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Can the law handle online hate?

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Online hate is a growing problem that impacts both public debate and our private lives. But what can the law do – are we ready to meet the challenges? Researcher Moa Bladini sees troubled times ahead and a need for updated legislation.

In 2015, the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) conducted a survey of online hate against private individuals. It showed that of all the police reports received, only four per cent took the matter as far as to decide whether to press charges.

“There are several reasons for this: one is a lack of evidence; that the perpetrator is too young or that it is difficult to classify the crime. Naturally, this says something about the need to review legislation in this area,” says Moa Bladini.

Sweden lags behind

One common example of online hate is “non consensual pornography”, where sexual images of young women are spread over the internet without their consent. From a legal perspective, this is a relatively new phenomenon that did not exist when legislation was set.

“Our legislation does not take such situations into account, and that makes things complicated. There will always be a certain extent of sluggishness in the system, however in this instance, Sweden lags behind its Nordic neighbours. Legislation in Norway, Finland and Denmark is more up-to-date, however there is a certain amount of uncertainty concerning its application. A good thing though: suggestions have been made for a new provision, so this may soon change,” says Moa Bladini.

Risk that voices will fall silent

There are several problem areas linked to online hate . One of which is what, at the end of the day, can be heard in public debate.

“Penal law in this area is limited, as we have such fundamental protection for freedom of speech and expression; the idea is that everyone has the opportunity to make their voices heard. Yet this may have the opposite effect and may silence some opinions. A person who enters the debate, particularly if it is about integration, immigration and gender equality inevitably falls foul of hate, threats and harassment, and the hate aimed towards women is tied to the person rather than the profession. This could lead to increasing numbers of female voices falling silent,” says Moa Bladini.


About Moa Bladini

Holds a PhD in Law, specializing in criminal law and criminal procedure law. Researches on the concept of truth, objectivity ideals and legitimizing strategies in judicial operations and law and emotions. Regularly conducts lectures for Sweden's judges about the challenge of understanding and interpreting personal objectivity. NiKK (Nordic Information on Gender) and the Nordic Council of Ministers commissioned the report on online hate speech.