This is What Pro-Russia Internet Propaganda Feels Like – Finns Have Been Tricked into Believing in Lies
Please note! The messages throughout the article are typical troll messages. They illustrate how Russia-related discussions are disrupted online.
Trolls distributing pro-Russia propaganda online have silenced Finns as well as sown fear and distrust.
In addition to this, pro-Russia Internet lobbyists have manipulated the conceptions of Finns about the events in Ukraine and the actions of Russia, and also blurred the line between the truth and lies. The information in this article is based on the accounts of Finns sent to Yle, observations made on discussion forums, and the interviews of several experts.
Many Finns describe they have been scared by trolling and stopped following topics concerning Russia and discussing Russia altogether because of it. In the previous article, we revealed the most popular websites and modes of action of anonymous propaganda distributors.
One Finn described the massive flood of trolling messages as “overpowering” and said he/she was forced to give up online debating because of it.
Another one says he/she usually pulls away from the discussions because he/she “is a peace- loving person”. One person who discussed Ukraine and Crimea online says he/she suffered fits of fear after anonymous pro-Russia profiles had called him/her names and threatened to “silence” him/her.
"You’re a nazi."
THE DECISION CAN BE SEEMINGLY INDEPENDENT
The reactions of Finns are not only alarming but also understandable. The goal of propaganda, name-calling and lying is specifically to have a psychological effect, says a Finnish expert who has studied information warfare on the Internet and wishes to stay anonymous.
The effectiveness of the propaganda is based on the mode of psychological information warfare Russia has adopted. The leading tactical doctrine is the idea of “reflexive control”: with the information people are being fed, the target is to force people to make preferred decisions – seemingly independently.
Seemingly independent decisions can, for example, include not participating in web discussions anymore, or changing one’s opinion about the actions of Russia to be more favourable.
In addition to silencing, the objective can also be provoking the target, or self-defence, for example, says Torsti Sirén, an Adjunct Professor in the National Defence University of Finland.
– If the target of accusations defends himself or herself in public, the opponent gets publicity. And if the target continues the debate or calls the opponent names when provoked, they may be targeted with complaints and taken to court, says Sirén.
During the Ukraine war, Sirén has, after his statements about Russia, been slandered and called names like “a fascist pig” in the social media and blogs.
– However, it seems name-calling and slandering usually backfires on the name callers themselves. Finns are conscious and educated people and understand what is propaganda and what isn’t. So let them just go ahead and call other people names, says Sirén.
A third Finnish expert subscribes to Sirén’s view on what the objective of trolls is. They strive for eliminating conversationalists that reveal Russia’s actions or are otherwise competent in their discussion, by ruining their reputation.
It’s a well known psychological fact that it’s a lot easier to enhance a negative image than to refute it – even if there are attempts to distribute new information.
– If you’ve managed to create a very negative reaction in a person, the person will have a negative attitude towards the same thing in the future, as well, says an expert who wants to remain anonymous because of his/her work. He/she has also been targeted with pro-Russia trolling on social media.
The end result is the same whether the one harassing people online or distributing disinformation is a paid professional troll, or someone distributing propaganda for other reasons - which there are a lot of on forums used by Finns.
"You’re a fascist."
INCOMPREHENSIBLE THREADS, TRUTH NOWHERE TO BE FOUND
Finnish blogger Janne Riiheläinen describes his experiences of being pro-Russia trolled (in Finnish).
Many Finns who have been targeted by opinion-manipulating trolls said that trolling has not had any kind of effect on them or their actions.
At the same time, some of them told us that constant false material online has made it harder to understand what’s happening in Ukraine.
Pro-Russia trolls have, indeed, presented ordinary citizens with a world of lies, cover-ups, and deliberate confusion, says Janne Riiheläinen who also has been targeted by trolls. Riiheläinen writes a blog about security policy and actively participates in discussions on Twitter.
Because of deliberate confusing, it’s no wonder people can’t tell the truth from lies and don’t feel they are safe, in his opinion.
– In a war, buildings and the infrastructure of the society are destroyed. In information warfare, trust is destroyed, says Riiheläinen.
