In the eye of the storm: Safeguarding the Finnish election in a turbulent security environment

By: emmi kivi&
January 24 2024

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In the eye of the storm: Safeguarding the Finnish election in a turbulent security environment

Finland - elections concept - wooden blocks and country flag - 3D illustration (Source: Reuters Connect)

The Finnish electorate will head to the polls on January 28 in a direct vote to choose the country’s 13th President for the next six years. 

Following the 12-year-reign incumbent Sauli Niinistö, the upcoming election will occur in an intensified security environment; the presidential debates center on Finland’s NATO membership, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and migration policy amid a Russian orchestrated push of migrants at the Finnish border in November. 

According to recent polls, the candidate of the National Coalition Party, former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, leads the race with 22 percent. The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pekka Haavisto, is second with 20 percent. The Speaker of the Parliament, Jussi Halla-aho (Finns party), stretched his support to third place with 18 percent and the Governor of the Bank of Finland, Olli Rehn, to 12 percent. The rest of the candidates have received less than ten percent support. 

If no candidate receives more than half of the votes after the first round of the election, a second round will be held on February 11 between the two candidates who received the most votes. According to the same poll, Alexander Stubb is the favorite to win. 

Ahead of the election on Sunday, Logically Facts took a closer look at Finland’s information landscape. We conversed with experts and local fact-checking organizations on the challenges of safeguarding the election and public debate in a turbulent security environment and new ways to battle election-related misinformation amid fast-paced technological advances.

An intensified security environment – Foreign and security policy dominate the discussion

On December 21, the official presidential candidates were confirmed. The tight race for the President will be between the candidates from the main political parties: former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb (National Coalition Party), Speaker of the Parliament Jussi Halla-aho (Finns Party), European Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen (Social Democrats), Governor of the Bank of Finland Olli Rehn (Centre Party), Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Sari Essayah (Christian Democrats), MP Harry Harkimo (Movement Now) and former Minister of Education Li Andersson (The Left Alliance). Two candidates entered the race through constituency associations: former Minister for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto and the Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), Mika Aaltola. 

Since the 1980s, the President’s mandate in internal politics has been increasingly demarcated. Still, the institution has maintained its leading role in Finnish foreign and security policy. Traditionally, questions and topics revolving around the present and future of Finnish international affairs have dominated the presidential debates – this election is no different. Moreover, this is the country’s first presidential election since Finland joined NATO on April 4, 2023

All the presidential candidates are in consensus on the direction of Finland’s policy, whether the discussion concerned NATO membership, support for Ukraine, or handling of ties with Russia; differences of opinion lie only in the details.

The Newcomer to the Alliance – NATO misinformation scaling up ahead of the election

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 significantly shifted public opinion towards joining NATO. Support for joining NATO jumped to 76 percent in May 2022, a marked contrast from the 26 percent figure in 2021. Support for membership has remained high; in December 2023, 82 percent of Finns would join NATO if voting today. 

However, dissenting views and false information on NATO and increased U.S.-Finnish military cooperation have punctured the Finnish information sphere. “Most anti-NATO narratives in Finland fall under a grand narrative that Finland joining NATO endangers Finnish national security. In this regard, the narrative hasn’t changed after Finland applied to join NATO in 2022. NATO (and especially the U.S.) is dragging Finland into a war it cannot win, and NATO is unnecessarily provoking Russia. Dominic Saari, Project Researcher in the KILPI project at the University of Jyväskylä, told Logically Facts. 

Logically Facts has previously covered false claims about NATO and Finland’s membership. These false narratives align with pro-Kremlin messaging that Finland has lost its national sovereignty to the Alliance, that Finland is a puppet for NATO’s goal to wage war against Russia, or that the Finnish people never wanted to join NATO. 

Screenshot of the presidential debate held on December 21, 2023 by The Finnish Public Service Media Company (YLE). ( Source: YLE)

“These narratives are mostly pushed by the ‘usual suspects’ in Finnish politics. These include individual conspiracy theorists and minor far-right parties. As all presidential candidates are very much pro-NATO, these narratives do not aim to sway viewpoints or support certain candidates. They most likely aim to rally support outside the mainstream,”  Saari explained to Logically Facts. 

Ahead of the 2023 parliamentary election, the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported that dozens of X (formerly Twitter) accounts were created to impersonate either election candidates or experts. The accounts primarily posted content about Finland’s accession to NATO and how this did not make sense for the nation.

Such anti-NATO narratives have since re-emerged ahead of the presidential election. These claims aim to undermine the legitimacy of the Finnish application process to NATO and connect it with the integrity of a democratic election. 

These include claims of a “puppet show” and that pro-NATO or war-mongering candidates have been pre-selected by “global elites” or the U.S., and candidates with differing views were not allowed to stand for the election. Some narratives question the presidential candidates’ allegiance to Finland by claiming they are loyal to the U.S., the CIA, or another global agenda. Such accusations are aimed mainly at Alexander Stubb, Olli Rehn, and Mika Aaltola. This messaging may seek to disenfranchise the Finnish electorate: voting is pointless as the candidates are the same; they are servants of foreign interests.

