Indifference is a green light for hatred and violence

Sofi Oksanen
Sofi Oksanen Photo: Toni Härkönen

Address by Sofi Oksanen at the 2020 Helsinki Ethics Conference

On a recent visit to Norway, I visited the Narvik War Museum. At the beginning of the tour, I read these words on the wall, describing the mood in the country in 1940: “War will never come to Norway! Keep Norway out of the war!” Yet as the exhibition proceeded, these introductory words were not followed by the years of peace the people of Norway had desired. Instead, we plunged into the depths of the Battle of Narvik, which spread from the fjords in front of the city into the surrounding mountains. By June of that year, Hitler’s troops had captured Narvik. German occupation would last for years, during which time freedom of speech was only a distant memory.

When the Norwegians still lived in hope that they could avoid everything that was to happen, Germany had already decided to conquer Norway. They needed the year-round port of Narvik to transport iron ore from Sweden. And besides, Norwegians were considered Aryan and thus desirable for the re-invigoration of the German race. Norway never could have remained neutral as it so desperately wanted, because Germany had no intention of respecting its sovereignty.

Similar words, sentiments, and beliefs have been repeated with regrettable regularity throughout history. People always want to believe that conflicts occurring outside their own borders won’t affect them. Even as war wages in neighboring territories, they cling to this belief, but it never protects them.

What should we call this persistent need to believe that bad things won’t cross our own thresholds? Perhaps we could call it naïveté. Or gullibility. Or a lack of imagination. People close their eyes time and time again to things that happen to others, imagining that it doesn’t affect us, just them: those people who are somehow “other,” different, foreign.

This also occurred in the West when Russia began to carry out information and influence operations in the Baltic countries in the early 2000s, focusing on messages meant to degrade the sovereignty of the nations in question and their right to record their own histories. Russia attacked the facts of the history of the Baltic occupation, because those facts were unfavorable for Russia, and did not fit the great Russian narrative, the only identity story that still unites Russians from generation to generation: the myth of the Great Patriotic War and its victory.

Finland did not believe that Russia, with which we were assured we had good relations, would ever use the same methods against Finland, and we hoped that if we could just keep quiet enough, Russia would never turn its tools of defamation and fact distortion on us. But playing dead rarely helps in situations like this.

Russian agitators also began to appear in other countries, and gradually their activities became more visible. They denied the deportations, mocked the victims, and questioned the 8 of what had happened, slandering and persecuting anyone who spoke up, along with entire countries whose independence they declared invalid. They recruited people, formed groups, and manufactured fake news. They set up YouTube channels, blogs, and book publishers, and saw their publications reviewed in the media. They participated in television interviews in Russia and in their home countries. Russian-affiliated actors in Finland marketed their wares at the Helsinki Book Fair, took out ads in national newspapers, and organized public events and demonstrations. They issued press releases, brought like-minded guests to Finland, and arranged for their publications to be distributed through normal book selling channels. They even managed to have their materials used in university instruction, because their group included a lecturing docent. Nothing of this sort would be tolerated for Holocaust deniers. And yet the Baltic countries found that attacks directed at them were treated differently. From the perspective of the Baltic States, this tolerance did not inspire confidence in the Finnish media, which believed it was only pursuing the truth. I am not arguing that the Finnish media does not seek the truth or does not adhere to journalistic ethical standards. But journalists are people: phenomena that are unfamiliar or outside of one’s experience can be difficult to recognize. And yet, demagoguery is a crime in Finland. But if the ethnic group that has become the victim of this crime cannot trust Finnish law, this inevitably undermines faith in the Finnish state.

Immigrants and seasonal workers from Estonia make up a large group in Finland, so this issue affects a significant portion of the population, and other immigrants with roots in Eastern Europe and Russia have also taken note of the signals being given by Finland and Russia in their handling of this issue. One of the aims of pro-Russia activists was in fact to weaken the trust of these countries and people in Finland as a state and in the Finnish media. They sought to drive wedges between ethnic groups, feeding internal discord both in Finland and Estonia and between Finland and Estonia. Their goal was to destabilize the nations along their border and to bolster the mythology of Russia.