Because of propaganda and manipulation to cause arguments, many discussion threads about Ukraine or Russia are nearly incomprehensible since the conversationalists have to answer anonymous attacks and rectify disinformation.
The biggest damage the trolls cause on the largest Russian-speaking discussion forum in Finland, Russian.fi, is the fact that they provoke other conversationalists and pull them into arguments, says Veronika Solovian, the administrator of the forum.
However, trolls cannot be removed from the forum just like that because they don’t usually break the site’s rules. Administrators can also nearly never be completely sure whether a user is a troll or not, and where the line of trolling is.
It’s no wonder people can’t tell the truth from lies. – Janne Riiheläinen
Solovian believes that if trolls were actively dealt with, the forum would be labelled russophobic.
– We don’t want to be labelled. We specifically want to position ourselves as a free forum where all opinions are allowed as long as the people giving their opinions don’t break the rules of discussion.
On Russian.fi, one of the solutions is its own “closed ward” where the most fanatic users and trolls can argue on their own. “The closed ward” is not even visible for unregistered users at all.
– In addition, the most fanatic rule-breakers, or users who clearly create a bad atmosphere on the forum will be banned from the forum whether they are trolls or not, says Solovian.
"You’re a russophobe."
MANY FINNS SPREAD PROPAGANDA THEMSELVES
Internet propaganda distributed in Russian, English and Finnish, and through photos and videos has other effects, as well.
Many people have started to distribute manipulated photos and disinformation in their own networks as the truth.
– According to the status update, one of my Facebook friends has started to listen to the radio station The Voice of Russia and to read the web page Verkkomedia.org. Now friend’s own comments on Facebook have started to become very pro-Putin and pro-Russia which seems a little surprising and odd to me, says a Finn.
In addition, many Finns have during the Ukraine war started to distribute pro-Russia propaganda in an aggressive way: by calling people participating in discussions about Russia names and speaking to them in a derogatory manner.
Public discussion concerning Russia in discussion groups is disrupted in every way even remotely possible.
On Facebook, there are now countless groups where the members are whipped up to be anti-West. Finnish politicians, researchers and other experts discussing Russia are slandered. The Finnish media is labelled unreliable while the Russian media is labelled trustworthy.
In these groups, active members churn out official complaints to authorities and machinate sending slandering emails to hundreds of colleagues of journalists who have written about Russia. Public discussion about the subject is disrupted in any way even remotely possible.
Whatever the motives of Finnish distributors of disinformation are, their activity supports the objectives of the Russian leadership. The Facebook groups are popular among different kinds of pro-Russia fake profiles and they usually have a misleading name. More and more Finns join these groups and are subjected to the disinformation distributed in them.
FORMER MEMBER OF PUTIN’S INNER CIRCLE: PEOPLE ARE NOT PSYCHOLOGICALLY PREPARED
Information warfare has been waged in Russia for years, and manipulation has affected millions of Russians, says Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser of President Vladimir Putin. Currently Illarionov works as a researcher in the Cato Institute. He resigned in 2005 and stated that Russia is an authoritarian and undemocratic country.
Illarionov has predicted Russia’s actions in Ukraine and reminds us that in modern information societies, information is a very affordable weapon. It’s cheap, effective and capable of spreading over the borders of countries.
– There is only one limit: language. But everyone understands pictures, irrespective of their mother tongue, says Illarionov. He gave a lecture in Tallinn last autumn and described how a small country can prepare for information warfare.
The Russian state media like RT and Sputnik, that now also prodeuces online news in Finnish, constantly publish disinformative photos and videos. In March, a massive image bank of a troll factory was revealed. It’s full of photo manipulations meant for distribution and slandering Western leaders or distributing propaganda in other ways.
According to Illarionov, the information warfare attacks of Russia are aggressive and cynical and people are not psychologically prepared for them. They use extremely strong words like “Nazi” and “fascist”, the use of which is avoided in the West.
But why is information warfare waged? Why does anyone want to knowingly manipulate and lie to not only their own people but also foreign countries?
– The objective is to create hysteria, increase loyalty to the leadership and convince the enemy to retreat, among other things, says Illarionov.
