Journalists covering conflicts are often the first targets for info-war campaigns and propagandists, as journalism undermines the effects of propaganda, and propagandists want to use reporters to spread disinformation among a larger audience. Both in Finland and internationally there have been various cases in which pro-Kremlin influencers have intimidated citizens, journalists and researchers who have attempted to uncover Russian info-war tactics or espionage.
In Finland strong legislation forbids mass media crimes, such as libel, making threats (death fantasies, for example, are considered threats by the courts), stalking and publishing private information with the aim of defaming an individual. Legally, social media is considered mass media.
The persecution of me by propagandists is being investigated by the police, and it is important that other disinformation targets report harassment to the police too. If politically motivated intimidation is not stopped at an early stage, it may have serious consequences—not only professionally but personally, too.
In Russia, independent investigative journalists, citizen activists and opposition politicians often face harassment, threats and physical violence, and in the most tragic cases have been murdered. The intimidators of journalists and citizen activists can act with almost complete impunity in Russia. As Western countries have better justice systems and legislation, it is advisable to counter the illegal threats, libel and harassment of pro-Russia propagandists—as well as other hate speech agitators—with legal action. In Britain new legislation was passed in 2014 that means that online trolls there can face up to two years in jail.
If current national legislation is powerless to act on disinformation, with enough political will it can be changed to protect the targets of hate speech. The rules of public debate cannot be placed in the hands of disinformation agitators, as they will use them to further their own political goals and not society’s best interests.
Most civilians are not psychologically prepared to operate in an info-war climate. In the workplaces of the targets of disinformation and hate speech, it is crucial that employers and workers’ unions take protective measures. Fear of being attacked is a natural reaction, but without proper support it could cause self-censorship. Some journalists and researchers have told me that they are too scared to publish their findings because they fear the hate speech that will follow, and some citizens have already been silenced by the trolls.
Aggressive trolling is a threat to the organisation and its functions, not just individual journalists or researchers. In this regard, Finland has seen a positive development: in February 2016 the chief editors of the Finnish media put out a joint statement saying that they will protect their reporters from threats.
Suing online propagandists is the ‘easiest’ legal way of tackling disinformation. A much trickier question is what should be done about the international blogs and fake news sites run by the anonymous middlemen who abuse the Western freedom of speech and mask pro-Kremlin hate speech as ‘alternative opinions’.
From the perspective of journalism and freedom of speech, the best solution is to investigate suspicious sites and other info-war activities and to publish detailed articles about them. That is the way to raise awareness and to ensure that fewer people are in danger of falling into the propaganda trap. Many journalists and projects, including the Ukrainian ‘Stop Fake’ project and the @EUvsDisinfo Twitter account, do this by regularly exposing propaganda as such.
If propaganda sites break the law, the police need to find the people running the sites. Latvia recently blocked the Latvian Sputnik site because it spreads Russian propaganda. Foreseeably, Russia opposed the move as ‘censorship’, which is an absurd and ‘trolling’ statement coming from Russia.
Finland has also taken action to counter disinformation: the Prime Minister’s office has set up a group that exchanges knowledge about disinformation targeted at Finland and has started to train government officials on the subject of information war.