How do you stay ahead of fake news? In Finland, young and old are educated in critical thinking
A fascinating CNN story on how Finland is consciously and actively educating its citizens to spot and resist “fake news” - and mobilising critical thinking skills, and national narratives, to do so.
On a recent afternoon in Helsinki, a group of students gathered to hear a lecture on a subject that is far from a staple in most community college curriculums.
Standing in front of the classroom at Espoo Adult Education Centre, Jussi Toivanen worked his way through his PowerPoint presentation. A slide titled “Have you been hit by the Russian troll army?” included a checklist of methods used to deceive readers on social media: image and video manipulations, half-truths, intimidation and false profiles.
Another slide, featuring a diagram of a Twitter profile page, explained how to identify bots: look for stock photos, assess the volume of posts per day, check for inconsistent translations and a lack of personal information.
The lesson wrapped with a popular “deepfake” — highly realistic manipulated video or audio — of Barack Obama to highlight the challenges of the information war ahead.
The course is part of an anti-fake news initiative launched by Finland’s government in 2014 – two years before Russia meddled in the US elections – aimed at teaching residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to sow division.
The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today – and tomorrow. The Nordic country, which shares an 832-mile border with Russia, is acutely aware of what’s at stake if it doesn’t.
Finland has faced down Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online.
Toivanen, the chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most play on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO (Russia is not a fan).
As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.
Although it’s difficult to measure the results in real-time, the approach appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.
“It’s not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” Toivanen said, before adding: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”
At the French-Finnish School of Helsinki, a bilingual state-run K-12 institution, that ethos is taken seriously.
In Valentina Uitto’s social studies class, a group of 10th-graders were locked in debate over what the key issues will be in next week’s EU elections. Brexit, immigration, security and the economy were mentioned with a flurry of raised hands before the students were asked to choose a theme to analyze.
“They’ve gathered what they think they know about the EU election … now let’s see if they can sort fact from fiction,” Uitto said with a smirk.
The students broke off into groups, grabbing laptops and cell phones to investigate their chosen topics – the idea is to inspire them to become digital detectives, like a rebooted version of Sherlock Holmes for the post-Millennial generation.
Her class is the embodiment of Finland’s critical thinking curriculum, which was revised in 2016 to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that has clouded recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe.
What’s also interesting is that it’s not just critical thinking skills that are encouraged among individual students and citizens. There’s also a collective narrative about Finnish society that also sustains a degree of independent thinking:
Behind closed doors, Willard’s workshops [Jed Willard, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard University, who was hired by Finland to train state officials to spot and then hit back at fake news] largely focused on one thing: developing a strong national narrative, rather than trying to debunk false claims.
“The Finns have a very unique and special strength in that they know who they are. And who they are is directly rooted in human rights and the rule of law, in a lot of things that Russia, right now, is not,” Willard said. “There is a strong sense of what it means to be Finnish … that is a super power.”
Not all nations have the type of narrative to fall back on that Finland does.
The small and largely homogenous country consistently ranks at or near the top of almost every index – happiness, press freedom, gender equality, social justice, transparency and education – making it difficult for external actors to find fissures within society to crowbar open and exploit.
Finland also has long tradition of reading – its 5.5 million people borrow close to 68 million books a year and it just spent $110 million on a state-of-the-art library, referred to lovingly as “Helsinki’s living room.” Finland has the highest PISA score for reading performance in the EU.
And as trust in the media has flagged in other parts of the globe, Finland has maintained a strong regional press and public broadcaster. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, Finland tops the charts for media trust, which means its citizens are less likely to turn to alternative sources for news.
More here. Two short videos to end -one from the CNN report, then an animation from the Atlantic on fake news: