On September 24, 2019 Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro published her first book called ‘Putin’s Troll Army’. The actions leading to writing this book go back to 2014 when Aro started investigating the existence of pro-Russian troll factories, meaning fake- or automated profiles pushing propaganda to the top of people’s news feeds and search results. Aro’s reporting around the troll factories was awarded with Bonnier’s Award for Journalism in 2016. However, there are other – negative – reasons why Aro’s nvestigations about the Kremlin troll’s influence on Finnish people turned out to be such pivotal in her career.
When Aro raised the pro-Russian trolls into the public eye, they did the same to her: since she started her investigations in 2014, the trolls have been spreading fake stories about her. She said in an interview with BBC she “was framed as some kind of foreign spy. My contact information was put online along with that disinformation … some people actually believe it, they contacted me, and called me, and sent nasty text messages and threatening phone calls.” This let to a court case in Finland, after which the founder of magazine MV-lehti, the main platform for publishing fake stories about Aro, was given a 22-month long prison sentence. Two other people involved in the case received milder sentences in this trial where Aro needed protection from the police.
The New York Times wrote after the sentencing that it was “the first time that a European country had taken action against pro-Russian disinformation spread through social media, websites and news outlets controlled by or linked to Russia.” Aro’s case can therefore seen as directional for similar cases in the future. It is difficult to see that this sort of harassment would be diminishing, and that the trolls and bots – which often are used to influence conversations for political reasons – would disappear. Their influence was discussed already in the aftermath of the U.S. Presidential Elections in 2016, and new ones are only one year ahead.
The need for similar investigations is only growing, but how will it affect the journalists? When testifying for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs about “Russian Disinformation Attacks on Elections: Lessons from Europe”, Aro noted that “I am somewhat worried to testify here today because I believe it will lead to retaliation against me just like so many other public appearances last years”. Media has the responsibility to reveal fake- and harmful campaigns, but like in Aro’s and many other journalists’ case, the trolls come after the individual.
Aro’s example is especially concerning because this tactic, often used by states, is being adopted by other organisations, like by populist political parties, far-right cyber militias and religious groups. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue finds that there is an evolution away from so-called ‘fake news’ towards an aggressive ‘narrative competition’, with the promoting of ‘culture war’ dynamic around issues like migration, climate policy, and as in Aro’s case, Russia.
The social media platforms act when trolls and bots are revealed, but will they ever be able to stop what the troll, or as Aro calls them, digital crime factories, do? This is a question not only for the media companies and individual journalists, but crucial for the whole sector’s battle against misinformation and fake news.