Truth, righteousness, propaganda, information, power – are the definitions of these nouns just simple monolithic blocks, meant to be accepted by each person willing to learn, or should we question them?
This was my ‘umbrella’ mindset as I set my foot on Finnish soil, ready to embark on a marathon of thought, debate and epiphanies that should interest any responsible citizen. Along with the Young European Ambassadors, one of which I proudly am, dozens of young journalists, bloggers, influencers and students from Finland and the Eastern partner countries gathered to learn more about proper media literacy, or to update and polish their knowledge on the topic.
The first day was crammed with discussion panels, seminars, debates, all moderated by remarkable experts in fields such as media policymaking, exposing and countering disinformation, large-scale digital and print media, ethical journalism and journalists’ rights. Each delegate was able to attend two of the seven seminars, based on their personal interests. The list of speakers at the conference evoked the importance and gravitas of this topic in current affairs, especially in countries that are exposed to propaganda and disinformation. From the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Head of East StratCom Task Force, to Finnish editors-in-chief and the Ukrainian website StopFake.org – the speakers made some crystal-clear points.The spreading of fake or distorted information by institutions and organisations with anti-European agendas threatens the integrity of the mass media. Therefore, our common goal as proactive youth and selfless professionals is to cut the numerous, poisonous heads of the mediatic hydra that is disinformation.
The seminar that I found most engaging was ‘Fact-checking of political information’ where the co-founder of the Ukrainian portal StopFake.org and his team shared some of their techniques and methodologies with us. Their primary goal is to identify and deconstruct the strategic meta-narratives that usually come out of Russian TV and online media. Their process goes from monitoring the media landscape holistically to archiving data, since many fake news get deleted later. Following this documentation process, the third and most important step is debunking. By connecting all the pieces of this puzzle whose purpose is to mislead the public, StopFake.org proves hundreds of titles to be null, simple elements of violent propaganda. What struck me, however, was the extent to which these media go to trick the audience. ‘Spontaneous’ interviews are prepared in advance with rigorous scripts for the interviewees; fake experts are brought into studios to talk about topics on which they have barely any knowledge; hundreds of social media accounts are being operated by a few individuals hired by gargantuan PR companies, propagating the ideas and messages of the highest bidder, which often ends up being the Russian government. Even the most optimistic of us understood the scope of the disinformation machine that weaponised news to make the smouldering tensions in Eastern Ukraine burst into flames and the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe reach new heights.
The seminar focused on discussing possible ways for targeted countries to defend themselves and their citizens. Some of the most prominent ideas were the ones that encouraged pluralism but also involved making sure that the legal system can regulate a ‘news-dumping’ mechanism. Participants agreed on a few other points: an accent on education would eventually make people perceive the media more critically, excluding the necessity for censorship; cooperation between governments and social media would give people the power to prevent fake ads through innovative extension apps that would permit flagging up suspicious posts.
The same evening, we all attended a reception hosted by the Director General at the Department for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. We then had the opportunity to talk to senior academics from the Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, mingle and engage in fruitful conversations, and, finally, admire the Neo-Renaissance architecture of the House of the Estates.
On the second day (which, to everyone’s grief was also the last one), we visited the headquarters of the biggest newspaper in Finland – Helsingin Sanomat. We had a chance to talk to the editor-in-chief and a few other top reporters, particularly the correspondents for Washington and for Russia and Eastern Europe. The experience was fascinating as we found out even more about how an independent newspaper shapes its political views, promotes valuable ideas and stands by its ideals. We learnt about Helsingin Sanomat’s initiative, where, ahead of a summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in July 2018, the newspaper posted more than 280 billboards showing messages of the two world leaders’ attacks on the media. As a result, as they were driving into the city from the airport, Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump were welcomed by the land of free press, where headlines are free to tell the truth. Apart from the worldwide coverage that this initiative received, it made me realise that it only takes a voice to tear up the silence and a hand to hold the pen that will write history.
I packed my luggage with a heavy heart. I was leaving a place where citizens listen to their radio, watch television and read their newspapers knowing that none of their national media would betray them. But I also left with the joy of knowledge. To answer my question from the beginning of this article, concepts like truth, righteousness, propaganda, information or power can and should be flexible. Only through a balanced, liberalistic approach towards every opinion based on sustainable judgement can a society truly become progressive. But all these tools must stop expanding when their most extreme interpretations are being used to torment other governments, destroy lives and manipulate the minds of the masses. The media, I concluded, will keep becoming ever more powerful. For the sake of European unity and the future prosperity of all European countries, this growing power needs to be a fair judge, not a manipulated guillotine.
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