture editor at the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, told Swedish Radio that she does not believe it is possible to stop the abuse. “On the other hand I think we can have a debate about how civilized we want society to be” she said “Is it right to threaten women with rape or to wish that they will die simply because they express an opinion you do not share?”

One of the reasons for the explosion of hatred and political bullying on the net is the rise of populist and nationalistic extremism like Sverige Demokraterna in Sweden and the (True) Finns party in Finland. Prime targets for these extreme movements are ethnic and language minorities as well as sexual minorities. Also in Finland, women who participate in debates and appear in the media are receiving death and rape threats from anonymous sources. Finnish Broadcasting Company  journalist Bettina Sågbom and the Managing Editor Paula Salovaara of Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat have received death threat messages from anonymous sources because they defend the status of the Swedish language in Finland. Both have received these threats from an address associated with the anonymous Tor network, and thus the identity of the sender is extremely difficult to trace. Anyhow, the police are now looking into the matter, which they would not have done had the victims not decided to ‘go public’.

The worldwide economic crisis is also an important reason for the rise of net bullying and net hate. Unemployed young people air their frustration, envy and rage on the Internet. The language in the messages is becoming more abusive and gross. I have seen some hate mails directed to Spanish royalty and politicians, and they are among the most insulting texts I have ever read.

There are many non-profit organizations in the world that fight cyberbullying and net hate, advising victims and reporting offences to the police. The police are trying to find new ways to fight these abuses while the culprits are very resourceful and inventive. It now seems like a no win situation.

Marianne Lindahl

Born in Helsinki, Finland, many decades ago and a resident in Almuñécar since 2001. I have a M.Sc in Economics and Business Administration and an Authorized Translator´s exam. Prior to this I studied art in Helsinki and Paris. After a career in business I started painting again, (oil, impressionist with a touch of naivism)and have participated in many exhibitions in Spain and Finland. I am active in Asociacion Hispano-Nordica in Almuñécar, a meeting point for people from Sweden, Norway and Finland. I am married, with 3 children and 9 grandchildren. Hobbies: Cats, golf, trecking, jazz.