co-authored by Marko Enqvist
One of the key principles of disinformation is to feign the public support for its messages. Through the vast network of seemingly independent actors — experts, think-tanks, journalists, former or current politicians sharing Moscow’s agenda (often for a substantial pay-check) — at home and abroad the Kremlin creates a vicious circle of propaganda. It reaches even the states that are most immune to the foreign information influences, such as Finland. Ukraine Crisis Media Center in cooperation with journalist Marko Enqvist has previously explored the case, focusing on Janus Putkonen and keeps track of the issue, sharing new details.
A propagandist of Finnish origin, Putkonen is one of the local warlords at the Moscow’s information front, tasked with spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation first via DONi News, then through MV-lehti, a media focused on “a mixture of anti-Ukrainian messaging with anti-Western conspiracy theories”. His activities, however, go beyond, and a significant part of them is focused on Toimittajaliitto — The Union of Finnish Reporters Official, — which is ironically presented as a union for free speech.
The association takes a typical for conspiracy-oriented sources stance of sharing “honest” and “alternative” points of view — while the origins of these points are rooted in the Kremlin. This is evidenced by the very web-site domain, which was created on July 10, 2018, with the IP address location in Russia.
The IP address was moved to the US on December 17, 2019, when Toimittajaliitto started getting more traction and the association’s leaders — Janus Putkonen, Juha Korhonen and Jarmo Ekman — were uncovered. All of them are linked to MV-lehti and amplify pro-Kremlin messaging from other actors as well. J.Ekman, for example, repeatedly criticizes George Soros, a frequent target of the Kremlin’s attacks, promotes a “Ukraine on Fire” film by Oliver Stone that presents a fully Russian perspective on Ukraine, denies the Kremlin’s meddling in the American 2016 elections etc.
Connection between Toimittajaliitto and MV-lehti yet again evidences how different participants of disinformation networks mutually expand reach and influence. They repeatedly share each other’s materials, and do so in coordinated manner. In addition to gaining access to the larger audience, this also blurs the line between harsher and softer versions of disinformation. Toimittajaliitto presents itself as a more professional resource, and cooperation with MV-lehti ensures an added spillover effect to conspiracy theories and anti-Western rhetoric.
It is worthwhile to know that Ukraine has already recognized the threat behind the platforms, as their coordinators J.Putkonen and J.Ekman were sanctioned for fueling the war. The relevant screenshot below demonstrates similar measures imposed on Johan Backman, Putkonen’s close associate, who was also involved in a massive online harassment movement, this time in Finland itself.
The target of this campaign was Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, focused on researching Russian “trolls” and bots. In particular, her attention was locked on the infamous Internet Research Agency, linked to the Russian oligarch Yevgenii Prigozhyn and involved in meddling with the American presidential elections — the very one that coordinators of Toimittajaliitto and MV-lehti vehemently deny. Backman, particularly, accused Aro of doing the Washington’s bidding in her research, echoing yet another Kremlin’s talking point.
This case highlights how disinformation is never a single state’s problem. While the propagandists target both Ukrainian and Finnish security, it is up to both sides to enhance cooperation in countering malign foreign influence and offer a systemic, coordinated response to an equally systemic and coordinated threat.