Finland Leads The Way

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are at the heart of all of the other problems we face. After all, as any medical practitioner will tell you, prescribing a remedy requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem, and to the extent that our informational Wild West misleads us, such accuracy eludes us.

Worse, the Internet’s multitude of “facts” allows us to choose a “diagnosis” based upon our ideological preferences–we believe what we want to believe. If the problem is lazy poor folks, there’s no point raising taxes on the rich. if the problem is greedy rich folks, higher tax rates will be part of the solution.

If my own diagnosis is correct–if all of our problems are rooted in or exacerbated by our population’s growing inability to separate truth from fiction, wheat from chaff–is there a prescription for that?

Finland’s approach looks promising.

Finland ranked No. 1 of 41 European countries on resilience against misinformation for the fifth time in a row in a survey published in October by the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. Officials say Finland’s success is not just the result of its strong education system, which is one of the best in the world, but also because of a concerted effort to teach students about fake news. Media literacy is part of the national core curriculum starting in preschool.

The article, from the New York Times, began with an example:

A typical lesson that Saara Martikka, a teacher in Hameenlinna, Finland, gives her students goes like this: She presents her eighth graders with news articles. Together, they discuss: What’s the purpose of the article? How and when was it written? What are the author’s central claims?

“Just because it’s a good thing or it’s a nice thing doesn’t mean it’s true or it’s valid,” she said. In a class last month, she showed students three TikTok videos, and they discussed the creators’ motivations and the effect that the videos had on them.

Her goal, like that of teachers around Finland, is to help students learn to identify false information.

The United States was not included in the survey, which was limited to European countries, but there’s plenty of evidence that misinformation and disinformation are widespread in the U.S.  Polls show that Americans’ trust in the news media is at record lows.

A survey by Gallup, published in October, found that just 34 percent of Americans trusted the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, slightly higher than the lowest number that the organization recorded, in 2016. In Finland, 76 percent of Finns consider print and digital newspapers to be reliable, according to an August survey commissioned by a trade group representing Finnish newspapers that was conducted by IRO Research, a market research company.

If we Americans were inclined to learn from others–not a noticeable national trait, unfortunately–we might take a lesson from the article’s description of what Finland has going for it, including a public school system that ranks among the best in the world, free college, high trust in government, and even higher respect for teachers.

Ah, well…..

In all fairness, there are some Finnish advantages we don’t share: Finnish is spoken only by about 5.4 million people, so disinformation produced by foreign speakers or bots is more  easily identified because of grammatical or syntax errors. In the U.S., not only do we have millions of people for whom English is a second language, we also have tens of millions of native English speakers whose command of grammar, spelling and syntax makes this former English teacher weep. So some clues that are available to Finns aren’t available to us.

And unlike far too many Americans, Finns evidently believe it is the proper goal of the schools to equip students with intellectual tools–not  to indoctrinate them with a particular view of their country or the other people who inhabit it. The article quoted one Finnish teacher who explained that she believed her job was to teach students “methods they can use to distinguish between truth and fiction. I can’t make them think just like me,” she said. “I just have to give them the tools to make up their own opinions.”

I’m sure those misnamed “Moms for Liberty” would disagree. Strenuously.

In the U.S., the goal of too many self-identified “patriotic Americans” isn’t to equip students to think, or to spot disinformation–it’s to ensure that they accept the correct disinformation.

No wonder so many Americans believe “facts” that just aren’t so.


If This Is Even Partially True…

Everyone has his or her theory about the roots of Americans’ current political and cultural hostilities. Most of those theories are rooted in history or sociology, but I recently stumbled across a very different analysis, offered in a lengthy letter from a Finnish reader to Talking Points Memo

The writer linked the growth of America’s internal divisions to a very external culprit: Russia. In his view, Russia has used America as a “tool”–a Western backdoor to its goal of weakening Europe and NATO

Since Western Europe and the USA together (in the form of NATO and otherwise) has been too strong for Russia to expand, and since the USA is the greatest military backup fortress of NATO/Europe, they simply circumvented Europe and went to the core of the power using the kitchen door, the internal political structure of the USA.

I understand you would like to see your heroic country as the navel of the world and as the main focus of any operation, but I am sorry to inform that, in this case, you are only cheap tools. You had to be weakened (and Britain manipulated to Brexit etc) in order to facilitate invasions to Ukraine, Belarussia and a list of other neighboring pieces of land in Putin’s future Menu.

So, as a KGB officer would plan, they came exactly from the opposite direction than where they were expected. They professionally built an operation web among the rural redneck cowboys, evangelical christians, the NRA, the most republican of all republicans, your law enforcement, some military people, big business etc etc. They popped up to the surface from within the “core americans”, but their long dive before that was planned and had started from the Kremlin’s operation board.

The writer goes on to say that the Russian plot nearly succeeded on January 6th, one of several efforts to incite and coordinate  seemingly “spontaneous” protests and prop up  “corrupt politicians like a welding flame to the same point and to the same moment.” He then adds, ominously, that “They just barely failed – for the time being!”

Had Trump succeeded to keep in power, the march of Putin to various targets in the Eastern Europe would have been more like an easy summer parade. NATO would be partially paralyzed by his loyal friends in the White House (who likely would have got their personal share of the profits).

It was no coincidence that some crucial (and criminal) incidents of the Trump term had to do with the Ukraine. It was one of Putin’s main targets already then. Trump was because of Ukraine, not vice versa! GOP (short for “Girlfriends Of Putin”??) just blocked any consequences for him.

After laying out this theory of Putin’s/Russia’s strategy, the writer comes to his major concern about what he clearly (and maybe correctly) sees as the fecklessness of the United States. We have yet to hold Trump or any significant member of the GOP accountable–and meanwhile, “the GOP is working in three shifts to make the next election even more rigged than the previous one. And you are just going to let it happen.. Tralala!”

So, if you really want to do something for the Ukraine, for the Europe and to any other decent country or person, please also Do. Your. Own. Homework! Show to both your home audience and to the rest of the world that also the western flank of Putin’s army, the one located in your country, is kept accountable! No special treatment, just f**king enforce your old existing laws to ultra-rich/influential white dudes, as well! You are just tools, but you are very important tools for Putin also in the European front. Don’t let him use you.

The letter ends with a declaration that, by our collective inaction, we Americans are facilitating the bad things that are happening in the whole world.

My reaction to this analysis–this diatribe, actually–is mixed. Geopolitical events are almost never reducible to simple “cause and effect,” after all. But it is impossible to ignore the basic outlines of our Finnish friend’s accusations, because most of the grounds of those accusations have been confirmed by U.S. Intelligence, journalists, and the January 6th Committee. We know that Russian bots influenced the 2016 election; and we know that they have been effective in disseminating conspiracy theories and disinformation on social media.

We also know that it is very unlikely that Russian activities in cyberspace were undertaken independently–i.e., without Putin’s knowledge or direction.

There is one area where I am in total agreement with the gentleman from Finland: the pressing need to hold Trump and his enablers accountable–and soon.