For years, the rest of the West imagined that the smear campaigns targeting the Baltic States and people who wrote about them didn’t affect anyone else. Finland did not believe that Russia, with which we were assured we had good relations, would ever use the same methods against Finland, and we hoped that if we could just keep quiet enough, Russia would never turn its tools of defamation and fact distortion on us. But playing dead rarely helps in situations like this. After the Baltic States, Finland, which also shares a border with Russia, was subjected to the same measures, and in recent years Finland has also been obliged to defend its right to write its own history.

Hate speech is only one tool in a wide repertoire that seeks to silence people who write about Russia, but it is especially effective because it resonates with things already lurking in society, such as misogyny and racism…Being stigmatized as crazy, unbalanced, or obsessive is all in a day’s work if you write about Russia.

When I began my career as an author writing about issues related to Russia in 2003, the world was still a little different. Russia was already active in the Baltic States, but their activities were not yet visible to the wider public in Finland, and Russia’s methods were still being refined. The older generation, who were so skilled at influence operations during the Soviet period, were just training future operatives and their techniques were still taking shape. However, the situation quickly changed as President Putin solidified power, and I found that dealing with certain issues always seemed to attract the same strange comments. Noteworthy in the rhetoric of these Pro Russia actors was the abundant use and endless repetition of Soviet terminology, as well as gendered and ad hominem language. For example, blog posts from Putin activists insinuated that they’d been in contact with my friends and acquaintances and learned all sorts of personal details about me, even though they hadn’t talked to anyone at all. This was gendered in the sense that they made claims or expressed fantasies about my sexuality, a pattern that was also on display in a situation where activists from these groups attended discussions about Russia at the Helsinki Book Fair and videoed the legs of the female participants from the front of the stage to post it on YouTube.

Over the years, agitators have also showed up at my book events abroad. Particularly worth mentioning are the ones who blend into the crowd and queue up for signatures along with everyone else until they reach the signing table and begin delivering tirades in support of Soviet narratives. A few years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair, just before I was set to speak, a Finnish-speaking but non-Finnish individual tracked me down. Coming up very close physically, he began to rattle off a whole litany of false, pro-Russia claims about Estonia. Of course, none of the Germans around me understood what was going on. So this goes far beyond the hate speech we see in the digital world. It also occurs in real life. One of the most visible incidents was a public event held in Helsinki in 2009 to mark the release of a book on the recent history of Estonia edited by me and Imbi Paju named Kaiken takana oli pelko or “Fear Behind Us All.”

Johan Bäckman led protest of the launch of the book “Fear Behind Us All” Photo: YLE

The launch event turned into a carnival of different groups wandering around with banners and placards. When Finnish reporters interviewed the protestors that had arrived from St. Petersburg, the protestors didn’t quite know against what or whom they were protesting. At the same time, President Putin’s party, United Russia, organized a press conference in Helsinki to express concern about the book’s alleged “Russophobia.” The multichannel and multimodal phenomenon created around this book was not defined in terms of information warfare at the time, because that language was still foreign to Finns.

Since then, disinformation masquerading as legitimate criticism has been manufactured about the translations of my books, traveling from one country and media landscape to another, morphing and multiplying along the way. This isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish, since few editorial rooms read all of the books written about in their publications, and freelancers are frequently used, meaning that the rest of the editorial staff may not necessarily notice that a piece has ended up in their publication claiming things about my books that don’t actually happen in them. The goal of these activities is the same regardless of the method: to confuse the target, to waste their time figuring out what’s going on, and to exhaust the target, as well as propagating lies about the subject, of course.

Pro-Russia activists appeal to popular stereotypes, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and misogyny to recruit other people, seeking out communities that are already receptive in some way.

