Academics reluctant to report violent online threats to police

Barely half of victims report threats to police, says Finnish study, which finds perpetrators of harassment are not infrequently colleagues of those they target

December 22, 2021
Finland police on duty leaning on a barrier as a metaphor for Academics reluctant to report violent online threats to police

Barely half of academics who have been threatened with violence online report it to the police, European research suggests.

A survey of almost 2,500 researchers in five Finnish universities found that only 16.3 per cent of respondents who were victims of any form of online harassment had reported it to their supervisors, and just 3.3 per cent reported it to the police.

Of academics who had been threatened with violence, 45 per cent did not report the messages to the police, a result described by the authors of the study as “remarkable”.

Asked why they had not reported the offences to the police, 76.1 per cent of victims said that they “did not consider that the act was serious enough”. Another 22.8 per cent said that they “did not believe anything would have been done to the case”.

Atte Oksanen, professor of social psychology at Tampere University and one of the authors of the study, said preliminary work by colleagues looking at police responses to online harassment seemed to confirm victims’ fears.

“Some of the findings so far show it’s very random what police will eventually start to investigate, and there might be multiple reasons for this, one being resources, but it didn’t really look good in that sense,” he told Times Higher Education.

On why so few academics reported online harassment to their supervisors, Professor Oksanen pointed the finger at a competitive culture and lack of community within universities.

Of those facing harassment, 43 per cent knew the perpetrator, and in 17.8 per cent of the cases, they were a colleague of the victim. Professor Oksanen said that this was “not surprising considering there’s a lot of competition within academia”.

He said victims might be “in a competing position” with their supervisor, “so it’s totally understandable you might not wish to share with your supervisor something that makes you more vulnerable”.

“We do have a kind of a lack of community within universities, partly because of the competition and partly because of other reasons. There would be a lot of room for improvement in that sense,” Professor Oksanen told THE.

Overall, three in 10 respondents reported being harassed online during the past six months, with one in 20 reporting monthly attacks and just over one in 100 describing it as a weekly occurrence.

Harassment usually came in the form of offensive messages or personal attacks, with women more likely than men to report sexual harassment. Among respondents, 2.8 per cent said they had received violent threats, and 1 per cent reported receiving death threats.

The chances of being harassed were higher for those working in the social sciences and humanities, and for academics who appeared regularly in the media. 

Professor Oksanen, who said he limited his own media appearances partly because of concerns about harassment, said he hoped online culture would shift in a friendlier direction. 

“I started this line of research already some 12 years ago. It’s been very unfortunate to see how things have progressed. Hopefully the discussion culture, in social media especially, will improve over the next years,” he said.

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