Other countries like the United States and Ukraine also wage their own information warfare but according to experts, Russia is the most aggressive and ruthless one. At least Israel, Great Britain, and United States have openly spoken about their own social media soldiers in public.
"You’re a victim of US propaganda."
MOST DANGEROUS CONSEQUENCE OF INFORMATION WARFARE TARGETED AT FINLAND: THE INCREASE OF UNCERTAINTY
According to a Finnish military expert who wants to stay anonymous, Finns targeted by trolls should understand one important thing: if they are targeted with lies or slander, the motive or objective of the attacker does not stand up to scrutiny.
– If it did, the instigator wouldn’t have to lie. In information warfare, the goal is always to achieve a result that is disadvantageous to the target.
The disinformation and pro-Russia trolling targeted at Finland and Finns is aimed at changing the national public sentiment and create a feeling of uncertainty in the society, says Jarno Limnéll, a cyber expert.
According to him, the most dangerous consequence is a long-term increase in uncertainty: people start to believe the disinformation they are being fed and lose their trust in Finnish actors.
– People need to understand that trolling is not a trend of this or last year but long-term influencing. The phenomenon is also not disappearing but will get stronger in the future, says Limnéll.
"You’re a victim of lying Western media."
UKRAINIAN LIVING IN FINLAND: "I CAN’T WATCH RUSSIAN TV ANYMORE"
There are about 70,000 people living in Finland whose mother tongue is Russian. Let’s ask how Russian propaganda has affected one of them.
A 28-year-old man living in Helsinki and born in Ukraine, working and highly educated, says he has widely followed the news and web discussions about Ukraine during the Ukraine war in Russian, English and Finnish.
He wants to stay anonymous because of his work and says that propaganda is less and less concealed in the Russian state media. Russian-speaking social media and Internet is full of comments like “Ukraine sucks”, music forums and other non-political web pages included.
– I can imagine some of the comments are paid for. But I’m sure a part of them are the opinions of ordinary people who have been watching Russian TV.
He himself can’t watch Russian TV anymore because the style of the news broadcasting has become aggressive during the Ukraine war. The TV programme Tshelovek i zakon that has its roots in the time of the Soviet Union only discusses Ukraine in a negative way.
– In every episode, there are inserts about parents from Kiev who beat their children, for example, he says.
The propaganda in the Russian media has affected family relations.
The propaganda in the Russian media has affected his family relations, as well. He avoids phone calls with his grandmother who lives in Russia because, after watching TV, she firmly believes Ukraine is bad and Russia will save Ukraine.
Because he also follows news on other media than the Russian one, he doesn’t share his grandmother’s views. However, he doesn’t want to argue with her so it is easiest not to call granny at all.
He and his Ukrainian relatives are amazed at how easily people in Russia swallow the propaganda. Previously, they have not tried to create such a deep chasm between Ukrainians and Russians.
In his opinion, the current situation is confusing and he no longer knows what to believe. His heartfelt wish is that the war in Ukraine would end.
- Personally, I’m seriously pissed off about losing Crimea to Russia because I spent some of the best summers of my life there. Crimea used to have a lot to give to the world – but not anymore.
"You’re a liar."
The previous articles in the series discussed The Troll Factory in Saint Petersburg and listed the web pages infested with pro-Russia trolling used by Finns.
FINNS DESCRIBE THE EFFECTS OF AGGRESSIVE PRO-RUSSIA INTERNET PROPAGANDA
"It’s disturbing, it really makes my heart race. It feels as if Russia was waging a war in Finland."
"I rarely comment on anything online anymore – because of trolls."
"Being a peace-loving person, I have usually withdrawn [from discussions], unfortunately."
"I can’t be bothered to follow topics about Russia or tweet about them anymore."
"I started to choose more sensible discussion groups. There, I heard some people got direct and even fierce threats on certain forums."
"An acquaintance of mine has really lost it or has been made to lose it. Or there may possibly be a personality type that tends to believe alternative sources without any criticism whatsoever."