Hate speech is only one tool in a wide repertoire that seeks to silence people who write about Russia, but it is especially effective because it resonates with things already lurking in society, such as misogyny and racism. Also typical of these efforts is the planting of rumors about one’s mental health, which in the case of creative people resonates in society with myths already prevalent about artists. Being stigmatized as crazy, unbalanced, or obsessive is all in a day’s work if you write about Russia. It is worth mentioning that for artists, authors, and journalists, as in any other profession, it is commonplace to specialize in one or two subjects, and usually it is precisely this immersion that makes a professional a professional, an expert. In my own training as a playwright, I was encouraged to choose my own subject and to delve deeply into it. So, when I put the lessons of my education into action relative to Russia, in the minds of pro-Russia activists, this deep study is a sign of insanity or obsession, possibly mixed with some sort of animosity. It’s hard to imagine, say, a writer who deals with the colonial past of Great Britain receiving this kind of fake feedback, or that an author who has written several books about the Holocaust would be accused of Germanophobia or being obsessed with Germany, let alone that her motive for writing would be thought of as animosity or revenge seeking. But things are different with Russia.

Russia has a lengthy history of labeling artists, intellectuals, and others it considers difficult as crazy, and the state is a strong supporter of political psychiatry. This branch of pseudo-psychiatry, developed by the Soviet Union during the Détente period, operated hand in hand with their other influence operations. The political psychiatry practiced by the Soviet Union is worth mentioning here because it was created after

Serbsky Institute in Moscow Photo: Wikimedia

the death of Stalin specifically to silence dissidents and anyone who revealed facts that could disturb the prevailing order. Because the Gulag system was being dismantled, and the Soviets wanted to send a message to the rest of the world that they respected human rights, they needed a new system of punishment to isolate people they saw as problematic while also undermining the evidence they revealed, of corruption for example. Euphemistically labeled “special psychiatry,” it was assigned to the Ministry of the Interior, not the Ministry of Health. The Russian center for forensic medicine, the Serbsky Institute, was a focal point of this punitive special psychiatry during the Soviet period and continues to fabricate the most imaginative tales to this day: according to the pseudoscience of the Institute, a mass poisoning of Chechen school children was caused by psycho-emotional stress, and evaluations of the mental health of members of the opposition can include questions such as, “What do you think about President Putin?”

Journalists and researchers living elsewhere can also be labeled insane or unbalanced. Questions are raised about their expertise, and existing stigmas surrounding mental health disorders are exploited. Pro- Russia activists appeal to popular stereotypes, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and misogyny to recruit other people, seeking out communities that are already receptive in some way. For example, in the United States, the same Russia-linked actors who helped President Trump win the 2016 election are also active in online anti-vaccine communities, which may seem strange at first. What do Russian Internet trolls have to do with measles in America or even in Europe? Why is Moscow interested in that?

The central objective of the thought control being projected from Russia into the West is to undermine confidence in the democratic system and, if possible, its actual operation. Anything that weakens democracy will do. So it isn’t that Moscow is interested in measles but rather in the target group who happen to be against vaccines. David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University in Washington DC, has been studying the activities of Russia’s troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, since 2014, and how it has weakened public confidence in vaccines and shattered consensus about their importance in the United States. Broniatowski found no evidence that the trolls had tried to weaken western democracies by convincing people not to vaccinate their children, but rather by doing something else entirely. The trolls disguise themselves as ordinary users and express sympathy for anti-vaxxers in order to build credibility within the group. In this way, the trolls promote political polarization. A similar approach works with other subject areas that fit the agenda. After gaining credibility and followers in the community, the trolls begin to work new topics into the conversation, which their followers then begin to share. A group of people prone to anti-vaccine sentiments is only a gateway through which they are able to spread other messages—all while enhancing the divisions that weaken democracy. The measles epidemics, of which there have been many in the United States, are just byproducts of the operation. The orchestration of these operations to sow chaos in other countries is also detrimental to health and the climate, because naturally they practice the same activities among climate skeptics.

In the same way, Russia has an interest in infiltrating communities that express anti-immigrant sentiments, anti-Americanism, and misogyny, phenomena that already exist in our society, because hate speech wells up from conflicts already present in society. The actions of Russia feed these conflicts, acting as an amplifier for those whose volume it wishes to increase. However, hate speech is precisely the element of the Russian repertoire that every person can influence. It is also a phenomenon that has implications for the well-being of all.

Now, in 2020, the names for the tools these pro-Russia agitators have been using since the early 2000s are becoming familiar to the general public: shaming, doxing, hate speech, demagoguery, disinformation, fake news. Finnish courts have even handed down judgments against people who have directed these actions against journalists, so positive developments are happening. But at first, very few were willing to defend the targets of attacks by these operatives. One reason for this were the myths Russia has been cultivating since the Soviet period. In the opinion of Russia, the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic are its dependents, so intervening in their affairs is not only justified but natural. Thinking in terms of spheres of influence in this way has its roots in World War II and the years of Soviet hegemony. But spheres of influence are just colonialism by another name and incompatible with this millennium, and few people would approve of such actions relative to other former colonial powers. However, for Russia it has been tolerated, and this indulgence has served to stretch the notion of what Russia is allowed to do: No one ever gave Russia an unequivocal red light. Politicians were only too happy to make statements about how Russia was on the road to democracy, and some of them even had economic interests in the country. The warm relationships and economic ties of many far-right politicians to Russia have since been exposed.

Clarity of thought, precision of expression, and the factualness of claims are weapons that can defend us from Russian actions aimed at sowing chaos. The fact that Western countries voluntarily use euphemisms that advance the interests of Russia in the West undermines our resilience.

Because information warfare is an integral part of Russian war doctrine and psychological operations represent a holistic modus operandi, these operations are carried out by civilians, political activists, the mass media, and the Russian government. According to Russian military doctrine, operations must be carried out using artists, diplomats, experts, journalists, authors, publishers, interpreters, communications experts, hackers, and IT industry specialists. Because the spectrum and skills of content producing professions is so wide, penetration of their messages in the free media is inevitable unless the Western media ceases entirely things such as quoting the Russian state leadership. These operations take advantage of old myths, just like hate speech draws strength from ancient conflicts, and these myths are reinforced in the Western media by the things politicians say. However, myths can always be dispelled, as has already been done in relation to numerous falsehoods about women and people of color. So why does it feel so impossible to do the same thing to comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—who propagates the myths of Russia so effectively—even though this is exactly how Russia takes advantage of the Western media for its own purposes? Myths lose their power when they are deconstructed, given context, and analyzed. For example, the “greatness” and “unpredictability” of Russia are myths that justify Russian aggression despite being comparable to myths about the “darkness” of Africa or stereotypes about the frigidity or inability to take risks of women leaders. The careless repetition of these myths in everyday speech or in the columns of newspapers normalizes them.

In reality, Russia may be a large area geography, but so are Greenland and Mongolia. Geographic size doesn’t make any country great. And Russia isn’t unpredictable at all—Russia’s disinformation operations are straight out of the disinformation handbook. It’s a subject you can study—not some mysterious, occult science. Myths and euphemisms are often intertwined, and even Finnish decision-makers often emphasize the necessity of dialog with Russia. But “dialog” is always a euphemism in this context, because dialog means a reciprocal discussion, but activities aimed at encouraging hate speech and psychological manipulation are not reciprocal. Their purpose is not to seek truth or to substantiate claims that have been made. So, when we talk about the importance of dialog with Russia, actually what we mean is a negotiation, usually one involving economic interests. Or possibly what is going on is a mediation, a term familiar from legal proceedings that may be a more precise expression for this context, but dialog, natural discussion, it certainly is not, so why use a word that fails so thoroughly to correspond with reality?

Words and word usage are at the heart of Russia’s activities, and they should also be at the center of our psychological defenses. Clarity of thought, precision of expression, and the factualness of claims are weapons that can defend us from Russian actions aimed at sowing chaos. The fact that Western countries voluntarily use euphemisms that advance the interests of Russia in the West undermines our resilience. During the Soviet era, the people who lived in occupied territories were forced to develop euphemisms for things that were dangerous to talk about publicly. Then it was a defense mechanism that allowed people to deal with things that otherwise they would have had to keep silent about. When Soviet power crumbled, people consciously sought to dispel these euphemisms, reforming their languages and beginning to use precise expressions that matched up with reality. The citizens of these countries had already experienced what the alternative reality created by the Soviet Union signified, and Moscow’s interest in creating such a world has not disappeared. At this very moment, Russia is trying to create a new reality beyond its own borders.

