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The Russian “troll factory” is working tirelessly. Hundreds of Internet users who fill sites and forums with countless pro-Kremlin comments for money and harass opponents have long reached the “operational space” outside of Russia. Now Finland is also interested in this phenomenon, whose websites have been subjected in recent months to a real invasion of trolls who praise Putin and accuse the Finnish authorities of hostility towards their eastern neighbor. The Finnish portal Yle Kioski has published a detailed investigation into the activities of pro-Russian trolls in Finland, including a Russian-language version.
I am an active news reader for YLE, Ilta-Sanomat and CNN. Everywhere [on the comment forums of these sites] there were pro-Russian posts similar to systematic propaganda. I see in the messages of the trolls an unpleasant tone, reminiscent of the old Soviet propaganda. Truth has no meaning for them. Strange comments are often awkward, superficial, they seem to be aimed at mentally retarded readers. That is, they are typical propaganda written by order.
The troll army has taken over all press comment forums up to local newspapers. For example, the news of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper (about Ukraine, NATO, etc.) is actively attacked. They are also trying to cause a split in domestic policy issues.
There are so many active troll messages that it gets scary. If you decide to criticize Putin and the actions of Russia, mention NATO or the United States, or question the truth that Trolls confidently give out, then you are an “enemy of Russia and a fan of NATO,” as well as an “enemy of the Finnish people who want to ruin Finland’s good relations with By Russia. ” In addition, the trolls write that the critic probably has a lot of bloody money from the United States in his pocket. They write about Putin that he is a charismatic leader of a democratic Russia, enjoying the full confidence of the people, and even the West must recognize his solid as iron art of running the country.
When I searched for something with Google, I noticed a very active [pro-Russian] troll who rewrites the history of Finland in local newspapers and political blogs. The content of the messages is always the same. He probably has many different “blanks,” which he systematically places in all the media.
The troll army intensified, in particular, after two types of news: if the article talked about the United States and NATO, or about the situation in Estonia. It was obvious that they were followed by instructions, and the reaction intensified. At times, the tone became threatening.
This is a small part of the impressions of Finnish bloggers and other Internet users that they shared with Yle Kioski correspondent Jessica Aro, who for many months explored the relatively new phenomenon of pro-Kremlin Internet trolling in Finland. It turned out a lot of curiosity – up to the specific Internet policy of the Russian embassy in Helsinki, which more than once blocked critical commentators in its accounts on social networks, but left obvious, but “well-disposed” trolls.
How long have you been following the activities of pro-Russian trolls in the Finnish Internet sector?
I have been actively engaged in this topic since last September – nine months.
That is, after the start of the Ukrainian crisis?
Yes. But I also studied the history of their activities. My investigation also applies to an earlier period when the Ukrainian crisis was not in full swing.
What did they do, what goals did the trolls on Finnish sites pursue before the war in Ukraine?
They worked in much the same way. As soon as critical material about Russia and its politics was published on the website of some Finnish media or another portal, trolls immediately appeared in the comments section and began to purposefully shift the discussion topics – to transfer it to NATO, the USA, and criticism of their policies. Engaged in manipulating the discussion. Moreover, their activities are structured in such a way that relevant comments appear continuously, regardless of weekends and holidays. They start early in the morning and send slightly varying, and sometimes identical, comments hundreds of times during the day. The goal is to divert the attention of those discussing from criticism of Russia and at the same time to praise Russian politics and Putin. At the same time, there is criticism of the United States and the European Union, statements are built in such a way as to arouse in the audience distrust of the politics of Western countries.
Do they write all this in Finnish or in English?
In the case of Finnish sites – in Finnish.
And what language quality do they have? You can immediately understand that this is written by a foreigner for whom Finnish is not a native language?
There are different opinions on this. For the most part, you can understand that this is not written by the Finns: in such messages diacritical badges or specific letters that are in our language are very rarely used, their texts are written in Latin letters. In addition, they now and then come across errors – not quite the right turns, inaccuracies in grammar. But overall, the level of language is not entirely bad.
