Why Is Finland able to fend off Putin’s information war?

By Reid Standish, Foreign Policy - March 3, 2017
The Finnish flag. (Thinkstock)
Finns believe a strong education system, a comprehensive strategy and a long history of relations with Russia have helped the nation deflect propaganda and disinformation. (Thinkstock)

With elections coming up this year in France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and perhaps Italy, European intelligence services across the continent have been sounding the alarm about Russian attempts to influence the outcome through targeted disinformation and propaganda, as they appeared to do in the U.S. presidential election.

That brand of information war can range from pushing fake news stories and conspiracy theories to fanning the flames of existing problems — all serving to undermine public confidence in governments and institutions. Elsewhere in the Baltics and former Soviet Union, Russian-linked disinformation has worked to stoke panic and force local governments into knee-jerk, counterproductive responses that have boosted Kremlin goals across the region.

But in the face of this mounting pressure, one of Russia’s neighbors has emerged unusually resistant to the wider information war waged by Moscow across Europe: Finland.

[Finland prepares for ‘manifold warfare’ as Russia feeds paranoia]

Like other countries along the Baltic Sea or in Eastern Europe, Finland has seen a notable increase in fake news stories and propaganda targeted against it that can be linked back to Russia since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. These attacks have sought to undermine the government and often coincided with military shows of forces along the Russian border.

But unlike its neighbors, Helsinki reckons it has the tools to effectively resist any information attack from its eastern neighbor. Finnish officials believe their country’s strong public education system, long history of balancing Russia, and a comprehensive government strategy allow it to deflect coordinated propaganda and disinformation.

“The best way to respond is less by correcting the information, and more about having your own positive narrative and sticking to it,” Jed Willard, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard, told Foreign Policy. Willard, who is currently working for the Swedish government, was hired by Finnish officials to help them develop a public diplomacy program to understand and identify why false information goes viral and how to counter propaganda.

Sauli Niinisto, Finland's president, during an interview at his seaside residence in Helsinki, Finland, on Feb. 24, 2017. (Roni Rekomaa / Bloomberg)
Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, during an interview at his seaside residence in Helsinki, Finland, on Feb. 24, 2017. (Roni Rekomaa / Bloomberg)

That initiative started at the top. In October 2015, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto took the first step, when he acknowledged that information warfare is real for Finland, and said that it was the duty of every citizen to combat it. In January 2016, the prime minister’s office enrolled one-hundred officials in a program across several levels of the Finnish government to identify and understand the spread of disinformation based on Willard’s advice.

Lots of governments in the West don’t have the same kind of narrative to respond with as does Helsinki. A homogenous country of 5.4 million people, Finland routinely ranks at the top of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s quality of life metrics and in addition to strong social welfare programs, the country’s education system is the best in the world, according to the World Economic Forum.

Willard says this combination of widespread critical thinking skills among the Finnish population and a coherent government response makes a strong defense against concerted outside efforts to skew reality and undermine faith in institutions.

“This stuff is real. It is as real as war,” said Willard. “But the Finns very quickly realized this and got out in front of the problem.”

[Finland plans to set up center to counter ‘hybrid’ threats]

Rene Nyberg, a former Finnish ambassador to Moscow, says Finland has a couple of key advantages when it comes to parrying Russian disinformation. Helsinki is painfully well-versed in dealing with Russia, as it has had to do through war and annexation, and most recently the decades-long staring match of the Cold War. That left Finland with a sober understanding of the Kremlin’s real motives. Plus, it helps that Finland is not Russia’s main target when it comes to undermining European unity.

“The real intensity is Germany. … Merkel is the main course,” Nyberg told FP. “We’re just a side dish.”

The case of the false “Lisa story” in Germany from January 2016 is often cited as a textbook example of Moscow’s modern information capabilities. Russian-language media reported allegations that a German-Russian girl had been raped by migrants in Berlin before local authorities had time to verify the information; those Russian reports were then picked up by mainstream news media in Germany and elsewhere. When the story was finally debunked, subsequent accusations of a cover-up by Berlin were reported by Channel One, Russia’s prime state TV station, and were even hinted at by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said the incident “was hushed up for a long time for some reason” during a press conference. The spread of the false story also prompted protests across the country by anti-immigrant groups and Russian Germans.

Experts say it’s nearly impossible to track the extent to which these pro-Russian positions are directly shaped by the Kremlin. Indeed, to be most effective, Moscow does not invent issues out of whole cloth, they say. Instead, disinformation attacks seek to inflame existing tensions by putting out viral web stories that would then be republished by local news outlets and on social media to distort political debates about wedge issues like the European Union, immigration, and NATO.

Weaponizing information has a long history in Russia, and the Kremlin ran an extensive operation to subvert the West in Soviet times. In an age of social media where news can quickly spread around the globe, Russia deployed its arsenal of trolls, propaganda, and false information to a new level that has allowed Moscow to perfect its techniques over the last decade. These techniques have even become enshrined in official Kremlin doctrine.

