My Year as a Pro-Russia Troll Magnet: International Shaming Campaign and an SMS from Dead Father

A year ago Yle investigative journalist Jessikka Aro started a series on Russian infowar and became a target for systematic pro-Russia propaganda. This is her story.
Jessikka Aro
Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle's investigative journalist Jessikka Aro has been harassed in disturbing ways while she has covered Russian online propaganda.

About a year ago there was a twist in my life. I realized the depth of what had happened when a respected journalist Pasi Kivioja asked me to share my experiences as a target of harassment in journalists' training. This story is a tell-all of how my life changed as a result.

In September 2014 I started a crowdsourced series of stories about pro-Russia trolls, the info warriors distributing social media propaganda and influencing Finnish people.

Instanstly after publishing the first piece I was targeted by an international discrediting campaign: a famous Finnish propagandist named Johan Bäckman spread falsified information claiming that I work for the United States foreign intelligence, that I co-operate with the Nato and Estonian Security Police and that I'm tasked with building an illegal register of president Vladimir Putin's supporters in Finland.

Well known propagandist Johan Bäckman claimed in various sites I'm a famous assistant of various secret services and Nato. I'm targeted by exposing my contact info to readers, who get upset about the disinformation and contact me. This screen cap is from Notum.info.

Mr. Bäckman – who actively gives distorted statements on Russian state TV about Finland, Ukraine etc. and who had an active role in disinforming the public during Bronze soldier clashes in Estonia –  spread disinformation about me mostly on Russian  "news agency" sites, but also through his Facebook and Twitter-account.

His goal was to lure trolls and harassers to attack me, but also to frame me as unreliable before the publication of my upcoming articles. Other Kremlin fake information distributors activated on Facebook simultaneously with Bäckman:

After the first troll piece I was labeled as "propaganda agent, who organizes the troll campaign witch hunt".

My email was quickly flooded with Russian language "Putin is the best, west sucks" trolling. I got threatening phone calls and absurd texts from Russia and around ex-Soviet states.

At an early stage I was attached to a mailing list through which pro-Russia propaganda and conspiracy theories were spread, but smears about me and others who were commenting Russia or the refugee crisis in public. The emails are still today sent to ministers, government officials, leaders of the Finnish media AND even the president of Finland. As a bonus, disinformation about me and my troll-investigations were emailed to about 200 of my Yle colleagues.

As a result of the information operation orchestrated by Bäckman and a few other troll activists', I was stigmatized in Russia and Finland. If you search through the Russian "Google", Yandex, anonymous texts now tell a story of how I'm an example of "western institutional racism and hatred towards Russia".

Soon after my first piece a handful of people started a "humorous" Facebook troll group as a protest to my project. These propagandists – alike Mr. Bäckman – claimed my investigation "destroys the Finnish freedom of speech in Finland and causes real people to be persecuted because of their opinions".

At first I followed the activities of the group but left after being constantly and frantically tagged in troll comments: I was blamed for the bloodshed in Ukraine, my looks and mental health were questioned, I was sexually harassed and called a russophobe. My story was falsified and people wished my death of a uranium poisoning. The point of the trolls was clear: recruited pro-Putin bloggers do not exist.

In addition, I have been the target of Russian and Finnish memes and cartoons. Johan Bäckman likes to share the cartoons to me directly on Twitter.

"Helicopter flying Nato skank at the expence of an honest tax payer. Sorry @jessikkaaro but I'm annoyed now", Bäckman commented in his Twitter account. All the pictures of the troll comic are screen caps from a helicopter video report I made in Helsinki.

My every public appearance is systematically torn apart: one troll group activist filmed my appearance at a journalist seminar in October of 2014. The video was published on Johan Bäckman's YouTube-account surprisingly quickly, and then posted to the troll group with trolls writing down and ridiculing every single sentence I said in seminar. This discrediting method is used almost every time I appear on TV or radio.

In the beginning I messaged the establisher of the RT & Sputnik link flooding group and suggested we meet in person. I wanted to discuss and ask why he is spreading false information and administrating a group bullying me and other people researching or commenting Russia. The group had special interest in me but also targeted journalist Laura Halminen from the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, bloggers and anyone who dared to shed light on Russian activities publicly.