"In the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, it was very hard to get a clear picture of the situation from Finnish news sources because they were striving to be impartial. The Finnish media did not offer a clear view and didn’t commit itself to a certain opinion. As I had no view on it in the beginning myself, it was easy for trolls to shake my thinking by commenting on news articles. Because of trolls, it took me extremely long to form a conception of my own."
"It’s extremely hard to try to trace the truth. It takes time and skills of critical reading. Because of that, I suspect many people are quite lost with the whole Ukraine question. Changing your erroneous view can also get more difficult if people learn to ignore facts. Pro-Russia trolling is a real threat."
"You’re responsible for the bloodshed in Ukraine."
HOW TROLLS EFFECT WEB DISCUSSIONS?
"The whole comments section is starting to be full of untruthful news from trolls and personal attacks against those who correct them."
"The thread [about Ukraine] is downright incomprehensible at times when representatives of the official news agency of Russia crank out a full load of propaganda and other conversationalists take the bait."
"Trolling steers the discussion on the wrong tracks and causes chaos. They force the discussion to matters concerning the United States when they should be talking about Putin’s ballot rigging. It seems a certain pseudonym gets paid for the texts because it can publish several messages a day. All participants in the discussion don’t notice there are trolls in the group who only quote statements of Putin and Russia, and think they are just ordinary people with a conviction."
"It has been entirely impossible to concentrate on any subject with so called normal people on news discussion threads when trolls have dominated discussions on hs.fi for nearly ten years now."
"I’ve encountered scary and oppressive business on social media. Trolls want to occupy a forum, and the more vocal they are, the more of an oppressive atmosphere they create on the forum."
"I’ve followed the ever escalating pro-Russia trolling quite closely from the start. My estimate is that the goal is not to try to make Finns pro-Russia and anti-Nato but the other way around. Russia wants the activity of the troll army to be visible to ordinary people so that they notice somebody is trying to influence them. This causes a counterreaction which is the real objective of Russia. Internal polarisation within the nation, the ever growing anti-Russia sentiment and pro-Nato attitude serve the goals of the warfare of Russia. It happened in Ukraine, as well."
"It’s easy to think there’s a big group of trolls. In fact, it’s a very small group but vocal. The flood of posts is aimed at creating the illusion that most people agree."
"Trolling comments solidify my view that Russia strives for war on every front, by propagating written text, as well. They are, in reality, telling outright lies but somebody should have the courage to confront them about it. - - Nobody can be bothered to troll if they’re not specifically paid to do it."
"[Trolls] have enforced the image in my mind about the cynical and systematic information warfare waged by Russia."
"[Trolling] can only lead to one conclusion: something serious is going on. You don’t make that kind of arrangements without controlled and systematic leadership. We – living in the safety of Finland – have a hard time accepting that in our minds."
"The social media is saturated with pro-Russia trolling. I am also amazed at the abundance of pro-Russia trolling among comments in Finnish. It’s starting to be routine now to pinpoint commenting trolls. They don’t really bother me anymore because my own view on the situation is starting to stabilise and I know which news sources can be trusted."
"In addition to trolls, problems are caused by so called “useful idiots” who are naive enough to spread the message of trolls. They refuse to believe any protestation or evidence proving the opposite."
"Trolls are a branch of information warfare. They are like anti-personnel mines; if you tread on forbidden territory with your texts or statements, the troll will explode on your face. Trolling and bullying have a lot in common: they are both aimed at getting power, weakening the position of the opponent and putting them on their knees. Bystanders stay away and don’t interfere."
"Generally, it can be noted that if the fact and the truth about the events is white in colour, the trolls of Gazprom-Media even bring out absurd black options that are presented as the truth and that many people want to believe and do believe simply because they wish to do so. This is because the United States and the West are still against them just like in the so called Great Patriotic War. Then Finns claim the truth isn’t white at all but includes some shades of grey. In other words, it’s something totally else than what actually happened. In this way, you mess with people’s minds like the minds of the jury in court, and make them believe in something else than what the evidence and the events point at. Confusion and soft force work in the advantage of the criminal."
"You will be subjected to violence."
Kioski also visited a Russian troll Factory in St. Petersburg last February and tried to interview employees. An employee told he's not allowed to give interviews.