While Russia’s brutal and crushing attacks on the
Ukraine are front-page news today, it’s worth remembering that Russia’s world-dominating military incursions have a long and ruthless history.
Consider the conflicts between Russia and Finland, which share an 832-mile border. The First Soviet-Finnish War, known as the Winter War, took place back in 1939. It really was about border territory -- primarily the protection of Leningrad, which was just from the Finnish border.
Never mind that Russia had far superior military capability. Russia wanted to conquer Finland. Sound familiar?
Today the U.S. is facing what the military calls a hybrid threat. The threats include cyber-attacks, disinformation, and election tampering. According to CNN, “European intelligence services across the Continent have been sounding the alarm about Russian attempts to influence the outcome through targeted disinformation and propaganda.”
Russia’s techniques are sophisticated. Their info-war strategies can range from creating fake news stories and conspiracy theories to amplifying existing tensions. The goal is to undermine public confidence in local governments and institutions.
It used to be that cyberwar was targeted at industrial targets, pipelines, powerplants, and such. But the rise of disinformation directly targets voters, with the
aim to get candidates elected who will favor the positions of the attackers, creating new complicated alliances. Donald Trump’s election, and his complicated relationship with Vladimir Putin,
certainly would be front and center in this rising danger.
As the U.S. and other western democracies face misinformation and disinformation, there is one example of a country that has put in place a defense system that appears to be working, and that is Finland.
One solution is the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, known as the Hybrid CoE. It is based in Helsinki and was founded by a dozen member states of the European Union and NATO.
Saara Jantunen is the author of a book about Russian disinformation in Finland
titled “The Info War.” “It’s not just about Finland’s relationship with Russia,” said Jantunen. “It’s about showing what kind of rhetoric in Finnish
society and the media is acceptable.”
Finland has an effective weapon to combat fake news: education. Finland is at the top of the list of European countries deemed the most resilient to disinformation, according to the Media Literacy Index.
“High-quality education and having more and more educated people is a prerequisite for tackling the negative effects of fake news and post-truth,” wrote Media Literacy Index’s authors. Finland is among countries that advocate teaching school children about digital literacy and critical thinking, and misinformation.
“Encouragingly, we find a sizable drop in the proportion of Americans who were exposed to fake news websites,” according to the report. “Though the trend for total fake news consumption as a share of people’s information diets is less clear. Our data also indicate that consumption of these sites continues to be concentrated among a small subset of Americans with strong preferences for ideological media, especially those with the most conservative media diets.”
Starting back in 2016, a reform of
Finland's education system was aimed at emphasizing critical thinking.
The Finish program went beyond just critical thinking, instead of teaching skills to combat disinformation. Among them, is how to identify a troll or bots.
The Finnish fact-checking agency Faktabaari (FactBar) developed a digital literacy “toolkit” for high school and elementary
students. And the Finnish government provided anti-disinformation training to political parties and candidates alike.
“It’s not just a government problem; the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” said the government’s Chief Communications Specialist, Jussi Toivanen, “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”
Finland saw the Russian disinformation program coming and did something about it. Can the same be said of the U.S.?