Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro on exposing Russian trolls and the backlash she never anticipated

Jessikka Aro, a journalist in Finland, was harassed after reporting on the rise of abusive pro-Russian posts on the Internet.

EDMONTON, Canada — Long before the world knew about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Jessikka Aro was already looking into social media propaganda and the info warriors attempting to influence the Finnish people. The investigative journalist published a series of stories in Finland about Russian internet trolls and their activity that was to have a profound impact not only on the world at large but on her personal life.

Aro soon learned about the Internet Research Agency, an unusual company based in St. Petersburgthat appeared to be a troll factory distributing propaganda via blogs, discussion boards and social media, including Facebook, VKontakte (currently banned in Ukraine) and Twitter. Aro traveled to Russia hoping to interview employees at the company, which appeared to be funded by one of President Vladimir Putin’s cronies, Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Her findings were reported on the Finnish broadcasting company YLE.

Aro knew she was stirring up a hornets’ nest but couldn’t imagine how quickly she would become the target of fierce backlash.

Soon after her first stories about the Russian trolls were published, Aro started receiving hateful emails in which she was accused of spreading propaganda, engaging an information warfare and was even blamed for the bloodshed in Ukraine.

“My story was falsified, and people wished my death of a Uranium poisoning,” Aro mentioned at an Oct. 12 conference hosted by the Canadian Institute of Ukraine Studies at the University of Alberta and the Alberta Society for the Advancement of Ukrainian Studies. The conference, titled “Russia’s Information Warfare: The Case of Ukraine in a Global Comparative context,” brought together a number of Canadian, American and European academics and journalists in Edmonton, and Aro was invited to speak about her personal experience with the Internet’s seedy, violent underbelly.

Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro talks about Russian information warfare at Oct. 12 conference hosted by the Canadian Institute of Ukraine Studies of the University of Alberta and the Alberta Society for the Advancement of Ukrainian Studies. (Photo Brad LaFoy)

“The point of the trolls was clear: recruited pro-Putin bloggers do not exist,” Aro said, adding that it’s incredible how unaware people still are “that such efforts to spread misinformation exist, and that holding social media platforms accountable for the content they allow to spread is key.”

Finnish case

Finland has emerged as an active front in information warfare. The country has long been a focus of Russian concern as NATO expands its influence toward the Russian border. Although Finland is not a NATO member, it belongs to the family of European Union nations who share a 1,340-km-long border with Russia. The relationship between Finland and its eastern neighbor continues to be a complicated one.

According to a March report commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Defense, Russia has become “a fixed factor” that must be taken into consideration whenever Finland scales defense capabilities and conducts security assessments. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 reminded Finns that Moscow has at times viewed their country, and not just Ukraine or Georgia, as part of the greater Russia.

Thousands of Finns have Russian citizenship, and even though only 1.3% of the country’s 5.5 million people speak Russian, this fact has been stirring fears that, in a conflict, some might show more loyalty to Moscow than Helsinki.

Finland identified the Russian cyber threat early, says Aro. In October 2015, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto publicly stressed 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 100 officials in a program across numerous agencies of the Finnish government to identify and understand the spread of disinformation.

Aro also kept doing her job in exposing Russia’s trolls, despite claims by nationalist Russian websites and other media that she was a “well-known assistant of American and Baltic special services.”

Finnish justice protects journalists

One of Aro’s fiercest critics was a Finnish national, Johan Backman, who is one of Finland’s most incendiary pro-Russia activists. Backman has been calling himself an official representative of the Donetsk People’s Republic since June 2014 and even tried to register a bogus representation center for the breakaway territory in Helsinki in October 2016.

Backman argued that Aro’s investigation “destroys the Finnish freedom of speech in Finland and causes real people to be persecuted because of their opinions.”

He and other belligerents continued their attacks, says Aro. She once received a phone call late at night from a number in Ukraine. There was no voice on the other end of the line, only the noise of gunshots. When she received a text message denouncing her as a “NATO whore” she was disturbed. But she truly appreciated what it meant to be a target of harassment when she received a message supposedly sent from her father who had died 20 years earlier. “My ‘father’ told me in the message he’s not dead, but ‘observing me,’” Aro said. She was stigmatized in Russia and Finland and, fearing for her safety, fled the country for two years. Yet she never stopped reporting.

“I didn’t feel safe in my own country, but now I feel confident that the justice system works well in Finland and can protect journalists in cases of online harassment and defamation,” she told the Kyiv Post, referring to a lawsuit she filed in Finnish court to counter the systematic campaign of harassment she faced. Last October, a Finnish court convicted two of her highest-profile tormenters – including Backman – in a case The New York Times identified as the first taken by a European country against Russian disinformation. The judgment, which included a prison sentence for one of the convicted, attracted widespread international attention.

Moving on

While Aro was eventually able to return to her home country to continue her work, she still takes security precautions. She is now pushing for stricter legislation and regulation of social media companies to better protect people and democracies against the dangers of disinformation.

She believes that citizens need to not only be critical of what they are reading but call on government, private industry and even media to acknowledge and prevent information warfare before it happens. “We need to report and boycott the individuals or companies that are spreading lies,” Aro concluded at the conference in Edmonton. “If you are not sure what to do, you can just contact me.”

Aro’s book, “Putin’s Trolls,” was published in Finland in May. The English version of the book is expected to be published in the coming months. Read her story about being a “pro-Russia troll magnet” here.

(c) KyivPost

7 comments

  1. This is a very brave woman, and it’s a disgrace she had to leave her own country because of scum like this Backman. This lady should be invited to speak in all civilized countries, and make the appeasers squirm. But I don’t see that happening as long as we have the likes of Mogherini in charge of fighting propaganda in Europe.

  2. I think some of us on here would also be qualified to write a book about filthy Ruskie trolls. God knows we’ve dealt with many and some were indeed extremely filthy. Thus, I believe it right away when there are certain pieces of Ruskie/pro-Ruskie scum that want to harm this woman.

What is your opinion?