Jussi Toivanen: Learning from Finland’s Society-Wide Approach to Countering Disinformation

  Jussi Toivanen is the Chief Communications Specialist for the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office. He is responsible for coordinating the government’s approach to countering disinformation and managing crisis communications for the state.

Q: Finland’s approach to security is described as a “comprehensive” one – can you explain what that means to you? 

A The second world war taught Finland—a small nation, that to survive it needed to encourage cooperation between various institutions, NGO’s, companies and agencies. This means there is always a competent authority and all the other agencies are supporting the one that is responsible for addressing an issue. The core of comprehensive security is that security belongs to everyone. To strengthen internal and external security there must be cooperation between the government, NGOs, the church, companies, etc. When we discuss countering disinformation, we are referring to this concept. Government is not the only target of disinformation—the whole of society is targeted. We aim to educate and improve the ordinary citizen’s understanding of this phenomenon, whether its election interference or social media literacy. As a result of this history, the concept of comprehensive security, which was developed out of our WWII experience informs our efforts at all levels.

As such, one of my key jobs is to train our civil servants and stakeholders on how to detect disinformation, what to do when disinformation is detected and how to be better prepared for disinformation campaigns. I also travel across the country with my colleagues and raise awareness about disinformation. We try to do this at all levels and collaboratively. 


Q: How does disinformation gain traction and how are you fighting back?

A: As a civil servant, I try to avoid making people paranoid. When you only talk about the negative side of social media, and a dark future, we create an atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and distrust.  By doing so we may erode one of the key elements of our society: trust among ourselves.

Last year we had to think about what measures we could take to guarantee the integrity of our election. It would have been a big mistake to run around screaming “be afraid, don’t trust our elections—there’s going to be massive election interference!” We wanted to educate and remind people of the strength of our electoral system and how reliable it is—we’ve been running reliable elections for 110 years.

Our election system is ordinary, but robust—booths, paper, and pencil. That’s impossible to hack. What has changed is the information environment. Even if someone claims you can’t trust the election, or election authorities—you can. The system is robust. You can count every single paper vote 100s of 1000s of times. You can be sure that your vote will be counted. Even if we don’t have electricity or water—the vote goes on. It may be delayed, but there are no problems. That was the key message of our campaign and our slogan was “Finland has the best elections in the world”. That approach was very effective in terms of raising people’s awareness of election interference.

The Finnish news media is very independent and reliable. This is an essential aspect of countering disinformation. According to a few rankings, Finland is #1 for trust in the media, particularly traditional news media. During the COVID-19 pandemic we conducted a survey asking where people get their news, where they prefer to, and who they trust. Television, newspapers, and radio were clearly the top three choices. Social media influencers were the least trusted. People in Finland place a lot of trust in the media—our society is built around trust. According to several indexes, Finland is one of the least corrupt states, one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world, and there is a lot of trust in government as well as police. People trust our traditional systems, our courts, and our parliamentary system.

Since the promising news about vaccinations was released, we have noticed disinformation campaigns appearing online regarding Covid-19. We’ve detected anti-vaccination campaigns, and conspiracies such as QAnon have found an audience in Finland as well. It’s marginal but has gained publicity. I think conspiracy theories are one result of the Covid-19 crisis. When there is uncertainty, things are unclear, and people are worried and depressed, these types of conspiracy theories can seem appealing. If you believe in the Deep State and you don’t like authorities, you may find like-minded peers who agree with, support you and reinforce your views in online forums.


Q: What is Finland’s experience with countering hostile information influence activities perpetuated by Russia?

A: The illegal annexation of Crimea was an eye opener for us as it was for many other countries as well.  We started to see hostile information activities and interference attempts from Russia via disinformation more frequently. This is when we developed our first measures to counter this phenomenon in a more coordinated way. Even before Crimea we had seen instances of disinformation, but overtime it has obviously become more coordinated, thus inviting a more coordinated response.

There have been trolling and harassment campaigns targeted at researchers and journalists who have covered Russia critically. There have also been cases when our leading politicians’ statements have been distorted. Additionally, there have been stories about how Finnish social workers are taking Russian born children into custody without any valid reason and selling them to gay U.S couples for adoption. However, Russian-originated campaigns targeted at Finland have largely failed. A common tactic employed by Russia is the twisting of historical facts. They have done it with Baltic states and other neighboring countries. For example, Foreign Minister Lavrov said it is unclear who started the 1939 Winter War, but of course we know what the facts are. The Soviet Union attacked Finland without declaration of war, and the Winter War was one of the outcomes of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Lavrov has proposed that Finland and Russia establish a joint historical commission to investigate who in fact started the war.

It doesn’t matter who the actor is. In an online world you cannot be 100% sure who is behind every single tweet or campaign, and the attribution is highly risky. Instead of trying to figure out who is behind every single action it is better to understand what is happening and what the aim of the campaign is. We also remind people that they have every right to raise their voice and convey their opinions. If you don’t like someone’s post you should not label it as “fake news”, because you are playing a risky game. When we train our civil servants, or politicians, we remind them not to label the media as “fake news”. Doing so erodes trust in the traditional news media, our society, and our democratic institutions. Don’t name and shame journalists who have written articles about you that you don’t like or disagree with. Individual politicians haven’t really said those kinds of things in Finland. If they have, it has more-or-less backfired. Luckily, Finland hasn’t experienced this sort of Trumpian-style Twitter diplomacy.

Q: Finland has ranked #1 on many rankings of media literacy. What does the government’s approach to fostering media literacy looked like?

A: We can talk for eternity about hybrid threats, bold strategies and use all kinds of abstract terms, but in the end its about individual citizens. If citizens don’t understand how social media works or what our information environment consists of then we are losing. Finland’s whole society is targeted by disinformation campaigns are not just waged by state actors. Last year we had our parliamentary elections as well as the EU elections. We were preparing to see some external interference, but this wasn’t the case. Internal actors are using exactly the same methods and tools to wage disinformation campaigns as foreign nations. This same phenomenon has been seen and reported by other countries as well.

Having an educated citizenry is the most fundamental aspect of our strategy. We don’t think the government should debunk “fake news” or disinformation. Instead, we need to teach people to notice, detect, and understand what disinformation is. Media literacy has been a part of our school curriculum officially since the 1970s. It is a predominantly state-funded initiative, but many NGOs in Finland advocate and offer services to promote media literacy too. They play a very important role in our society. For example, there is a Finnish organization that is dedicated to helping the elderly. Volunteers visit elderly homes and teach residents how to use and understand social media. There is an emphasis on technological literacy. If you have problems with your mobile phone or want to learn about social media, our public libraries have services to assist you. Kindergarten teachers educate small children about the internet, iPads, and how computers work. It starts there. The first line of defense is in the kindergarten classroom. A title of a CNN article said that “Finland is winning the war on fake news”. I don’t know if we are winning or losing. We have had our successes, but it is an ongoing process with no end in sight.

Deepfakes are a good example. We want to remind people that even though the world, social media, and disinformation look a certain way now, in the future it will become more complicated. It will be harder to discern what is fake and what is fact. We’ve been training our civil servants since 2016, but it’s a minor part of the overall strategy. The Finnish school system and the media are our cornerstones. Every day, schoolteachers are doing the job. Finland is in a good position. The basic structures are there already—critical thinking and media literacy have been a part of the curriculum for a long time. It starts in kindergarten.



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