Whose president? Consensus candidate politics but a parting public

If successful, mis- and disinformation campaigns can erode trust in fair elections, question the legitimacy of election results, or dampen enthusiasm for political participation and voting. 

Overall, Finland’s relative resiliency to disinformation stems from a high-quality education system and a longstanding tradition of trust in institutions. In recent years, Finland has ramped up its defenses against election interference and disinformation. These initiatives stem from the country’s long tradition of multistakeholder cooperation between the public and private sectors and civil society – the country’s security is the responsibility of all. However, state preparations for election disinformation primarily focus on foreign interference rather than domestic misinformation networks. 

Social and ideological polarization in Finland has increased, particularly during the last four years, highlighted by the turbulent beginning of the newly elected Orpo government. This raises concerns over Finland’s future ability to resist disinformation campaigns. 

           The Presidential Palace, Helsinki, Finland. (Source: Wikicommons)

Despite far-right groups still being marginal, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) warns of increasing radicalization fueled by far-right communities or alternative media outlets online. Finns generally trust their media, but some doubt the fairness, political neutrality, and honesty of journalism in Finland. According to the latter, the mainstream media comprises similar-minded individuals who control the discussion topics and dictate the “correct” opinions. For example, some have speculated that the Finnish Public Service Media Company (YLE) is hiding the latest voting polls because they might suggest candidate Halla-aho is heading for the second round. 

“Between the candidates, the election has been amicable and consensus-seeking. The supporters of different candidates disseminate some polarizing videos, for instance, on TikTok and social media then may amplify them,” Faktabaari, the Finnish fact-checking and digital information literacy service, summarized to Logically Facts.

Supporter campaigns have also dug up candidates’ old opinions, actions, or political decisions to denigrate or defame the other candidates. For instance, an old speech featuring Alexander Stubb's Federalist views on the EU and the controversy of Pekka Haavisto in repatriating Finns from the al-Holin camp in Syria in 2019 has recirculated ahead of the presidential election.

Such polarization may have more profound effects on the functioning of society, political engagement, and how its political leadership is viewed. Traditionally, the President of the Republic resigns for party politics and does not represent a particular party interest. In an increasingly polarized environment, some mirror the sentiment that no candidate represents them or their views, just the ideological opposite.

Educating the electorate and online algorithms – New approaches to countering election mis- and disinformation

Finnish voter turnout in parliamentary and presidential elections has hovered close to 70 percent in the past decade. According to a December survey by the Finnish Government, 74 percent of respondents stated they would definitely vote in the presidential election. Likewise, 73 percent fully or mostly agreed that voting can influence important topics affecting them or their loved ones.

Participation in democratic decision-making depends on citizens’ ability to interpret information and form informed opinions. This makes resiliency towards mis- and disinformation crucial.

Finland has topped the charts of the European Media Literacy Index since 2017, and the country’s government and civil society initiatives have provided the electorate with knowledge and skills to identify false and misleading information. Digital information literacy is an essential civic skill for all in the country.

Despite past success and good form, Finland is not safe from mis- and disinformation campaigns or technological advances in online spaces. There is a need for new approaches to ramp up resilience. “Disinformation on digital platforms is a rising global issue. Finland, due to its recent NATO membership, closeness to Russia, and upcoming elections, is particularly susceptible to the phenomenon,” Guillaume Kuster, the CEO and co-founder of CheckFirst, told Logically Facts. 

After a successful project in Belgium, the software and methodologies company CheckFirst and Faktabaari launched the CrossOver Finland project in September 2023. The project examines preference algorithms on multiple social media platforms to observe the content recommended to Finns before the election.

       Screenshot of the CheckFirst website introducing the CrossOver Finland project. (Source: CheckFirst)

“CheckFirst will establish a network of monitoring devices installed in the homes of volunteers. This network will allow for the real-time measurement of algorithmic content recommendations on various platforms, generating valuable data on how disinformation reaches and influences Finnish audiences. Data will also be collected through the platforms’ official APIs. As experts in data processing, CheckFirst will then analyze and interpret the collected data to identify patterns and trends,” Kuster elaborated to Logically Facts.

“It combines monitoring preference algorithms on social media with Check First and writing fact-checks based on the observations. In practice, the project will be carried out by placing roughly ten computers in volunteers’ homes across Finland. The volunteers will inspect a daily list of 50 –100 words on different social media platforms provided by Faktabaari. We will publish two broader reports on our findings by the end of summer and be in for a public dashboard from which anyone can go and see what preference algorithms will recommend to Finns ahead of the election,” Faktabaari explained to Logically Facts.

To successfully counter mis- and disinformation, society must be unified, highly engaged in political life, and have trust in state institutions. In Finland, common ground with candidates and the public majority was established before the presidential election. However, for the country to resist disinformation in the future, it must recognize domestic divisions to avoid extreme opinions, lack of deliberation, and disenfranchisement of the population. This will negatively affect the functioning of the state and society, making it vulnerable to foreign information campaigns and interference.

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before