Sunday, 29 May 2011

"Let them hang" - How the digital racist fringe transformed Finland

An excellent and insightful opinion piece by Taneli Heikka.

"Why the hell can't we get some rule of the law enforced against this immigrant scum? Let them hang.", reads a comment on a news story, on the website of one of the most prestigious economic journals in Finland. The open discussion thread has a topic "HIV infected nigger rapes underage girl."

"Let them hang" is a fairly typical example of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been on the rise on Finnish internet discussion forums. Demands of violent opposition to perceived enemies are common. There is a virtual call for a lynch mob, to enforce the supposed "law of the land". A final solution for the immigrant question.

Racism is nothing new in Finland. What's new is the boldness and determination of the new generation of racists. Their path from blogging and internet forums to the Finnish Parliament took them only a couple of year. What happened? What should be done?

A few years ago racists were a marginal and incoherent group consisting of individual hate writers like Jussi Halla-aho. Web 2.0 seems to have brought an unnerving development. It made possible for the racist fringe to network socially and organise itself into a coherent and powerful group.

The online battlefied where racism was redefined for the new era was in the social media. Discussion forums, blogs, news commentaries all were put into effective use. Jussi Halla-aho's blog, the formerly active Suomen Sisu discussion forum and the Homma-forum were used as a combined command centre and a think tank. Cadres of internet hate writers crawled the discussion forums and news comments with a sense of purpose. A news story about an immigrant gets reported on the racist forums, and an attack begins following a simple tactic, which more or less has three steps:

1. The news article in question is not a separate, individual incident. It is part of an ongoing trend of failed multiculturalism and failed integration of (black african) immigrants. Example:
"In Oulu immigrants who committed an aggravated rape, slashing their 30 year old victim in an unusually cruel way in 2006 have been free to roam the streets for a couple of years now. Our friend Abdigadir has been let off the hook already. Why keep such a nice fellow in jail anyway..." (provincial paper KL, 9.2.2011)
2. The news article is a part of a wider leftist-green multicultural conspiracy and/or hegemony. Example:
 "The pollyannas of the immigration business are purposely importing useless African scum to justify their own continued employment" (provincial paper KL, 9.2.2011)
 3. Islamisation / cultural decay is an inevitable result of multiculturalism and immigration, and Finnish culture and laws are in grave danger. Example:
"I wonder if there is a conspiracy more devious and efficient than the current drive to ban words used in discussion? One needs to fight attacks on freedom of speech like these, otherwise the word "nigger" will not be the last victim here." (provincial paper KL, 9.2.2011)
Incredibly, this tactic has proved immensely effective. This is not a sophisticated form of discussion, but then again that is not the purpose here. The aim is to agitate, propagandise and instigate. An outside observer gets the impression that there needs to necessarily be a huge multiculturalist conspiracy at work, after all why would all these people rage against one if there wasn't? The intense provocation leads inevitably to a long discussion, and dispersing some facts and figures into the mix creates a surprisingly persuasive illusion of a serious movement, with compelling arguments.

This is how the whole vocabulary in the Finnish immigration debate was twisted and corrupted little by little by the internet racist fringe. Anti-immigrationists became "immigration-critical". Discussions in the social media quickly picked up this new self-labelling without much opposition. The anti-immigrationists then denied others the right to call them racist. Just like that, everyone else went along with this. Even a few years ago it was clear to pretty much everyone what was racist and what was not. Value-judgements on people based on their ethnic background used to be accepted as universally racist. This is commonplace now. A key triumph of the Finnish anti-immigrationist internet posters is that it is no longer acceptable to call a racist a racist.

Nazist analogies or outright glorification of the Third Reich runs rampant in the Finnish immigration debate. However, one is no longer allowed to use the word Nazi, because Godwin's law has been raised to the status of an infallible natural law, right alongside such things as logic and burden of proof. In this ridiculous atmosphere, calling someone out for praising Adolf Hitler is shameful not for the person praising Hitler, but for the person who dared to call someone out for it. There are now calls for violent hate speech, "let them hang" et cetera, to be understood as a natural defensive reaction to violent immigrants - Finland is under threat, extreme measures and tough speech is called for.

The Finnish media and politicians have also adopted the rules of engagement dictated by the racist fringe - a fate that Sweden has luckily avoided. By the elections, the two percent immigrant population was perceived as a grave threat to the 98% Finnish majority: "let's put immigration into a headlock", "we must stop benefit thieving immigrants" were no longer just texts in a racist blog somewhere on the internet, they were used by mainstream parliamentary candidates. Imagery of violence and extreme language in general became an accepted part of immigration debate.

Conspiracy theories can never be disproven, making them very useful for people who dislike actual debate. Nobody can disprove the existence of a shadowy business of immigration, designed to benefit conveniently anonymous bureaucrats. Perhaps someone in Helsinki will hear the call to prayer from a nearby minaret in the 2200s? Cannot disprove that. One would expect the journalists, researchers and opinion writers to have enough backbone so as to not allow one extreme of opinion make itself into the accepted consensus.

The Finnish immigration debate formed its consensus on the social media. This came as a surprise to most. The anti-immigrationists dictated the rules of engagement on their own turf, and in the newspapers. Journalists accepted the vocabulary of the new racist fringe, because they were under the mistaken impression that this vocal minority was the voice of the people. It was not, and is not, but the journalists don't actually take part in discussions in the social media and are unfamiliar with its norms and practices. They thus easily fall prey to the anti-immigrationist tactics mentioned above.

Lots of journalists are still under the impression there is no organised racist fringe operating on the internet. They think it is a coincidence Finland has several MPs with a background in either the Homma-forum or the neo-fascist Suomen Sisu. To put their influence into perspective, the Finnish parliament has elected three members from the wealthy entrepreneurs' lobbying group, and seven declared anti-immigrationists.

These single-issue anti-immigrationists were vetted online during a perioid of several months. This digital operation was completely ignored or missed by the media.

I believe the parliamentary elections 2011 showed the power of systematic online organisation of a single-minded group. It was a coup made possible by the traditional mainstream media allowing them to completely dictate the terms of engagement. There was no mainstream media presence at all on the social media.

Liberal forces need to get into the discussion. The time for non-commitment is over. Journalistic guide lines that call for disengagement in the social media are outdated and even dangerous to democracy. The recent decision by Finnish researchers to publish their writings anonymously due to pressure from the racist fringe is understandable but wrong. It is nearly impossible to engage a racist into honest discussion, but that is no reason to give up the fight. The state provides education with public funds for the express reason of having people discuss their areas of expertise in the public forum.

The social media, virtual and intangible as it might seem is a budding virtual world that is going to have an impact on the future path of society. This impact is not going to lessen in the foreseeable future. For the moment the internet is a two dimentional artificial reality, but it is quickly on the path to becoming more real than reality itself. We cannot allow it to become a playground of anti-liberal forces. Whoever values our system of equality, liberty and mutual brotherhood needs to speak up now, rather than risk forever falling to the margins of change.

Taneli Heikka