By Jaya Singh
After Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö noted a rise in foreign state-sponsored online disinformation and propaganda targeting Finnish residents in 2015, he called for collective resistance among Finns, consulted US researchers on the growing threats, and then adopted a comprehensive series of educational interventions (Henley 2020; Mackintosh 2019). These measures have included information literacy skills curricula for elementary, high school, and adult students, along with effective communications campaigns warning voters about potential propaganda targeting Finnish electoral processes.
While the Finnish government has, for decades, monitored potential threats from foreign states, including Russian Kremlin-sponsored propaganda targeting Finnish residents (Henley 2020; Mackintosh 2019), the overall public wellbeing of Finland’s residents have had a substantial impact on their collective efforts against false information. Aside from ranking first out of thirty-five European countries for “resilience to the post-truth phenomenon” in a 2018 European Policies Initiative study, Finland has ranked among the top three countries for political transparency, social justice, and freedom of press (Mackintosh 2019).
Taking a closer look at Finland’s ongoing, effective efforts towards preserving its democratic values, high quality of life, and consistent expectations for journalistic integrity, it is evident that the Finnish government and its residents have worked to maintain a solid and collective focus towards limiting false information-oriented damages. To fully comprehend and appreciate this collective focus, however, it is first important to define and understand the role of disinformation, misinformation, and information literacy skills training.
There are numerous accepted definitions for the aforementioned terms. “Disinformation” is better understood as the intentional spreading of “false or misleading information” among targeted communities so as to deceive people (Atlantic Council 2022). “Misinformation,” on the other hand, is the “unintended spread of false information” (Atlantic Council 2022). While some of this false information could be propaganda, it is important to note that propaganda describes communications that could sometimes possess accurate information yet is still intended to instill distrust and polarization in targeted communities. As recognized in Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s 2019 documentary ‘The Great Hack’, social harms spurred by false information include the deepening of social and political divides, which has led to electoral interference (i.e., the undermining of democratic processes and values) as well as various types of hate crimes. As observed with the COVID-19 pandemic, online disinformation campaigns and misinformation have stoked anti-vaccination movements and vaccine hesitancy, which has detrimentally impacted communities despite initial attempts by large technology corporations to curb the spread of public health-related false information.
In response to these growing concerns, the Finnish government was recognized for actively curbing voter distrust through information literacy training (Henley 2020; Mackintosh 2019). This training has included informative public advertisements that warn voters against foreign-derived false information and propaganda, along with school curricula that provide students with the skills required to recognize and critically think about sources, analysis, and information (2020; 2019). More specifically, these curricula include (but are not limited to) the analysis of deep fake videos and false information, factchecking skills development, and encouraging students to question received content prior to sharing it (Henley 2020). When we consider the growing risks to national security, communal well-being, and even public health that come with online false information dissemination, we may find ourselves asking why similar measures have not been effectively and broadly applied in other democratic nation states such as the United States and Canada?
According to NSA general counsel Glenn Gerstell, while there have been some attempts by the NSA to “undertake more cyber offensive actions against Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran who are spreading disinformation from abroad,” one sole US agency or department is not responsible for tackling these issues (Morell 2020). Moreover, Gerstell emphasizes that the US government does not want to “hurt” the operations of tech companies and social media platforms by enforcing false information-related censorship measures (2020). Gerstell points out that there is currently no effective manner to legally measure the “actual [direct] injury” of individuals resulting from false information.
Due to First Amendment protections, there are considerable legal implications in attempting to curb false information dissemination (2020). But it is difficult to locate information that outlines clear reasons why the US government, other democratic federal governments, or multilateral organizations like the United Nations or NATO are not actively producing false information-oriented awareness campaigns for the general public or information literacy curricula similar to those provided through the Finnish education system. Such campaigns recognize the social and physical harms that misinformation and disinformation cause to the general public, journalistic integrity, and democracy at large. Families across the world have experienced increased tension and distress while losing touch with loved ones who have begun believing and even acting upon radical conspiracy theories they have found online. These conspiracy theories have included Pizzagate and the QAnon-fuelled denial of former President Donald Trump’s loss of the 2020 US Presidential Election, which gave way to the violent Capitol attack that took place on January 6, 2021 (Harwell et al. 2021).
