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Finnish researcher: Russia ramping up its information war

Russia has intensified its ongoing information war against the West since the onset of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Finnish author Saara Jantunen says the campaign cannot be reduced to a few crazies blowing off steam, because at its worst the goal is to encourage public mayhem via false information. She also claims people in Finland who call attention to the looming threat are being silenced.

Saara Jantunen.
Image: Matti Hämäläinen / Yle

Doctor of Military Science and infowar expert Saara Jantunen has released a new book in Finnish on the Russian misinformation campaign. Named ‘Infosota’, the book explores the ruthless front lines of the concentrated Russian infowar effort, including its troll houses – where hundreds of Russian bloggers are paid to flood forums and social networks at home and abroad with anti-western and pro-Kremlin comments.

For nearly a decade now, the Kremlin has been busily waging an information war mainly through its international broadcaster RT (formerly known as Russia Today). In 2015, Russia increased its spending on RT by more than 50 percent to over 260 million euros.

The other arm of the Kremlin's international media operation, the news agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), now also gets the equivalent of 78 million euros in state funding. These increases were needed to partially offset the recent slump in the rouble's value, but they also underline the increasing importance the Kremlin attaches to its international media operations.

Smear campaigns and defamation

Jantunen expects news of her book to make certain sections of the social media landscape catch fire.

As a researcher for Finland’s Defence Forces, she is already accustomed to Russian-backed trolling targeting her with defamation and belittling. This time around, however, she anticipates something beyond a mere Internet smear campaign: a mechanically orchestrated botnet attack.

“Every now and then I noticed that a troll harassing me would forward a nameless message,” says Jantunen.

Investigation showed that the same identical message was divided among hundreds of different user IDs. This botnet, short for robot network, consists of a number of Internet-connected computers communicating with other similar machines to complete repetitive tasks and objectives, often with a negative or malicious intent. When Jantunen examined her messages, the botnet trail eventually led to an online news service distributing false information.

Many journalists in Finland covering the information war have been subject to the same defamation. Pro-Kremlin camps have even registered complaints with the Finnish authorities for the media’s attempts to influence public opinion. The authors of two recent Yle stories on the subject of Russian troll houses have been accused online of grudge journalism and Russophobia, among other things.

Support in Finland

Jantunen’s book lays bare the argumentation errors and web of lies the information war relies on. She also specifies in detail the Finns and Donetsk People’s Republic supporters that aid and abet the Russian campaign in Finland.

The so-called ‘Donetsk Peoples’ Republic’ is a state without international recognition that has been declared independent by East-Ukrainian separatists. The Republic's representative body in Finland is led by controversial docent Johan Bäckman, who claims he has received a mandate to the position from the Republic’s highest council.

Jantunen isn’t the only researcher in Finland who is concerned about the growing influence of the Russia information war. Director of government communications and Finnish Safety Committee expert member Markku Mantila and University of Helsinki researcher Hanna Smith have both warned against the dangers of mixing lies and reality.

“I am deeply concerned about the levels of discussion in the Finnish political arena if people aren’t allowed to speak,” says Jantunen.

She says it is high time Finnish politicians put the country’s former presidents and Eastern neighbour appeasers Paasikivi and Kekkonen to rest.

“Nostalgia for the days of Finlandisation and the re-interpreted retro importance of the Paasikivi-Kekkonen policy line are just props that are used to avoid real decision-making and true intellectual independence.” 

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