The problem with Finland

The problem with Finland

I will start by stating the obvious. There have been several occurrences and instances in the information domain in and around Finland that are simply not normal or acceptable. Finland and the Finnish society have repeatedly been subjects of Russian disinformation. Journalists and experts critical of Russian foreign and security policy are being abused and harassed.

However, these problems have been recognized. In October 2015, President Sauli Niinistö stated that information warfare is reality and also affects Finns. According to Niinistö, national defence is every citizen’s duty also when it comes to the information environment. At the same time, the Prime Minister’s office announced that it will put a hundred government officials through training in order to help them understand and identify attempts to influence, such as disinformation campaigns. This training obviously became a subject of new disinformation on the conspiracy and disinformation websites that foster anti-Western sentiment in Finland. In March 2016 Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro won the Bonnier Grand Journalist Prize for her work to expose pro-Russian trolling in the social media. Just a few weeks before Aro won her prize, the editors of the largest media companies in Finland released a joint statement, in which they announced their commitment to proper journalism in opposition to the “fake media” that is behind most of the hate speech and abuse in the Finnish information environment. In April, the National Defence Training Association of Finland (MPK) held the first course on information security. The course was specifically designed to address the questions of how to identify malicious information campaigns, how to interpret information presented by the media, and to understand the basics of crisis communication.

However, the problems lie elsewhere. Because of the altered security situation in Europe and in the Baltic Sea region, the current situation exposes some ideologies that were the norm during the Cold War and in the Finnish appeasement policy towards Russia.

Whenever a journalist, a researcher or an expert discusses Russian foreign and security policy critically, they can be sure to draw criticism for their one-sidedness or even “provocations”.

For instance, member of the Finnish Parliament and also former Minister of Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja, recently stated, that (this translation is my own):

– I do not believe that any of the NATO countries are about to attack Russia. Nor do I believe that Russia would be planning attacks against NATO countries. Ultimately, it is these Eastern European countries where there is a fear that Russia may attack. […] And there is a genuine worry in Russia that NATO may have hostile military objectives and this creates a cycle, which media, for its part, is aggravating.

A former State Secretary in the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, Risto Volanen, also referred to Yle (Finnish National Broadcasting Company) and Helsingin Sanomat (the largest subscription newspaper in Finland) as “security risks”. In the same blog text, he condemned the “russophobia” and “unprofessional take” of the Finnish mainstream media in reporting security policy related topics.

So, let us take this to another context. Could a politician, without losing his face, have blamed the Iraqi media for provoking the United States and harming the relations between the two countries in 2003?

Would anyone have argued that the U.S. attacks were, at any time during history, even partially provoked by the demonization of the United States in the media?

This type of argumentation is not only disturbing, but symptomatic in a democratic society. Yet there are political actors who openly use this “criticism” to issue political guidance not only to journalists, but also experts and researchers who are invited, by the media, to analyze Russia’s (military) political actions in public.

I have also been subject to such criticism. Erkki Tuomioja was the latest to criticize my views on Russian information warfare in an interview by Radio Télévision Suisse (the program also contains my interview before Tuomioja’s). According to Tuomioja, my views are “unbalanced”, and he points out that I do not pay attention to the influence attempts of Western actors, such as the Baltic states.

Even more interesting, however, would be to discuss who in the Baltic states – especially in Estonia – have been targets of Finnish influence attempts, and how and when.

Tuomioja’s criticism is a good example of the type of argumentation I have gotten quite used to as a person who focuses specifically on research in the field of information warfare. I don’t know whether Tuomioja has read my book or not, but at least in his statements he chooses to ignore the fact – very clearly stated in the book – that the book focuses on the Finnish experience of information warfare conducted by Russia. It is the only book written in Finnish for the general public on this topic and on information warfare in general. From this perspective I find it interesting that a politician chooses to make a point about the “balance” of a book that actually filled a gaping hole in the Finnish language book market specifically because of its focus on Russia.

Most of us recognize Tuomioja’s style of argumentation. It is called whataboutism, and Tuomioja’s comments are a prime example of how the logical fallacy is used to belittle and even discredit the work of journalists and researchers. It is an attempt to question their professionalism and objectiveness and to influence their independent judgment. Sadly, the use of whataboutism has become standard in some quarters of the security policy discussion in Finland.

In Tuomioja’s case, the accusation of the lack of “balance” is a diplomatic way of expressing that if researchers criticize Russia, they should attribute an equal amount of criticism to other state actors too. The political face saving game begins: “balance” means that when facts are politically uncomfortable, you soften them up by expressing collective condemnation. Essentially this is to save Russia’s face.

The accusations of “unbalance” reveal a highly politicized attitude towards research: experts and researchers are given a political function according to the Finnish tradition of appeasement policy. In other words, the rules of diplomacy are applied to the domain of research.

This is how research becomes an ideological tool for politics.

I shall conclude with two very simple rules of thumb, which will hopefully help people understand the real issue at hand:

  1. Research is not diplomacy and experts are not politicians; it is not the duty of the researcher to present politically balanced conclusions, to serve appeasement, or to be diplomatic.
  2. The only duty of research is to produce and disseminate more information, perceptions and analysis; research has no political responsibility.