When nations averted their gaze, it was like leaving someone alone who is being bullied or harassed. Their silence gave the implicit understanding that the victim must have done something to deserve such treatment.

Not until the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity turned into a war did changes begin in Western attitudes and the press began to use the word “war” for the war in Ukraine instead of “conflict.” After Donald Trump became president, it became clear that Russia had meddled with the US election, Brexit, and many other things in countries that are not Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, or any other “others”. Suddenly this issue affected all the countries it wasn’t supposed to affect, the ones that aren’t “other” in Europe, meaning Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The Second World War drew in one country after another, and now state after state has been targeted by Russian attempts to foster division.

This should not have come as a surprise to anyone, because there have been plenty of warning signs, and the targets of previous attacks had warned us. Other countries simply didn’t believe that this issue concerned them. Some were naïve, some wanted to shut their eyes, and some were worried about trade with Russia. When nations averted their gaze, it was like leaving someone alone who is being bullied or harassed. Their silence gave the implicit understanding that the victim must have done something to deserve such treatment. Surely something. And that’s exactly how hate speech works: it seeks to debase the target, to blame them in order to paralyze them and reinforce the message that the target is to blame for the situation. But democracy is based on participation, and hate speech reduces participation, which is why it is dangerous and over the long run leads to tyranny. In Finland, two out of three journalists have received hate correspondence, and one fifth of them believe that false rumors or personal information have been spread in attempts to defame them. The silencing and self-censoring effect of hate speech on news and public debate also extends to political decision-making, because hate speech attempts to disrupt the work of the judiciary and public officials. If participation in society comes to look like a risk and leads to threats of rape and murder, or threats against loved ones, or false accusations, it is clear that dropping out of social activities can seem like a viable option, and this has particularly strong impacts on women and people of immigrant heritage. Subjects particularly likely to fuel hate speech are immigration and Russia.

Indifference is one of the greatest threats to democracy and freedom of speech, and recognizing it is not as easy as you might think.

When we close our eyes to hate speech and its consequences, I call that indifference. Gallows for journalists don’t just fall out of the sky. Writers and bloggers don’t end up in prison or mental institutions for political reasons by accident. Concentration camps and genocides are always the result of long-term developments. They are preceded by a long road, every centimeter of which has blurred the lines about what is white and what is black, and at the very beginning of that road is a person who turned their eyes away, imagining that this could never touch them, and as they did so, they gave the green light to hatred and violence.

Indifference is one of the greatest threats to democracy and freedom of speech, and recognizing it is not as easy as you might think. Indifference has many faces, many coats, many suits of camouflage, and it manifests itself differently at different times and in different situations. Sometimes it’s just turning a blind eye, sometimes clearly turning away, sometimes joy that thank god, my family and I aren’t mixed up in that. But that doesn’t change the fact that in the final analysis, it is indifference, and I use the word indifference for these different reactions because it is not a euphemism and because almost no one wants to think of themselves as indifferent. That isn’t the team people want to be on even when their actions show that they are in fact indifferent. Or opportunistic. Or lackeys. Unconcerned with morality, with right and wrong.

The historian Timothy Snyder reminds us that after the Second World War, the West actively built up myths in opposition to Hitler. But in the 1930s, the prevailing attitude was one of appeasement and admiration. By 1940, most Europeans had made their peace with a victorious and attractive Germany, but now we admire those who were considered unusual or insane in their own day—the ones who opposed totalitarianism. The ones who despite the hate speech, persecution, and humiliation directed against them, opposed the path to totalitarianism. The ones who defended the victims of the hate campaigns. The ones who were not indifferent.

Manufacturing lies is cheap. Using words is cheap. Shouting down opponents is cheap. Denigrating democratic values is cheap, and technological developments are facilitating the adoption of increasingly inexpensive instruments

Hate speech is not a new phenomenon, and totalitarian systems have always been able to use it as a tool. It is one of the cornerstones of states that draw their strength from opposition to enemies, and the fuel for the messengers who walk the road to genocide. The humanity of the enemy must be erased, so targets are depicted as unhygienic or sexually suspect, or reduced to the status of animals, ultimately insects or some other pests whose destruction is justified. The result is always the same: people become more accepting of violence.

