Hostile Information Campaigns Could Test a Divided Finland

Joy Hyvärinen / May 30, 2024

Finland is known for a high level of media literacy and perceived resilience to misleading information and hostile information campaigns. The reality may be less rosy. There should be no room for complacency now, given the national security situation has changed radically in a short time.

In April this year the United States and Finland signed a memorandum of understanding on countering foreign state information manipulation, aimed at developing a common operational picture of foreign state information manipulation and effective ways of countering it. Hostile influence activity by foreign states is a high-priority national security concern for Finland.

With a population of 5.5 million, Finland shares a border of more than 800 miles with Russia. Managing relations with the Soviet Union and striving to remain neutral dominated the country’s political agenda for many decades. Since 1995, Finland has been an EU member state. Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 changed the security context radically, and Finland abandoned neutrality for NATO membership in 2023. As a consequence, the national security agenda went into a phase of rapid evolution.

Hybrid threats are one of the priority themes for Finland. The concept is very broad, covering a wide range of activities, from information manipulation to cyberattacks and covert political maneuvering. According to NATO, the speed, scale, and intensity of attacks in recent years, facilitated by technological change and global interconnectivity, is a new feature.

Hostile information activities aimed at undermining democracy are a central concern when it comes to hybrid threats. Such activities can exploit the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental democratic right, which creates challenges when it comes to developing response measures without impacting this right negatively. The aim of hostile information activities is often to create or deepen existing divisions in society.

Is Finland really resilient to misleading information?

Finland has drawn praise internationally for its high level of media literacy and ability to resist the impact of misleading information, with other countries looking to learn from its experience and education system. This picture of Finland may be much rosier than the reality.

Journalist Johanna Vehkoo, who specializes in covering the disinformation beat, argued recently in a column for Helsingin Sanomat, the country’s main broadsheet, that Finland’s resilience has not yet been tested by a large-scale disinformation campaign led by a foreign state. Vehkoo says that it is not easy to predict how Finland would fare, especially as the media literacy education admired abroad does not encompass the adult population.

According to Vehkoo, in recent years Finns have been subjected to only one particularly large disinformation campaign – and on that occasion failed the test. In 2015-2016, when a record number of asylum seekers arrived in the country, websites masquerading as news media appeared, spreading invented stories and racist messages. Large numbers of Finns shared these messages on social media. This was not a disinformation campaign led by Russia. Rather, it wast home-grown, and it played on people’s tendency to believe information that fits with their personal view of the world.

Exploitable divisions

There are many divisive issues in Finland that a hostile actor could exploit as part of a strategy to widen existing cracks and deepen divisions, for example immigration and human rights. The aggressive tone of public debate, hate speech and targeted harassment of individuals were already concerns in Finland before Russia attacked Ukraine.

In his New Year’s speech in 2020, then president Sauli Niinistö warned that “a culture of hate will not carry us far,” expressing deep concern about the negative tone of public discussions and emphasizing the need to maintain peace and security. Since then, Russia’s attack on Ukraine and developments within Finland have combined to create a situation where hostile information activities could evolve rapidly, targeting existing divisions in Finnish society.

In a recent interview, Max Arhippainen of NATO’s strategic communications center of excellence expressed concerns about divisions in Finnish society that could be exploited by Russia, pointing to the tense labor market situation. Finland has in past months seen repeated large-scale strikes in protest of government plans. The tradition of consensus politics in the country is changing, and recent research shows that the party system in Finland has become more polarized. The current government, formed following parliamentary elections in 2023, includes the anti-immigrant Finns party, which won 20.1% of the vote. Several scandals related to the party’s leader and ministers involving racist messages and neo-Nazi connections soon followed, but the resulting controversy did not break up the right-wing coalition government.

Stoking more controversy, the government recently presented a legislative proposal which would allow turning back refugees in breach of Finland’s international obligations in case Russia allows or facilitates the arrival of large numbers of people at the border. The proposal, which has drawn wide criticism, raises extremely serious questions about Finland’s commitment to the rule of law. While some argue that Finland needs to show a decisive response to the possibility that Russia might instrumentalize migrants, another perspective is that it does not take much to get Finland to ignore human rights obligations.

What’s next – a TikTok ban?

Finnish decision-makers and strategists should be considering how to advance effective implementation of the EU’s new Digital Services Act. It contains obligations for very large online platforms and search engines to address systemic risks relating to, for example, negative effects on civic discourse, elections or public security.

However, banning TikTok appears to be the current topic of interest for Finnish lawmakers, with a majority supporting a ban. As technology journalist Teemu Hallamaa points out, the proposal is copied straight from the United States and ignores the existence of the comprehensive new EU legislation.

A divided country, where the rule of law is under pressure, offers many opportunities for hostile information activities. The next test of Finland’s resilience could come when least expected. Countries that see Finland as a model to learn from should follow developments closely.


Joy Hyvärinen
Joy Hyvärinen specializes in freedom of expression, in particular issues related to national security. From 2021-2023 she was on the board of Finnish PEN, part of the PEN International network. She was previously head of advocacy at Index on Censorship in London. Before that she led the nonprofit Fo...