The founder of the group didn't agree to meet me in person. Instead he offered to play down the hate speech targeted at me, if I apologize for my story and stop writing further stories about trolls. I considered his proposal as trying to blackmail a journalist, stopped discussing with him and continued working on my project.

After that he has encouraged countless people and anonymous propaganda operators to harass me and question not only me, but also the information I uncovered about Russian information warfare.

Official of the Finnish Parliament Peter Saramo commenting my piece on troll FB page. "Jessica Aro is a shame for YLE and all journalists. If government broadcaster distributes this, Finland is no way a Nordic country."

My private life, family affairs and non-existent political background have been under scrutiny. Secret profiles tried and still try to tie me to phony, time consuming and tiring Twitter conversations. During the last year I have been accused of destroying the freedom of speech probably hundreds of times – an absurd claim coming from anonymous profiles or public propaganda figures, who bully people and spread Russian lies (especially when their own dirty tricks only attempt to reduce the freedom of speech of journalists and the general public).

My employer, the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle was also targeted. Last fall numerous copies of the same complaint of Yle troll news "breaking several laws" were sent to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. All complaints were dismissed. Trollers said that they had reported me to the Security Police as well as the Council for Mass Media. Needless to say, I haven't been invited to police hearings nor did Yle receive sanctions from the Council, either.

As my investigation continued, it was claimed that me and my colleague Mika Mäkeläinen had bribed Russian interviewees at the St. Petersburg troll factory, I was accused of engaging in information warfare, distributing American propaganda and waging war.

One interesting example of the depth of the social media campaigning: one posting accusing me and my colleague of being "media prostitutes" was spread to create more hate speech on 16 different Facebook pages, which mostly spread Sputnik-produced and other fake news. The posting was illustrated with mine and Mika's faces photos combined with a hybrid of the Nato logo and a swastika.

The message of the posting: me and my colleague are "media prostitutes, who have sold our independence for money and put out anti-Russian scum on a daily basis aiming at increase NATO war mongering".

During this year many actual people have participated in the hate campaign against me along with the trolls. Actual people participating means that the disinformation has achieved its goal and people have been affected by it. For example the high level Finnish Parliament official Peter Saramo has been spreading lies about me – Saramo said I put all Finnish journalists to shame and later spread false information about me.

Last spring my employer was targeted again. Troll activists organized a protest against "the Yle Troll Factory" first on Facebook and later just outside Yle headquarters. One of the protesters' humble goals was to "put and end to Yle propaganda distribution". In the end only a handful of protesters showed up to in person.

By far the most sickening contact happened last spring. I received a text message from a person pretending to be my father, who died 20 years ago. My "father" told me in the message he's not dead, but "observing me". (I want to wish a pleasant autumn to the person, who sends such messages to journalists as a profession or hobby - I don't envy your life one bit, just like I don't envy the life of any professional info warrior or voluntary hate speakers).

Meme sent via anonymous emailer to me, Finnish journalists, ministers and the president of Finland. Also a popular hate site known to falsify news, MVlehti (in English WTF-Paper – yes the WTF does stand for What the Fuck) has contributed to my discrediting with many stories.

The persecution of me is still ongoing on a regular basis. At the moment trolling has increased temporarily as researcher Saara Jantunen published her book Infosota (Info War), in which my case is thoroughly covered (I recommend the book, very good analysis).

I wish I could imagine how absurd and disturbing contacts I or other Finnish journalists, researchers or politicians will receive in the future, when influencing with information is further activated and developed.

One thing I know for sure: what ever happens, the persecution has not affected nor will it ever affect my work as a journalist. I will continue my investigations with the same enthusiasm, perseverance and love towards the truth as I have done until today.

Thank you to everyone who have encouraged me along the way. You know who you are. And if ever someone needs help or someone to talk with, I'm the person to contact. I'll be happy to share the load.

(Updated 14.51: Grammar edited) 

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You can find Jessikka's troll stories from here:

Yle Kioski Traces the Origins of Russian Social Media Propaganda – Never-before-seen Material from the Troll Factory

Yle Kioski Investigated: This is How Pro-Russia Trolls Manipulate Finns Online – Check the List of Forums Favored by Propagandists

This is What Pro-Russia Internet Propaganda Feels Like – Finns Have Been Tricked into Believing in Lies

Yle TV2 arkisin 19.30—20.00