Heikki Patomäki – Hate speech and the state of public debate in Finland

A professor and freedom of speech in the firing line.

Edited by

Cross-posted and translated from Naapuriseura


Professor and researcher of international politics Heikki Patomäki discussed the historian Emil Kastehelmen in the Topic podcast, e.g. freedom of speech in an interview with Iltaleht. The reaction was a flood of largely anonymous hate mail.

What kind of country do we live in when even a single speech by an academic who deviates from the mainstream causes a collective outcry?

The media and leading politicians have been fomenting hatred towards Russia for years. The result is now visible.

Many influencers have remained silent because they consider the atmosphere too inflamed for open discussion. When one of them dares to open his mouth, the true state of the democratic civilized country is revealed. Is it time to state that we are living in the middle of a spiritual emergency?

With Professor Patomäki’s permission, we are publishing his blog post, an afterthought about what happened.

Hate speech and the state of public debate in Finland

January 6, 2024

The Iltalehti interview can be thought of as a scientific experiment. When you say something about Russia, Ukraine, or NATO that deviates from the mainstream, to what extent do the reactions match my predictions, despite the fact that the problem of hate speech and its dangers are explicitly mentioned in the article?

Iltalehti published My interview on January 5.1.2024, XNUMX under the title “Finnish expert: Ukraine should remain outside NATO – And Finland would have supported it too”. At the end of it, my concerns about the Finnish debate climate and the state of public debate in general are brought up.

“I was recently talking to a French journalist and I said that the political situation in Finland is such that if you say something different from the mainstream, you are wished a safe journey to Russia, threatened with murder, or something similarly threatening. These sort of messages comes from all sides. Public debate in Finland is not in very good shape at the moment.”

At the end of the interview, it is stated that when there is no free media and opposition, stupid decisions are made. “According to Patomäki, the problem does not only concern dictatorships, but similar problems were seen, for example, in the Vietnam war waged by the USA. – The same pattern is now repeated in the Finnish debate and its complete lack of alternatives. Even here, hardly anyone dares to say anything that deviates from the mainstream.”

In the following, I will only go through the tip of the iceberg, i.e. the comments that have been sent to me personally or that have been posted on my Facebook pages. If I understand correctly, up to 1500 comments have been posted on Iltalehti’s page, and there are many other places where comments could have been posted. I haven’t even opened the first of these comments, because I don’t have the time or the patience for that. Maybe someone else can do it and confirm or refute my analysis relative to the larger data?

Although I focus on those messages and speeches where people bark at Putin’s dog, wish them a safe trip to Russia, wish me dead or something similar, it must first be said that there are somewhat more positive comments than hate mail.

During the day, for example, I received calls from strangers who praised me for my “courage” – even though I’m only doing what I’m supposed to do as a researcher. Many say that they feel they are alone with their thoughts, even though they have similar conversations with their close friends. According to one comment sent by e-mail, “a million Finns think the same”, but no one in the media brings up their points of view.

One of these feedback providers summarizes both his own thoughts and something essential about the prevailing Manichean “good-bad” atmosphere:

“Your opinion and reflection in the large media, which fairly evenly covers our kingdom, really revived the questions I’ve been asking myself for the last few years.

Am I alone?

Is Russia absolutely evil?

Is the west good?”

When one and the same simple ideology and opposition is proclaimed by the media, expert community and mainstream politicians, so many people wonder if there is something wrong with their sense of history, society and morality when they cannot relate to such a black and white, simple and primitive worldview?

In any case, direct personal attacks and hate speech have been enough this time as well. The most relevant part of the attacks focuses on declaring their own view of history or current events and condemning all who deviate from it as heretics.

One such publisher focuses on the events of World War II, although it also mentions the EU and NATO. He writes, for example, that “in 1939 no one came to help us, in 1941 only Nazi Germany came to help us to continue the war”. What can you answer to that? If “Germany came to the aid of Finland in 1941”, then what could have happened in 1941…? Would it help if I recommended Pekka Visuri’s book? A German general at the Finnish headquarters in 1941? Hardly, because I don’t think any evidence or argument will change such views – or at least it seems highly unlikely.

Most personal attacks and hate speech are inappropriate. Many have a real-sounding name in their address or signature, but it’s obvious that most names are fake. Behind the names are either private people full of hate or troll accounts.

The fact that they are not ready to appear under their real names tells much about the “civic courage” of people who act like this. One even appears specifically anonymous. “Anonymousemail” sent me an e-mail, according to which “based on the story in Iltalehti, you are too naive to be a professor”.

Common personal attacks include classification into a certain group of people (e.g. based on an idea), an attempt to return the action to some dubious motive (which poisons the discussion), or associating with some dubious person or context. For example, “Petri Nieminen” sent a message like this, which I have shortened because it would be too long to repeat here:

It’s really disgusting to read your thoughts. You’re a public person (everyone will understand when we look at your picture). You tell the newspapers about these frankly stupid opinions of yours and you hope that Heikki will finally be able to go public! […].Contact your friend Bäckman and have a sauna and support each other and hug for a long time, because you are the backbone of Finland!!

I don’t know what you can conclude from my photo, but in terms of getting into the public eye, it would certainly have been easier to adopt the prevailing “good-bad” ideology, as many of my colleagues have unfortunately done. However, I do know that Bäckman is neither my friend nor my acquaintance. Twenty years ago – when I had just come from Nottingham to Helsinki as a professor – Bäckman wanted to apply to become a docent in world politics. I did not take his application forward. That’s why he ended up applying for a academic position elsewhere (sociology of law, criminology). I have never had any direct contact with Bäckman since then. My colleague Teivo Teivainen later became the target of attacks by the Russian media orchestrated by Bäckman.

