This article was written by Rosalind KennyBirch, research consultant at Lexington Communications.
A looming threat is worrying policymakers around the world, and with good reason.
As voters prepare to head to the polls for a December election in the UK and a number of key national elections are scheduled for 2020, including a US presidential election that many expect to be as divisive as the one that brought Donald Trump to power, policymakers and the public alike are asking: how can we best protect ourselves against disinformation?
A land of facts
One answer can be found in Finland. The Finnish government recently launched an anti-fake news initiative to educate its citizens on misinformation campaigns, following a spike in untrue stories in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Since then, Finland has ranked first for media literacy out of 35 European countries, according to Open Society Institute (now Open Society Foundations) data.
• Want to write for us? Take a look at Apolitical’s guide for contributors
Finland’s anti-fake news program has been successful for two key reasons: cross-departmental engagement and a bottom-up approach to the issue, starting with the country’s education system and including allowing schools to help create digital literacy toolkits.
Another contributing factor to the initiative’s success was the willingness of the government to learn from best practice around the world: Finland brought in experts from other countries to share their approaches for tackling disinformation.
In Finland, improving media and information literacy is not just seen as a national security concern. It is also seen as a key goal across various government departments.
For example, improving media education became a key strategic aim of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. In its own words, the ministry works to improve media literacy through “allocating resources, providing relevant information and developing legislation, including educational, cultural, youth and art policies”.
Media literacy is a core responsibility for the government, and the cross-department approach ensures that it is understood by both civil servants and citizens as an issue that affects multiple aspects of civil society, whether we’re talking about a simple purchase made online or human rights protection.
“In Finland, improving media and information literacy is not just seen as a national security concern. It is also seen as a key goal across various government departments”
As such, the Ministry of Justice and the Finnish Competition and Consumer Agency (FCCA) have also embedded media literacy in their key policies. For Finland’s 2019 Media Literacy Week, the Ministry of Justice launched a campaign to tackle hate speech online, with the specific aim of increasing “internet users’ awareness of what kinds of content constitute punishable hate speech”.
The FCCA focuses on how consumers can benefit from improved media literacy, and the organisation produced materials for Finland’s 2018 Media Literacy Week, which helped citizens to build the skill of recognising misleading subscription models online.
Several experts have cited Finland’s cross-government approach as a reason for its success in tackling disinformation. For example, Reid Standish, who covers disinformation for Foreign Policy, found that Finland’s “comprehensive government strategy [across departments] allows it to deflect coordinated propaganda and disinformation”.
In addition, the Open Society Institute cited Finland’s “coherent government response” as a reason for its success is tackling disinformation. More recently, Antti Sillänpää, senior researcher at the Secretariat of the Security Committee in Finland, was tasked with extending current cross-government work to lead a cross-government and cross-political party education campaign on disinformation ahead of the 2019 April elections in the country.
Sillänpää and his colleagues travelled around the country to provide training and briefings to election officials in different regions; to political party organisations; and to media outlets who wanted to know more about the dangers that fake news poses.
Getting a headstart
The Finnish government has recognised that we need to educate citizens early on how to recognise disinformation.
Finnish children are educated about media literacy in the public school system, all the way from primary school through secondary school. Even before the government renewed its focus on tackling disinformation in 2014, media education was defined as a cross-curricular theme in the upper secondary curriculum ratified in 2004.
In 2017 Finland launched a project dubbed Faktana, kiitos! (Facts, please!), which brought Finnish journalists to schools across the country with the aim of “shar[ing] their expertise on journalistic practices and social responsibility”.
In addition, the Finnish fact-checking organisation Faktabaari has set out activities designed to improve media literacy, which can be adopted by Finnish schools, including creating targeted content through different media channels, and evaluating and practising different campaigning techniques utilised by politicians.
“Students in Finland significantly outperformed US students on tasks that measure digital literacy in social media and online news”
A 2019 study from the University of Turku, conducted by Stanford University and published in the Journal of Research in International Education, found that such media literacy initiatives delivered results. The study revealed students in Finland significantly outperformed US students on tasks that measure digital literacy in social media and online news.
The researchers suggested this may be due to the Finnish and International Baccalaureate curricula’s different approach to facilitating students’ critical thinking skills compared with the US system and curriculum.
While this study just compared Finland to the US, many other reports have found that the Finnish approach to teaching media literacy creates successful outcomes.
The Open Society Institute cited multiple studies in its research that show a positive relationship between the level of media education within a country and the population’s resilience to fake news, and cited Finland has a prime example of a country where highlighting media literacy in the curriculum has resulted in improved resilience to fake news among the population.
Educating public servants
All these good ideas didn’t come from Finland alone.
The Finnish government chose to draw upon global expertise when it was designing its program. It hired Jed Willard, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard, to help develop its program to understand what factors contribute to making disinformation spread virally and how propaganda can be effectively countered.
Willard was officially hired to help Finland “develop a public diplomacy program to understand and identify why false information goes viral and how to counter propaganda”. The program spanned one week and 100 Finnish government officials, from a variety of levels and departments, participated in this training.
Rather than focusing on false messages being spread through the internet, Willard emphasised the importance of creating a new narrative that highlights Finnish values or a “Finnish story”. Willard asserted that “no matter what other countries say, whether you’re getting information out of Moscow, out of Washington, even out of Brussels… the best way to respond to that is with a positive Finnish story”.
During the course, Adam Berinsky, professor of political science at MIT, told officials not to repeat false statements when they are trying to refute them. While it seems intuitive to underscore just how false something is, repeating a falsehood risks giving traction to disinformation and, once you have repeated a wrong statement, the audience might not remember all your arguments for why it was wrong in the first place.
Ahead of major public elections taking place across the globe, the Finnish cross-governmental, bottom-up model provides a useful approach that civil servants and policymakers who seek to improve media literacy can utilise.
Finland is already seeking to collaborate with other countries to work to tackle disinformation. The country was chosen to host the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which aims to assist its 23 member states and institutions in understanding and defending against hybrid threats such as disinformation, so that countries are prepared to carry out fair elections.
However, countries should ensure that tackling disinformation does not just start and stop with election season. To truly improve media literacy within a country, a long-term, system-wide strategy is needed. — Rosalind KennyBirch