Your investigation mentions troll attacks on some Finnish politicians and public figures. How did this happen?
First of all, it is the bombardment of members of our parliament by anonymous messages on twitter and e-mail, in Finnish and Russian. Among these “targets” were, for example, our former Minister of Defense Karl Haglund or the head of the parliamentary committee on international politics.
And how did the recipients respond? Ignored these letters, were alarmed, or tried to figure out what was the matter?
I can’t say about all the reactions, because not everyone who received such messages spoke about this. But several parliamentarians have publicly reported troll attacks and that the letters they received contained misinformation on certain issues.
Have you tried to compare the working methods of trolls in Finland and other countries? Is there any specificity of its own or is everything based on similar principles and schemes everywhere?
In principle, the methods are similar everywhere. After all, are you familiar with the publication in the New York Times about the Russian “troll factory”? Their attack is described there, with the help of which they tried to sow panic, reporting an alleged explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana. Russian trolls have not yet conducted such large-scale actions in Finland. They are aggressive enough here, but not to such an extent that they say that our country is one of the main goals of their activities.
And who can be called the “target audience” of Russian trolls in Finland? Are these primarily Finns or Russians permanently living in Finland? In your investigation, you mention the Russian-language forum Russian.fi as one of the objects of very high troll activity.
Definitely both. But I’m more worried about the Russian-speaking minority in Finland, because these people are also heavily influenced by Russian television, and on the Internet they often go, say, to the sites of Russian rather than Finnish media.
Is this a large minority?
According to official statistics, the Russian language is native to 70 thousand inhabitants of Finland.
In your opinion, are the trolls working in the Finnish Internet sector – whether it matters to a Finnish or Russian-speaking audience – achieve their goals?
According to a survey of Internet users that we conducted, the activity of pro-Russian trolls affected many Finns. Although many say that they do not pay attention to it, I personally very often came across such statements: people no longer want to speak on the Internet about Russia, because they immediately become targets of harassment by trolls. Some say that they have changed to one degree or another their views on Russian politics, and even more those who say that as a result of reading these messages they have completely lost the idea of what is true and what is not. As for emotional reactions to troll attacks, this is anxiety, nervousness, and even fear. So in general, I can say that the trolls influenced the public discussion in Finland on topics related to Russia. In the sense that they changed the nature and intensity of this discussion, simply silencing many Finns, and on the other hand, disorienting part of the public regarding which information is true and which is not.
And how important are Russian topics for Finnish public opinion? Are they the focus of public attention or somewhere on the outskirts?
These days, of course, people are more interested in domestic issues, the economy and our politics, because elections have just been held in Finland, a new parliament has been elected. But before the election and in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia was indeed a very important topic. Of foreign topics – certainly No. 1. We Finns are interested in Russia, and not only in the context of the war in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, this is our huge neighbor. Our border with Russia is 1,300 kilometers long, more than any of the EU countries. All this affects us, including what is happening in the Russian economy. That is why many Finns are actively discussing the situation in Russia and the Ukrainian crisis.
Do Finnish authorities consider the activity of Russian trolls a threat to the security of their country? Do they seek to somehow limit their activity?
Yes. A couple of months ago, the government announced that it was launching focused work to combat disinformation. Now press secretaries of various public services, media experts regularly gather, exchange data on what is happening in the information sphere, and try …
No, they don’t call it that. They simply monitor disinformation campaigns concerning Finland and try to disseminate adequate information on these topics. Well, let’s say, to refute the information that is spread in Russia, for example, people like Johan Beckmann. By the way, he also spread misinformation in the Russian media about me.
In your opinion, will troll activity in the Finnish Internet sector be high for a long time? The Finnish authorities are not going to raise this topic in any way in contact with the Russian side?
I think they should have done it. But I have no more accurate information about such plans. I can only say that the program of the new Finnish government, which has just come to power, contains a clause on the “hybrid war”, which states that Finland will very actively resist attempts to use elements of such a war against it. This is one of the priorities of our government.
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