Throughout the COVID-19 global pandemic, medical misinformation and disinformation have sparked violence against people wearing masks, healthcare workers, frontline workers, and larger communities, as seen in related events such as Canada’s Trucker Convey from January-February 2022. During this convoy, people who believed anti-vaccination and anti-mask misinformation occupied the nation’s capital, Ottawa, as many of them harassed and assaulted Ottawa residents (Pringle 2022). People of East Asian decent have also been increasingly targeted in dangerous anti-Asian hate crimes fueled by racist pandemic misinformation/disinformation, which has resulted in hypervigilance, significant distress for those being targeted, and even death (Balintec 2022; Gover, Harper, and Langton 2021).
Heightened distress and fear for safety have been experienced by other conspiracy theory victims including parents who lost their children in the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. After conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones decided to spread denial-based misinformation about the shooting, parents began getting death threats from strangers who believed the shooting was a hoax (Holmes 2019). These threats resulted in extensive negative life changes with two parents having to relocate seven times while attempting to conceal their identity (2019). When considering these increasing instances of harassment, violence, and death, it is critical to note that governments cannot afford to ignore the real-world consequences that come with online misinformation and disinformation, especially given their access to and capacity to promote rapid transnational dissemination.
Despite a troubling lack of governmental involvement in information literacy in the US and Canada, think-tanks and research organizations such as Data & Society (datasociety.net), Bellingcat (bellingcat.com), and the Atlantic Council (atlanticcouncil.org) have been working ceaselessly to track state- and non-state-sponsored disinformation campaigns across the globe, the complex influences and intentions behind disinformation campaigns, and their subsequent communal harms over measured periods of time.
When it comes to researching the social and individual implications of online false information dissemination, there is a growing need for the application of digital ethnography and other robust qualitative methodologies. Information scholars, technologists, and journalists have been making great strides in examining social harms and consequences. Nuanced ethnographic research is also required to understand the specific demographics and online communities facing obstacles (e.g., technological, financial, educational) that prevent access to the tools, information, and/or social encouragement required to foster information literacy. Anthropologists and ethnographers of digital media offer significant value for this type of research—particularly research that directly addresses these prominent gaps impacting social technology users residing in democratic societies.
Amer, Karim, and Jehane Noujaim, dirs. 2019. The Great Hack. New York: The Othrs.
Atlantic Council. 2022. “Disinformation.” Accessed June 4, 2022.
Balintec, Vanessa. 2022. “2 years into the pandemic, anti-Asian hate is still on the rise in Canada, report shows.” CBC News, April 3, 2022.
Gover, Angela R. Shannon B. Harper, and Lynn Langton. 2020. “Anti-Asian Hate Crime During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Exploring the Reproduction of Inequality.” American Journal of Criminal Justice 45, no. 4: 647–667. DOI: 10.1007/s12103-020-09545-1.
Harwell, Drew, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Razzan Nakhlawi, and Craig Timberg. 2021. “QAnon reshaped Trump’s party and radicalized believers. The Capitol siege may just be the start.” The Washington Post, January 13, 2021.
Henley, Jon. 2020. “How Finland starts its fight against fake news in primary schools.” The Guardian, January 29, 2020.
Holmes, Jack. 2019. “Alex Jones Will Have to Face the Sandy Hook Parents Whose Children He Tried to Erase.” Esquire, February 14, 2019.
Mackintosh, Eliza. 2019. “Finland is winning the war on fake news. What it’s learned may be crucial to Western democracy.” CNN, n.d.
Morell, Michael. 2020. “Tackling disinformation is national security issue says former NSA general counsel.” CBS News, December 16, 2020.
Pringle, Josh. 2022. “Downtown Ottawa residents tired of 'living hell' during trucker protest.” CTV News, February 3, 2022.