One way to poison the conversation is to throw baseless accusations on social media, which can still live on in people’s minds. For example, “Tero Asp” wrote on Facebook:

Even a comment like that in Iltis’s article – that Finland would have been better off staying outside NATO – reveals whose songs are being sung here. I’m not saying anything about the country where the singer’s bread is made – I can imagine what kind of uproar it would get.

“Tero Asp” is seemingly cautious, although it is clear to everyone what “whose songs” are referring to. So that there is no room for any doubts, I state that I have never received any salary or remuneration from Russia for my work, not even from research institutes or universities. I do not speak Russian. The only Russian researcher with whom I have done some research cooperation is Boris Kagarlitsky, who sat in the fall of 2023 in Putin’s prison for opposing the war. In addition to Finnish universities and the Foreign Policy Institute, I have only received salaries from Britain, Australia, and Japan, and small fees for normal academic tasks from various EU countries (objections, statements, etc.).

In an interview with Iltalehti, I stated that “if you say something different from the mainstream, we wish you a safe trip to Russia, threaten to kill you or something similar”. Regardless of this, the same thing happened again (maybe these people didn’t even finish reading the interview). Here are five examples of the 1930s muilutus theme:

Dear Professor; if you find Putin’s antics mild and acceptable, then you can permanently move to Russia, when in your opinion it seems to be such an excellent country with its leaders. Good to go.

Best regards, Mikko Lampo

Go to Russia to lick Putler’s ass, you fucking communist!

Posted by Jebouu

Heikki is Putin’s disciple!!!

Sender: Pekka Hakulinen

Putin’s dog 🤡

Sender: Petteri Tikkunen

Referring to the media and the future of the unfathomable brain farts you give. […] I advise you to get a job from the delusional civilian-murdering dictator Putin (unless you already enjoy the income from the Kremlin) and move to Russia! […]

Posted by: Pertti Kallio

If such people were to gain (single) power, the state of public debate and democracy in Finland would soon be as bad as in Putin’s Russia in the 2020s. If I and critical thinkers and social scientists like me were not deported or forcibly transferred to Russia, we would probably be sued on some trumped-up basis or even imprisoned (or if the situation gets really bad, maybe sent to a concentration camp if there is no more space in the prisons).

America’s democratic institutions somehow withstood the attacks led by Joseph McCarthy, but what if Donald Trump is re-elected president? The commentators of the Iltalehti interview seem to share the McCarthyian worldview:

Representatives of the left, harmful to Finland in every way….

Sender: Mikael Mikaelsson

These people do not see or understand what they are doing. They themselves dig the ground from under freedom of speech, publicity and democracy. There is, of course, the danger of a new Manicheanism in this definition. So I emphasize that everyone has equal freedom of speech. Freedom of speech must be realized in a way that complies with the principles of openness and honesty and the requirements of good discussion. Hate speech expressed behind nicknames should not be an accepted practice in a democracy. The current internet and social media enable bad practices.

Actual hate speech in its purest form includes disgust, anger and hope for the other person’s death. That very, i.e. the deepest, hate speech dripped into my email this time as well:

With the title: Turpa closed fat rut loverGet the hell out of the way, you scumbag minion. I spit in your face.

ADDITION TO THE SECOND MESSAGE: You too could donate most of the salary from your sheltered job to Ukraine. A communist like you shouldn’t be bothered.

Posted by: Antti Alander

Could that greasy heart of yours be closing already, you obnoxious suckling pig?

Posted by: Johannes Pahnila

Although these are not direct death threats, it is hard to imagine that this could promote freedom of speech, public debate or democracy.

Even without hate speech, the prevailing situation appears to be easily discredited. There is no need for formal censorship if there is only one opinion that dares to go public. As one of my respected colleagues wrote in an email in the spring of 2022, “lately, I have not wanted to participate in public discussions in a media dominated by hysterical propaganda”.


Iltalehti has published a follow-up story to the interview it published earlier. The topic of the new text is hate speech and the state of public debate in Finland. Iltalehti says that they asked “the views of two experts on the discussion climate in Finland and Patomäki’s arguments”. When asked, I offered a number of names to provide background on the matter, but IL was apparently not in contact with any of them – or, for example, with researchers of publicity and democracy. Instead, the views were asked from two people profiled as military experts. Of these, docent of military science Ilmari Käihkö is a real researcher. We disagree with him on some or many issues related to the war in Ukraine, but he sees the problem of public debate in quite the same way as I do. He warns of the dangers of suppressing debate. “When pluralism and the constructiveness of the conversation suffer, the quality of the conversation deteriorates. In the worst case, we only say what we assume people want to hear.” Instead, Emil Kastehelmi, a candidate of political science who studied economic sociology, presents a wrong conclusion in his opinion that I would not accept from my students in an exam. In his opinion, the discussion about Russia has become “healthier”, because now we know how to approach Russia and its threat “more realistically”. What does the word “realism” mean here? Realism means believing that Russia is “untrustworthy, expansionist and genocidal”. In other words, a “healthy” debate is one in which everyone accepts one substantive view of Russia’s ultimate evil, which explains the security problems. A “healthy” conversation is therefore most obviously thinking in the same way. In this way, Kastehelmi would seem to be quietly siding with those who represent hate speech. To top it all off, he suggests that “the peace negotiations […with Russia] are already questionable from the very beginning”. Obviously, the war must be continued – and if necessary expanded – until the end, even if that meant a nuclear war. An emeritus expert recently commented on my podcast dialogue with Kastehelmi by writing that “Kastehelmi wants World War III”. Now that I think about it, he seems to be right.

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