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Privacy Perspectives | How troll armies threaten journalism, privacy and democracy Related reading: Notes from the IAPP, Dec. 3, 2021




The control of personal information is a powerful reality in 2016.

It can be used as a weapon against oppression, as currency on the black market, and as an unregulated asset in political campaigns. PII can be used to shame people off the internet and drive them toward depression or worse, and with “sextortion,” it can literally blackmail people based on abject fear. Heck, knowing the address of an adversary – say in the gaming community – can get them arrested and nearly killed by an armed-to-the-teeth SWAT team.

Controlling and manipulating PII can carry life-changing consequences for individuals. Just as disturbingly, controlling PII could even affect freedom of the press and the health of a democracy.

Last week, The New York Times reported on Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro. As an award-winning investigative reporter for Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski, Aro decided to cover a powerful contingent of an alleged Russian-based “troll army.” What started as a quest to find truth, turned into a personal nightmare for Aro. 

“Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,” she said. 

It all began when she asked her social media audience to share their experiences with this digital horde. At first, she received comments from those who have fought against the trolls, but soon, she faced a “vicious retaliatory campaign of harassment and insults” way beyond her expectations.

Russia and the Ukraine are amidst a high-stakes information war as a result of the geopolitical battles between the two nations. Both employ legions of noisy digital voices to spread misinformation and attack critics and journalists. The pro-Russian voices have become so loud and disruptive, the EU and NATO have set up units to fight back against a crumbling civil discourse and the “well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even its security.”

Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, and though it’s not currently in NATO, it’s so concerned about Russia’s actions in the Ukraine that it has started working more with NATO and has even considered joining the alliance.

But not everyone in the Scandanavian country agrees. As the Times reports, the division among the Finnish population makes it “a prime target” for a Russian information campaign. 

The price Aro paid for reporting on the trolls was a seemingly endless stream of abusive emails, attempts to tarnish her reputation on social media, and even the posting of a satirical Youtube video in which she’s portrayed as a “delusional bimbo.” Of course, most of these attacks have been conducted under the guise of anonymity.

“There are so many levels of fakery you get lost,” she said. “They fill the information space with so much abuse and conspiracy talk that even sane people start to lose their minds.”

One of her biggest critics, however, is a pro-Putin pundit from Finland. Johan Backman, who does not hide behind anonymity, claims her reporting has benefited Russia because others see how she’s been treated and now back away from criticizing the government. "She says she's a victim, and nobody wants to be a victim," he said. "This changed the atmosphere in the journalistic community." Or in other words, Backman argues the chilling effect on journalists is a good thing.

Strong-arming journalists is nothing new – many around the world are murdered because of their reporting – but Aro’s experiences reflect the growing use of personal information online as a weapon to manipulate and intimidate individuals.

Not long after Aro reported on the Russian “troll army,” she received a call on her mobile phone. All she could hear was gunfire. She then received texts and emails calling her a “NATO whore” and a message from someone claiming to be her late father warning he was watching her.

Aro was also doxxed. Earlier this year, a Finnish-language “news” site – which often vilifies immigrants – uncovered court records that revealed Aro had been arrested in 2004 for drug use. The site falsely called her “a convicted drug dealer” and shared images of her in a Bangkok nightclub.

Though she admitted she had been arrested for drug use at the time, Aro was never convicted for dealing. “They get inside your head,” she said, “and you start thinking: If I do this, what will the trolls do next?”

A recent study demonstrated the chilling effects surveillance has on people. After the Snowden revelations in 2013, for example, many internet users curbed their online searches of terrorist-related news. Troll armies could very well have a much worse effect, especially if such a trend spreads beyond Eastern Europe into other democracies around the world, including the U.S. What better way to prevent the media from discovering the truth than by intimidating journalists to the point where they risk not only their privacy, but perhaps the privacy of their friends and family?

A "chilling effect" doesn't begin to describe it. 

Of course, there’s a lot of history boiling to the surface in the geopolitical relations between Russia, the Ukraine, and Finland that go way beyond this one case, but a bigger lesson to consider here for us is how personal information can be used to threaten the very foundations of democracy. The Fourth Estate is an invaluable piece of a healthy democratic society. The ease with which bad actors – entire troll armies – can use the internet to tarnish reputations, spread false information, intimidate individuals on their personal devices, and disclose personal information of an otherwise innocent person is something for us all to watch out for and be vigilant about.

No doubt privacy is personal. And it's about protecting individuals one at a time. But it's not hard to see how protecting a single person's privacy also protects society as a whole. 


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