“A deadly cocktail against democracy” – fighting election fake news

Officials have launched an education campaign around voting rights and fake news - but what happens when it's politicians who lie on the campaign trail?

File picture of woman voting in election with Finnish flag behind / Credit: Getty Images

Finnish officials are several weeks into a campaign to educate civil servants, political parties and the media about the threats of ‘fake news’ ahead of April’s election, even as  debate around pressure-point topics becomes more polarizing.

The education campaign is part of a new initiative which will be rolled out also to the public in the coming weeks: online, on the radio, in newspapers and on television.

“Our target groups are those that we feel could be targets of hostile information influencing or election meddling. Number one is the election system itself. Number two is political parties and politicians. Number three is the media, and four is the electorate, the voting public” explains Antti Sillänpää, one of the government officials spearheading the preparedness initiative.

In recent weeks Sillänpää and his colleagues have criss-crossed the country giving training and briefings to election officials in different regions; to political party organisations; and to media outlets who want to know more about the ‘fake news’ phenomenon.

So far, authorities haven’t seen any organised attempts to influence the way Finns think ahead of the 14th April general election. And while it doesn’t mean some individuals, an organisation or another country still couldn’t mount a so-called hybrid disinformation campaign, the physical security of the voting process at least is assured.

“We feel very confident that nobody will touch the real voting and the counting of the votes, because our system is very rigid. People take their pencil, and the voting slip, and they write a number and put that ballot into the box” explains Sillänpää.

All the political parties can monitor the vote counting, and even where modern technology is used to tabulate results, there is always a manual process as a backup.

Still, authorities are clearly not taking any chances especially as Finland’s neighbour to the east, Russia, has been directly accused or implicated in trying to manipulate election messaging in a number of countries including the USA, Germany and Italy – as well as in Britain’s Brexit referendum campaign.

“I think most of the problems are about the information space. We cannot calculate what is the level of threat, but seeing what has happened in the international arena, we see that it is be better to be prepared” Sillanpaa confirms.

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File photo showing hacker sitting at computer with Russian flag backdrop / Credit: iStock

Amplified messages, splitting public opinions 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We now know that in the runup to the 2016 US Presidential election, some advertisers used social media like Facebook and Twitter to push specific messages. Targeting people with different ethnic backgrounds in different parts of America was just one of the tactics.

Those echo-chamber messages reached hundreds of thousands of people, sparked heated rhetoric and helped feed an already febrile American public before they went to cast their votes.

Finland’s new voter education campaign officials are of course hoping that sort of thing doesn’t happen here, but the presence of foreign activists with large social media followings in Finland in recent weeks seems to highlight how easy it can be to push one narrative loudly, at the expense of facts or truth.

The right wing Finns Party in particular hyped up the online messaging and tried to create controversies around the recent visits of anti-Islam campaigners Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins, capitalising on allegations that asylum seekers sexually abused young girls in Oulu and Helsinki.

File picture of vote being cast in Finnish election / Credit: Vaalit.fi

“Telling ‘false narratives’ might be a tactic that leads to short-term success but has severe consequences in the future” says Jenni Karimäki, Senior Researcher at Turku University’s Centre for Parliamentary Studies.

“If the large part of the electorate that thus far has not been convinced by populist rhetoric or political style is disappointed with the direction in which politics heading, this might result in declining trust not only in politicians and parties, but in parliamentary democracy as well” she warns.

The potential for malinformation messages to split society is something that government officials are also increasingly concerned about it.

The most dangerous kind of messages, say officials, are not just deceptive or flat out lies,  but also contain a polarizing element designed to widen the gap between different sides of a political debate, and tries to suppress one group’s ability to take part in the discussion.

“Disinformation as such is not necessarily yet a great threat to democracy. But if there is something that splits up the electorate, so that groups will not be on talking terms any more, plus it even puts some people down, then this is a deadly cocktail against democracy” says Antti Sillänpää.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) gives a media interview, flanked by other government ministers and party leaders, December 2018 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, Valtioneuvoston kanslia

Politicians, campaigning and spreading ‘fake news’

Whether on the campaign trail, giving media interviews or writing on social media, Finnish politicians are no different than any other when it comes to pushing a specific narrative that fits their politics, and appeals to their voters.

In recent weeks Finnish media has highlighted cases where both Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) and Blue Reform Chairman Sampo Terho have made comments that speak to their party bases, but which at best are open to nuanced interpretation, and at worst flat out lies.

So can politicians be guilty of spreading fake news, or is it a grey area?

“Traditionally misinformation is the category that concerns the politicians the most, because we know sometimes they say things that are not true. We know they do it. But misinformation could also be a simple mistake” says Faktabaari Editor Petra Piitulainen-Ramsay.

“We have seen that the spread of false information includes politicians as well” she adds, and explains that so far, domestic media has been quick to hold politicians to account when they make demonstrably untrue statements. Social media too has been quick, often to ridicule politicians caught out in a deliberate slip of the tongue.

“To some degree politics and political rhetoric has always had a tendency to ‘false narratives’ or at least a certain degree of intentional misunderstanding, especially when it comes to campaigning. After all politics is about “us against them” in some way or another. It has always been about convincing your constituents of the dangers lurking in the horizon if they choose to vote for them instead of us” says Jenni Karimäki from Turku University.

Karimäki sees two things that have changed in this regard in recent years: a decline in party loyalty and populism.

With voters now less likely to stick with the same party for their whole voting lives, parties cannot just concentrate on speaking to their core constituents but need to churn out messages that are attractive to floating voters as well.

“This combined with the surge of populism and populist rhetoric has enticed the so-called traditional parties to resort to ‘false narratives’ such as the Red-Greens forbidding all logging or someone banning private car ownership” says Karimäki.