Fighting online hate speech in Malmö, Sweden

Everyone should be able to navigate safely online and join the debate. That is the goal of a new effort against hate speech that Malmö's city council has put in place.

Black outlines. The Øresund Bridge, the Turning Torso, the Hyllie water tower.

- Yes, it's somewhat dystopian, says Fanny Palm with slight laughter, referring to the profile of Malmö's skyline in silhouette against the sunset in the background template in the video interview. Fanny is social media editor in Malmö municipality. 

The subject of the interview we are about to carry out is also somewhat dystopian: Hate speech in the public debate online.

In the end, there's not much to laugh about. For some people, being online can be very unpleasant. And according to Fanny, much greater attention is needed around this.

- There is quite a lot of ignorance in organisations among managers and those who do not use social media daily. They don't know what the discussions look like online.

Hate speech mapped with artificial intelligence

As social media editor in a city that has been at the centre of a series of riots in recent years, she has considerable hands-on insight into the eye of the hurricane in public debate online.

Her experiences have just been backed by evidence. As part of the project Nordic Safe Cities, of which the city is a part, Malmö's city council has used artificial intelligence to analyze 255,000 comments on Facebook and the Swedish internet forum Flashback from January 2019 to February 2022. Seventeen thousand of the comments were hateful.

Illustration: The report ‘Tryg & Sikker Digital Stad’

Of the total number of comments on the two platforms, a limited share was hateful. 0.1 per cent on Facebook and 3.8 per cent on Flashback. But for those it involves, it can have significant consequences. They are, for the most part, minorities. And for society, the meaning of hate speech is far-reaching.

A threat against democracy

In a survey from 2021 among Swedes, 7 out of 10 state that they to some extent avoid taking a stand in debates because of online hate, and 65 percent between the ages of 27 and 70 and 42 percent between the ages of 16 and 25 state that online hate is a 'pretty big' or 'very big' threat to democracy.

Privat photo: Social media editor in Malmö Stad, Fanny Palm

According to Fanny Palm, the hateful comments online also mean that many public authorities are reluctant to throw themselves into the debates. But according to her, that should not be the way forward.

- What happens if a public authority keeps quiet for fear of hate speech? What happens to democracy then? Instead, we [Malmøs municipality, ed.] have worked to give the debate moderators tools and skills to join the conversations.

Platform for democratic debate

Parts of the tools and competencies are based on psychological expert knowledge. Fanny and her colleagues have been trained to be moderators and to handle tough conversations psychologically. And then, she and her colleagues practised.

- We have developed a simulator for social media, where our employees can practice having difficult conversations in a safe space so that they can handle it better in a real online situation, she says.

Communication must promote dialogue. Debate and dialogue create engagement and give Malmö residents the opportunity to influence the political processes and decisions.

from Malmö municipalities' guidelines for social media"

As a representative of the city government and thus the community, she is one of those who work to ensure that everyone can have a say in the democratic conversation. That work is neither easy nor free. But she is absolutely convinced that it is necessary.

- Our profiles on social media must be platforms for inclusive, open, democratic debate. Where people with completely different starting points can meet and discuss important social issues in a respectful way. Based on clear guidelines and with consistent moderation.

No to hate in our virtual streets and squares

For Fannys Palm's colleague, Malin Martelius, the starting point and the goal are equally clear. Malin is project manager in Malmö municipality for the Nordic Safe Cities project.

- Malmö residents should feel safe and secure, regardless of where they are. We will not accept threats, hatred and violence on our streets and squares. Not online either.

For Malin Martelius and Malmö's city council, it's about raising awareness that the world is just as real online as it is offline, and about making both physical and virtual Malmö a safe place to be.

Networks are essential

According to Malin Martelius, network-based work and cooperation with civil society are essential, and public communicators and public authorities should not be alone with the task.

- The prerequisite for public communicators to be able to do their jobs even better is that we have to collaborate very widely with very many people in civil society and in society in general. We need each other and we have different responsibilities.

She highlights the Facebook movement #jagärhär (Swedish for 'I am here', ed.) or #Iamhere, where private individuals engage as digital volunteers in Facebook debates that are polarized. According to Malin Martelius, you can see that the comment threads are affected in a good way.

Silence is dangerous

Malin Martelius, project manager, Malmö city

- We would like to work network-based. So there will be more people who dare to join the debates instead of keeping quiet. Because silence is dangerous.

Deputy mayor: "We have a clear ambition"

Based on the mapping of online hate speech in Malmö, the city's city council decided at a meeting on 12 October 2022 to initiate a project to support a safe and inclusive, democratic online debate, together with the police, civil society and the elected representatives.

We have a clear ambition to work on online safety and prevention, says Amani Loubani, deputy mayor in Malmö, responsible for democracy and human rights.

Over the coming years, Malmö's city office will coordinate the work to make the city's digital streets and squares safer.

Three focus areas in the coming years

The work will be focused on three main areas, which you can read about in the report -Trygg & Säker Digital Stad.”

Firstly, Malmö's city council, together with the police, will establish a digital security team to prevent and counteract polarization in the digital debate.

Secondly, the civil society organisations will be strengthened so that they, with their large contact surface with the citizens of Malmö, can contribute even better to creating greater security, a more nuanced climate for debate and a more robust local democracy online.

Thirdly, efforts must be made to benefit some of the people who are most exposed to threats and hatred on social media: the elected politicians. It is partly about ensuring that the elected representatives know what to do if they are exposed to threats and hatred, partly that the city council office will facilitate dialogue about how the parties in Malmö view the 'rules of the game' online.

An important role

Throughout the process, public communication will play an important role.

- We will work to increase trust in our democratic institutions and be present throughout the city - virtually and physically. In that way, we can be there for the people of Malmö and, at the same time, strengthen democracy, promote inclusion and counteract the consequences of hatred in the form of polarization and social problems, says Amani Loubani.

I Aalborg in Denmark and Kristiansand in Norway have also mapped online hate speech under the auspices of the Nordic Safe cities project.

Read more here

Here you can check out Malmö municipality's guideline on social media .