9 thoughts on “The problem with Finland

  1. Thanks, I share your vision of Russian warfare tool “instead of discussing the research object – let’s discuss some other objects”. And instead of Russian aggression in Ukraine today – let’s remember fight for civil rights of black people in America 🙂

  2. Thank you very much for starting this blog! It is vital for Finland to have people like you who can objectively see our security problems and with excellent knowledge!
    What comes to these “Tuomioja” and other old school politicians, you are absolutely right. Their thinking has been damaged during Cold War and our murky relationship
    with USSR aka Russia. That we call “Finlandization”, kinda “what will Moscow say / think about _______ ” thinking in every matter.
    Yes, we were heavily under USSR, we had a military pact (YYA deal) and deep economic ties. For these old school people it kinda “still goes on”. They never
    woke up that we were free and didn’t understand to join NATO.
    You Rock! 🙂

  3. The appeasement policy, the outsiders’ odd pilgrimige, doing everything they can in order to “save” the face of the aggressor (through, among other things, self-censorship)? I have said this before, but hose ailments characterized the Western response to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia as well, initially. The Balkans was the birthplace of the post- Cold War information warfare. You can still witness the Putinists storming out of the woodwork merely by stating something nasty about Milosevic, et al. And history repeats itself. Look at our response to Syria and Ukraine. It’s a shame, a shame! Thanks for the excellent blog post, though!

  4. Are you certain that some critisism about the balance isn’t called for?

    You remind in your text that “that the book focuses on the Finnish experience of information warfare conducted by Russia.” It sounds like valid scope of study, nothing wrong there, but you just can’t use it as a ground to understand actual situation of information warfare in reality. Because the study’s scope does not do that. In order to build a realistic view of reality in our corner of the planet we should try to understand whole situation.

    1. Hi Jorma, and thanks for commenting.

      Of course one can always discuss whether the book should have discussed something more or less in depth. However, I have written extensively about U.S. stratcom and information warfare in my previous academic work.. This time I wanted to write about something else. I chose the scope I have presented in my book, and that alone cumulated to 318 pages. I don’t think trying to write a book about information warfare that takes into account every possible state actor’s actions wouldn’t produce a very good product, as the topic is simply too large to cover in just one book. I rather write from different perspectives in different books.

  5. I have to agree with Jorma up to a point here. Your research on Russia’s information warfare is to be commended and your book is timely and important. The fact that you keep exposing the pressure on those that are critical of Russia in Finland is also important and flushes out some of the Russia’s trolls in Russia and Finland.

    However, some of the criticism you have got has a point. Your research is one thing and your (political) commenting is yet another. I am NOT saying you should shut up or change your message to fit some other agenda! But, as Jorma pointed out in the above, understanding (and rightfully critisizing) Russia’s information warfare is not enought to, say, understand the situation in (eastern) Ukraine or the actual information warfare about the situation. So many other parties are spinning the situation to their favour and using it as a resource to do many things. The point is not that you should have taken a broader view in your research; those decisions are to be left to the researcher. But, when you enter the stage of (foreign) politics, the scope has to be broader.

    In this regard, I do not agree that Tuomioja’s comments are entirely whataboutism. Although he is in some circles regarded as a Russia supporter (and that in this debate his actions have not been appropriate), here he has a point. We cannot understand these issues without inspecting all (both?) parties. What Russia, or Putin, feels about NATO and the situation in Ukraine can help us understand its actions without us accepting them. This, I believe, is a core message in one of his quotes in your post (“I do not believe…”). I am not trying to defend all of Tuomioja’s statements or actions, I just wish to point out he has a point (pun intended).

    The fact that this kind of a search for a richer understanding somewhat plays into the hands of the trolls and others pursuing their own agendas (be it defending Russia as an ideology, disparaging NATO for the same reason, or just belittling (women!) researchers) is unfortunate. I think all parties should be more careful in pinpointing their arguments and especially what they are critisizing. And pertaining to the latest discussion, a little humility, civility, and less ad hominem attacks would be nice (and I am not talking about you, Saara!).

    Be it as it may, I think your research and commenting on information warfare is important and that you keep uo the good work in spite of all the trolls, arguments, and difficulties in communication!

    1. Hello, and thank you for your comment, I agree with every point you make.

      First of all, research vs. political commenting, exactly. I take care to keep my work-self separate from my author/blogger self, and allow myself to comment on politics from the perspective of a researcher who has specialized in the domain of infoops/psyops/information warfare/etc. This is precisely why i very carefully articulated in the introduction of my book, that it should not be viewed as an academic piece of research, because I wanted to present my opinions too – which wouldn’t have been possible had I presented the content as objective research. I don’t think I’ve actually even explained this in these words, but rather introduced the book as more popularized book for the general public.

      “But, as Jorma pointed out in the above, understanding (and rightfully critisizing) Russia’s information warfare is not enough to, say, understand the situation in (eastern) Ukraine or the actual information warfare about the situation. So many other parties are spinning the situation to their favour and using it as a resource to do many things. The point is not that you should have taken a broader view in your research; those decisions are to be left to the researcher. But, when you enter the stage of (foreign) politics, the scope has to be broader.”

      Correct. I’m well aware of this. Also I do not claim I’ve even touched upon everything I should write about. I haven’t, and there are still a million topics to discuss.

      I took leave from work and visited Ukraine in November because it has been my intention to write about Ukraine and their situation in more detail. Of course I didn’t announce my trip in public, because I wanted to work in peace. However, I understood I have to go back many more times to collect more data, and I haven’t published any of the texts I’ve produced during and about my trip. I also do’t discuss future research in public, because I have less pleasant experiences of having my ideas stolen before.

      And most importantly, there is a humbling amount of homework to do at the moment. That’s the tragedy of becoming a researcher.

      However, my focus is strictly on information warfare, stratcom etc, not foreign politics per se. I also avoid “tactical descriptions” and try to find themes that are easier to generalize and develop to some kind of theory. There is some overlap with foreign policy of course, but I do my best to view things from the perspective of military studies/science, because that is the branch of research I currently represent, and there are better experts of foreign policy than myself 🙂

      Thank you for your encouraging and substantial comment.

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