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Disinformation campaigns target Finland's foreign language speakers, Nato fears

Targeted disinformation and conspiracies risk eroding trust and creating division within Finnish society, according to researchers and political figures.

Screenshot of various videos streamed on TikTok. The images are not linked to the disinformation campaigns featured in the article. Image: Tiktok

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many news outlets - including the BBC (siirryt toiseen palveluun) and The Guardian (siirryt toiseen palveluun) - have reported that targeted disinformation campaigns and rumours have flooded online spaces.

In response, platforms like TikTok and Twitter have scaled up efforts (siirryt toiseen palveluun) to counter Russian disinformation that has proliferated on their sites.

Meanwhile, an investigation (siirryt toiseen palveluun) by Yle's Kioski unit also revealed that government-sponsored pro-Russia trolls have engaged in highly organised efforts to manipulate discourse among Finnish speakers online, while false rumours of an imminent Russian invasion have also led to growing concern over attempts to influence people living in Finland.

However, disinformation and misinformation in foreign-language spaces is less documented, which political figures and researchers say have a growing potential to impact society in Finland and beyond.

New lies, old traumas

"It's crazy right now. Russia is incredibly active on Arabic TikTok" explained Suldaan Said Ahmed, a Helsinki MP for the Left Alliance, and the only Somali-born member of Parliament.

Said Ahmed told Yle News that he has been "working overtime" to meet with constituents who do not speak or understand Finnish, as many of them report seeing videos online which claim that war is about to break out in Finland, or that the US is forcing Finland to join Nato.

"MPs representing minorities are being bombarded with messages from constituents who are panicking and seem to have a totally different idea of what is happening with Russia," Said Ahmed said.

He added that he hosts outreach sessions to conduct "straight conversations" and correct the disinformation and rumours people are hearing online.

The MP also recently met (siirryt toiseen palveluun) with diplomats and high-level politicians from various Middle Eastern and African countries at a UN event in Geneva which focused on the war's impact on the Horn of Africa. Several attendees raised the issue of disinformation, in response to messages from Said Ahmed's concerned constituents with relatives living in Finland.

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Suldaan Said Ahmed (Left Alliance) in the Finnish Parliament. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

Fears about the safety of people in Finland is not restricted to those living overseas. Tony Khalil from the Finnish Refugee Council told Yle News that online rumours of an imminent invasion are "awakening feelings of insecurity and anxiety" among people who fled conflicts in their home countries to seek safety in Finland.

Without greater efforts to reach people in languages that they understand, he added, unfettered disinformation could unearth trauma in vulnerable populations, making integration efforts more difficult.

"Finland is no longer a country where people only speak Finnish and Swedish", Said Ahmed noted, adding that countering disinformation in these communities is an important part of preventing Russia from achieving its military goals.

"Russia failed to divide Europe so it is spreading its narrative to anyone who will listen. We need to be more present in those spaces and improve access to the facts to stop Russia from ever succeeding anywhere," he said.

The disinformation machine

"The Russian disinformation machine is at full capacity", according to Gwenaëlle Bauvois, a researcher at the University of Helsinki who has been tracking online misinformation.

She added that Russia’s goal in targeting different communities is to create "maximum confusion" and undermine trust in local authorities.

People with little or no Finnish language abilities are more likely to rely on social media as their primary source of information, she added. Bauvois therefore believes that Russia is targeting foreign-language speakers because they are easier to influence.

"If you're a foreigner in Finland you already feel like an outsider and might not trust mainstream media. A lot of people inhabit isolated information bubbles, where that feeling of community is more powerful than facts," she said.

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University of Helsinki researcher Gwenaëlle Bauvois. Image: Gwenaëlle Bauvois

Bauvois and other researchers have described the information environment as "one-sided", with Russia aggressively engaging foreign language groups that Finnish authorities are failing to reach.

"I don't think the Finnish population is even remotely aware of the scale of things," she noted.

William Couch, spokesperson for the US Embassy in Helsinki, told Yle News that the embassy has also been "keeping tabs" on foreign-language disinformation since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

Initially, their efforts were focused on reassuring panicked US citizens that a Russian invasion of Finland was not imminent. However, a more proactive strategy for countering Russian propaganda is now taking shape.

"We're not worried about Finnish-focused disinformation, since Finns have shown to be less susceptible to fake news," Couch said.

With help from the State Department's Global Engagement Center in Washington DC, the embassy has instead focused on tracking messages emanating from Moscow that are reaching Russian and Arabic speakers in Finland. The embassy has since begun to put out messages and video content in Russian and Arabic to directly counter specific disinformation in these spaces.

While Couch noted that the impact of this content might be "limited", he stressed that it is important that Russia is not given free reign in the information war.

"I wouldn't dare to guess what motivates Moscow, but their endgame seems to be uncertainty and chaos. It's our job to meet them in these spaces and stop them from controlling the narrative," he said.

Yle News contacted the Russian Embassy for comment, but had not received a reply by the time of publication.

Not all fake news

When it comes to people with refugee backgrounds in Finland, fake news is not always the most powerful tool. Said Ahmed pointed out that one of the most prominent themes on social media is talk of supposed "double standards" from Finland and European countries when it comes to human rights.

"A lot of the content people are seeing is [questions] why Finland is worried about human rights in Ukraine but not in Palestine, or bringing up US military involvement in the Middle East to suggest that Finland is being dragged into superpower conflicts," he said.

Another prominent theme concerns the treatment of refugees themselves, playing on existing sentiments that arrivals from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2015 were treated in much more harshly by Finnish authorities compared to recent Ukrainian arrivals.

This is something that is coming to dominate discourses in refugee communities in Finland, Outi Popp told Yle News. She's a journalist at Refugee Radio, a non-profit group that aims to communicate information about refugees' rights in Finland. She says that disinformation isn't the problem, but rather Finland's treatment of these communities.

"If all refugees were treated as humanely as Ukrainians there wouldn't be a problem. Afghans and Iraqis who are still waiting for their permits and told they aren't 'real' refugees don't need Russia to tell them they're being treated unfairly", she said.

Another current concern is Finland's substantial Kurdish refugee community, where anxiety is running high as many fear being extradited to Turkey in order to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Nato demands.

"The Kurds have received no guarantees about their security and safety here in Finland, and they’re terrified", Popp explained. "Wouldn't you be?"

In response to a request for comment from Yle News, the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) said that Finland is constitutionally committed to ensuring that no one is extradited to a country where they would be in danger of political or ethnic persecution.

The office added that the huge scale of Ukrainian arrivals necessitated speedier processing for this group, and that asylum applications were now proceeding "as normal" for all groups.

For Said Ahmed, the most powerful thing Finland can do to counter Russian propaganda is to lead by example.

"We need to extend our compassion to people from the Middle East and Africa. This is the best way to make it 100 percent clear that Russia is the one causing so much pain," he said, adding that Finland and the West are not the problem, but "Russia is".

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