Fake News? Hybrid Warfare’s New Helsinki HQ

New centre opens today, with VIP guests in attendance - but it's already become the victim of a fake social media campaign.

Credit: Pixabay Creative Commons License

NATO’s Secretary General and the EU’s Foreign Minister are among the guests in Helsinki today, at the official opening of the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats – or Hybrid CoE for short.

Jens Stoltenberg and Federica Mogherini will join Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) and a hundred invited guests at the ceremony this afternoon – staff at the centre officially started work at the beginning of September.

The Hybrid CoE’s mission is to raise awareness of hybrid threats to society, and how to counteract it – especially with regards to social media, the internet and terrorism.

Twelve countries are collaborating in the new centre, besides Finland as the host, including the US, UK, Germany and Sweden.

What Is Hybrid War? 

“It was the Soviets and also nowadays the Russians’ strategic culture to forsee these converging technological developments and their strategic implications” says Pasi Eronen from the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

There’s no defined list of what can be considered hybrid tactics, but in the context of 2017, these examples might seem familiar:

  • Fake news stories, disguised to look like they’ve been published by legitimate news organisations;
  • Efforts to try and influence elections by buying advertising on social media;
  • Fake social media profiles that specifically push one agenda to try and create confusion and division.

“The kind of technological advances we have seen now, all the social media platforms, APIs, it might be so that it was not us who developed the technology, who deployed it, who made it available […] but we didn’t fully understand its strategic potential for nation states to push forward their agenda” Eronen says.

Social media companies are now starting to understand and admit their role in the problem, and recently Twitter said it closed more than 200 accounts linked to the same Russians who published thousands of political adverts on Facebook during the 2016 US Presidential election.

Facebook had previously reported that accounts linked to Russia had bought 3000 adverts last year.

EU & NATO Take Notice

“Especially after what happened in Crimea in 2014, in EU policies, in NATO policies, there has been a great emphasis on hybrid threats and the hybrid security environment that we are living in” Jarno Limnéll, Professor of Cyber Security at Aalto University tells News Now Finland.

“We need much more understanding about what the hybrid threat is, and what sort of threats digital societies are facing before the happen” he says.

Last week, Limnéll gave the keynote address at a digital summit in Tallinn, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in the audience – an indication of how seriously EU leaders take the issues around cyber security and hybrid threats; as well as how respected Finland is in these fields.

“Our government has been active to promote our skills, and our understanding of the hybrid threat” explains Professor Limnéll.

“I have also noticed that many times in the US and in EU countries, people are appreciating our security model, which I think is the best model to approach hybrid threats. And this is cooperation between security services, the military, academics and private companies” he says.

Hybrid CoE Fakes

One particular hallmark of hybrid warfare on social media is the use of fake accounts. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the new Helsinki Hybrid CoE was itself the target of a fake account, which tried to spread disinformation.

The official Twitter account for the new centre is @HybridCoE which has been verified by the social media platform as genuine.

But another account with a similar name and very similar logo launched on Twitter.

It links to a Russian domain website, which looks almost identical to the official Hybrid CoE website, but with language that’s strikingly different:

“NATO and EU have become the principal threats for freedom of speech and democracy in Europe. By means of newly hybrid operations, NATO an EU are endangering European citizens to express freely their political stance and participate in political processes.” 

The fake site’s Facebook account has anti-Ukraine, anti-EU, anti-NATO and pro-Russian posts on it, and is followed by more than 800 people.

The fake Twitter account is followed by more than 350 people including the Finnish Embassy in Copenhagen – which has the unfortunate effect of adding some level of legitimacy to it, although many of the followers appear to be Russian Twitter accounts.

Russia / Not Russia

While the fake Hybrid CoE social media accounts and website actively promote a Russian world view, Russia is likely to be the elephant in the room at today’s opening ceremony.

“I think especially politicians are always a little bit careful mentioning Russia, espeically in this context” says Professor Limnéll.

He explains that of course it’s not just Russia who is actively engaged in hybrid warfare, but also non-state actors like ISIS.

“This [centre] is not only against Russian activities, but yes, Russia is part of the hybrid threat we are talking about […] what happened in Crimea was a launching point for these hybrid threat discussions, but there are other threats also” he adds.

Security Challenges

One of the main challenges the new Hybrid CoE will face is the need to keep up with the pace of changes in technology: the Helsinki staff is small, with not unlimited resources.

“Thinking about today’s security environment, it’s very hard to understand how rapidly things are changing, especially technology and how it can be used for malicious intention” Aalto University Professor Jarno Limnéll says.

“Security is one of the fundamental issues we have in Europe. People want to feel secure, and one of the key things we need to do in Europe is to make people feel safe”.