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US experts gird Finnish officials for information war

Behind closed doors, about 100 Finnish state officials have this week been undergoing training in American-style management of public information. The most concrete advice they've received from US lecturers? Avoid repeating false claims.

Jed Willard (vas.) ja Adam Berinsky suunnittelemassa suomalaisvirkamiesten informaatiotaitojen koulutusta 18. tammikuuta 2016.
Jed Willard and Adam Berinsky have been training Finnish bureaucrats in information control. Image: Yle

Originally piqued by the Ukraine crisis, Finland's Council of State saw a need to sharpen government employees' information control skills. Officials readily admit that they have been frustrated by the battle to get out the facts, for instance when it comes to Russian public perceptions over child custody disputes in Finland. The most recent area of inflamed debate and disinformation on social media is related to asylum seekers.

"Of course Russia is also active on the information front, but for instance the refugee issue opens new opportunities to influence us in the wrong way," says Director of Government Communications Markku Mantila, who instigated this week's training workshop, held at a Finnish Defence Forces base on Helsinki's Santahamina island.

"That's why it's essential to grasp these issues and try to arm ourselves against them," he says, apparently referring to an upsurge of pseudo-news websites that publish xenophobic stories without any fact-checking – which are then widely spread in social media.

Stick to Finland's own story

The American experts leading the workshop are careful to avoid mentioning Russia when speaking to Yle. Jed Willard, director of the Harvard University-based FDR Center for Global Engagement, recommends focusing on Finland's own story.

"You know we're really not here to talk about the Russian narrative. We're here to really focus on the Finnish narrative. No matter what other countries say, whether you're getting information out of Moscow, out of Washington, even out of Brussels...the best way to respond to that is with a positive Finnish story," Willard says.

Willard, whose wife is of Finnish descent, says that Finland's own story is more important as it celebrates its centenary of independence next year.

"I think a big question for 2017 is why," he says. "What is Finland? What does it mean to be Finnish? What were all those sacrifices for? What do we want to be 100 years from now to make it all worthwhile?"

Don't repeat lies

Adam J. Berinsky, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has one concrete bit of advice: never repeat statements that you consider to be false.

"This claim may be the only thing that the recipient remembers," Berinsky notes. "So don't repeat the misinformation in order to counter it. Just say here's the story that we want to focus on; having a strong story so that people have what we call an alternative narrative. You don't just want to say this is wrong and say this is right but you want to give people a reason to accept what is right; they have to accept what the truth is."

In Berinsky's view, the internet has not changed everything, but it has changed how quickly misinformation can spread.

"It's no longer a question of rumours, but rather that you can easily find support online for any belief, no matter how false it is," he adds.

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