Throughout history, hate speech has spread according to the terms of the means of communication of the day, and the development of the printing press expanded its distribution platforms from market squares to books, fliers, and the media of the time. Newspapers and electronic media played their own part in constructing images of the enemy during World War II, and in the 21st century, social media and the Internet took their place alongside the old platforms, making the distribution and targeting of hate speech unprecedented in its effortlessness. When every social media user became a journalist of their own life, the amount of hate speech increased dramatically, because reaching audiences and finding sounding boards became easy and free.

This low price is precisely the reason why Russia began throwing everything they had at developing their information influence repertoire, because the goals of Russian power exceed its capacity to act as a real superpower. Due to this mismatch between ambition and actual ability, Russia has searched purposefully for means that are easy and effective, and this is why the struggle for the information space and psychological influence are so important to it. Manufacturing lies is cheap. Using words is cheap. Shouting down opponents is cheap. Denigrating democratic values is cheap, and technological developments are facilitating the adoption of increasingly inexpensive instruments. The researcher Alina Polyakova has reminded us in recent years of the opportunities that artificial intelligence, deep fakes, and other synthetic media products offer Russia. While perhaps some looking in from the outside on the war in Ukraine laughed at Russia’s clumsy disinformation campaigns, soon it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish manipulated images from reality. Automated bots may soon be yesterday’s news, replaced or joined by significantly more sophisticated impersonators. In the early days of the war in Ukraine, activists began to notice the same actors showing up all over in different pro-Russia demonstrations playing the parts of ordinary citizens, with different names and different roles. Soon recognizing paid performers like this will become more difficult. During the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, the country’s intelligence service arrested a man who confessed to being a Russian agent whose job it was to get locals to either rent or sell their Facebook accounts. These would then have been used to spread fake news.

My reason for bringing up the past in this speech has not been to point a finger at the blindness of western nations relative to Russia, but rather to remind us that developments in Russia are not changing direction. Their actions are intentional, long-term, and based on a tradition of expertise. After the Second World War, the Russians left Norway, as did the Germans. But now, today, Russia is not giving up its aggressive activities within the borders of our countries. The information warriors who serve Russia are not leaving, and their activities have become global: As we speak, Russia is expanding its operations, particularly in Africa. Their aggression is not directly only at the West.

In addition to weakening the West, Russia seeks to build a post-truth world in which facts no longer have any meaning. Of course, to all of us who are products of democracy, this effort feels absurd, but the principle in the Western media of relying on facts is young and not at all self-evident to all citizens of the world. A person who has grown up without media based on truthful information may not necessarily know how to miss its lack or believe that such a thing is possible. In developing countries, traditional media does not have the same kind of power as in Finland. Reading newspapers and seeing that as important requires a tradition, for example growing up in a family where the parents read the news. This often means belonging to at least a middle class that can afford to buy newspapers and has time to read them. For others, free services like Facebook can become synonymous with the entire Internet, and every piece of information that gushes from the screen can have the same value. This phenomenon is exceedingly destructive even without Russia, for whom operating in such an environment is very easy. So, it is important that we continue to remind social media companies of their responsibility, which they would be happy to avoid.

Here in the Nordic countries, it can be easy to be indifferent to what Russia may be doing in Africa, but that indifference is dangerous. During the Second World War, the Germans took lessons from the Soviet concentration camps. In the same way, Russia is now mentoring other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Similarly, Russia can sell its know-how to criminal and terrorist organizations whose activities know no borders. The development of Russia’s information and psychological warfare capabilities are no longer only a threat to the Western democratic order. They are now a global threat.

Russia has gotten away scot-free with most of its operations and it serves as a green light to other actors who wish to gnaw away at the democratic system. Even if Russia is the main orchestrator of state-sponsored information influence operations now, it isn’t the only country with an interest in using these tools. China, Iran, and other state or non-state actors have already taken lessons from the Russian arsenal and are using those weapons at ever-increasing rates. The threats posed by these actors affect us all.

Sofi Oksanen

Translated by Owen Witesman

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