But responding to such tactics can often backfire and risks replicating the Kremlin-backed narrative. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — as well as other former Soviet countries like Ukraine and Georgia — have been less successful in pushing back against Russian disinformation.

Pro-Russian media, including the state-owned Channel One, already reach huge numbers of homes across the former Soviet Union. In the Baltics, which have large Russian-speaking minorities, attempts to restrict or ban Russian broadcasters, websites, or journalists have often polarized relations with the local Russian community and given more material for Kremlin-backed propaganda and disinformation. In Ukraine and Georgia, Russian propaganda often amplifies and distorts the very real problem of state corruption, seeking to destroy confidence in pro-Western political parties.

In contrast, Finland, which ranks as the world’s third-least corrupt country according to Transparency International, and which has only a tiny Russian-speaking population, has fewer obvious targets to be exploited. In March 2016, the Finnish-language bureau for Sputnik, the state-funded Russian media outlet, closed after it failed to attract enough readers.

“Nothing has been very harmful for the public so far,” Markku Mantila, director general for government communications at the Finnish prime minister’s office, told FP. “Finns are well-educated and because of that, we are very resilient to such attempts.”

But Finland does have one thing that drives the Kremlin to distraction: an 830-mile border with Russia. Fears over NATO’s eastward expansion — including, potentially, to Finland — are behind much of Russia’s aggressive posture toward the West.

Finnish officials claim to have documented 20 disinformation campaigns against their country that have come directly from the Kremlin. Those attempts tend to focus on a narrow but sensitive topic: Helsinki’s carefully balanced relations with Moscow.

After two wars with Russia in two years in the 1940s, Finland during the Cold War followed a carefully-crafted policy of neutrality, allowing it to balance integration with Europe while maintaining good relations with the Soviet giant next door. The country refrained from joining NATO and often bowed to Moscow’s wishes to preserve its independence, a stance that some Western detractors condemned as too accommodating to the Soviets. Cold Warriors even dubbed it, derisively, “Finlandization.”

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Helsinki quickly distanced itself from its Cold War legacy, but the country’s policymakers still walk a tightrope with Russia.Public opinion on NATO membership is strongly divided, making Finland an important target for Russia as it seeks to influence the public discourse of its neighbors and sow divisions in Europe.

Russian disinformation campaigns have spun a narrative of the Finnish government discriminating against ethnic Russians. In February, reports of dual Russian-Finnish citizens being rejected from military and foreign service jobs became a talking point in pro-Kremlin media in Russia. A measure discussed in Finnish parliament to prevent Russian citizens from owning land near military sites also rallied the pro-Kremlin propaganda machine. A similar line of attack, which has involved doctored photos, saw Kremlin outlets accuse Finnish authorities of child abduction in disputes arising over child welfare and custody battles for Finnish-Russian marriages. The accusations, which Finnish officials deny, first materialized in 2012, but continue to flare up — giving Russian lawmakers more opportunity to make inflammatory statements about their neighbor.

“It’s not just about Finland’s relationship with Russia,” Saara Jantunen, the author of Info-War, a book about Russian disinformation in Finland, told FP. “It’s about showing what kind of rhetoric in Finnish society and the media is acceptable.”

One noticeable aspect of the Kremlin’s approach in other parts of Europe is to support anti-establishment forces, which often parrot pro-Russian positions. A similar dynamic is at play in the case of Jessikka Aro, an investigative journalist for the social media division of Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski.

In 2014, Aro followed up on reports of a Russian “troll factory” in St. Petersburg that was seeking to influence public opinion in the West about Kremlin maneuvers abroad. After she published her initial investigation, which documented how pro-Russian voices were attempted to shape the public discourse on Ukraine, her name appeared on Russian nationalist websites where she was derided as a Western intelligence agent, bombarded with anonymous abusive messages on social media, and labelled as a drug dealer.

The man who became the main voice targeting Aro was Johan Backman. An outspoken supporter of the Kremlin who is fluent in Russian, Backman — a Finn — was responsible for the bulk of the derisive commentary that appeared about Aro. Backman serves as the representative in Northern Europe for the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a state-funded research group known for its Kremlin connections during the Cold War and currently led by a Soviet-era intelligence officer. Backman has defended his commentary as free speech.

MVLehti — a Finnish-language news site hosted abroad that is known for its right-wing, anti-immigrant, and anti-EU views — also produced some of the false information about Aro. Ilja Janitskin, the news site’s founder and head who lives in Spain, told the New York Times in 2016 that he had no connections to Moscow. Still, both men are currently being investigated by Finnish police for harassment and hate speech for targeting Aro. Finnish authorities have been trying to extradite Janitskin from Spain, but he is currently on the run.

Adding another layer to the case, the Helsinki police department announced in October 2016 that an employee from Yle, the Finnish broadcaster where Aro works, is suspected of providing the information that was later used to defame her. The case is awaiting a date in court.

Aro told FP that she became a target because her reporting brought into question Helsinki’s traditionally measured line with Moscow.

“NATO is at the core of everything,” Aro said. “The goal of these campaigns is to discredit the voices in Finland that are critical of Russia.”