Estonia’s answer to Russian disinformation is to fund real journalism
In this edition, Estonia experiments with offering grants to help independent media bridge language barriers and combat misinformation campaigns.
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Estonia is entering the second year of what I’ll call “corkboard accountability.” And the European Union, along with other nations concerned about the increased threats of Russian and Chinese disinformation, should take note.
On one of my first days as a reporter for a local newspaper in Juneau, the capital of Alaska, a bartender at my nightly haunt gave me a stern warning as she served a round of drinks. “Just don’t end up on the wall of shame,” she said, pointing to a corkboard in a distant corner of the room. Poor writing, unimaginative reporting or egregious spelling and grammar mistakes would land my clips, in full public view, on the corkboard — a form of vigilante, if necessary, accountability in a town of about 30,000 people.
It wasn’t long until I saw an article of mine hung up in the corner, as though through a noose, cutting off blood to my jugular and my pride. I was taught a brutal lesson in the importance of accuracy, intention and accountability, one that would follow me to a job at the New York Times where every reporter feared appearing on A2, the Corrections page. No one wanted to get something wrong, lest you let down your community and your family.
But not everyone is held accountable. There are those whose charge it is to expressly manipulate and fabricate “news.” Others are courted into editorial silos, publishing only what government officials approve and allow. Many are distant from the communities they reach, families of which they are not a part, seated at computers far from a town’s, city’s or nation’s borders. Estonia, the tiny Baltic nation of about 1.3 million people, which is celebrating more than a century since the introduction of its Declaration of Independence this week, has sought to hold its independent media accountable by giving them the latitude and tools (primarily funding) to combat such narrative incursions of misinformation and disinformation ever since Russia’s war in Ukraine began.
ESTONIA’S EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH
In March 2022, after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Estonia’s Ministry of Culture quickly handed out over $2.8 million in funding to public and private media. The money was intended, as one adviser at the ministry said, to improve Russian-language media coverage for the nation’s ethnic Russians, roughly a quarter of the total population. The ministry wanted “to give those people who were watching these Russian channels an alternative,” Olga Sytnik, an advisor at the ministry responsible for grants, told me. There are about 320,000 Russian speakers in Estonia, some 90,000 of whom hold Russian citizenship.
For over a decade now, Estonia has been a pioneer in inculcating media literacy into the school syllabus. As one of the earliest victims of Russian disinformation and cyberwar tactics, Estonia decided it needed its people to be able to distinguish good information from bad. It has since, perhaps empowered by the efforts of saboteurs seeking to crush civil unity, built a reputation for its media freedoms, education and literacy.
Still, despite widespread media literacy, many of Estonia’s native Russian speakers turned to Kremlin-backed media for their news. The border city of Narva, where the overwhelming majority of the population are Russian speakers, lies a two-and-a-half hour drive east from the nation’s capital, Tallinn. Across the Narva River lies Russia. (Check out this short Coda documentary about Narva’s cultural tug of war between Soviet-inflected nostalgia and its future as a part of a modern EU state.) Though the Estonian government acted early to block Russia’s state-backed channels, it was easy enough for people in Narva to access Russian cable networks through antennas, satellite dishes and black boxes.
Countries closest to the war in Ukraine saw a sharp uptick last year in television and online news consumption, despite a high proportion of the population (including residents of Tallinn who I spoke with) continuing to avoid news entirely. And the closer to Russia a reader or viewer sits, the more likely they are to consume primarily Kremlin-backed media. The other Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania, have, like Estonia, been in the crosshairs of Russian disinformation.
Many exiled Russian journalists moved to Latvia to continue to try and provide independent news. But the Latvian decision to revoke the license of TV Rain in December 2022 on national security grounds has revealed underlying tensions and suspicions. So what are readers and viewers to do when there’s a dearth of coverage? It often falls to local news outlets to reimagine their relationships to, and within, their communities.
Housed within a heritage-protected limestone built between 1909 and 1913, the imposing Postimees building in Tallinn reflects the newspaper’s status: Founded in 1857, it is Estonia’s oldest newspaper with the largest audience.
The newsroom received over $740,000 in grants from the Estonian government, the lion’s share of the total $2.8 million. Postimees has used this money over the last year to publish a 24-page, Russian-language, weekly print edition, supported by a new staff of some 25 Russian-language journalists hired to cover domestic and international news for the paper and its website and to build trust among its Russian-speaking audience.
“If there would be no war,” Sergey Metlev, the editor of the Russian-language newsroom at Postimees told me, “there would be nothing like this.”
Thanks to government funding, native Russian speakers are now on staff at several other Estonian outlets. Mistakes that would be routinely made by non-native speakers writing in a second language have been largely eliminated, helping to improve the credibility of Estonian news media among Russian-speaking audiences. The energy is apparent, with mushrooming Russian-language podcasts, town hall-style events and prime time broadcasts.
Now, nearly a year since Estonia’s experiment with developing homegrown Russian-language media, surveys show that audience trust has blossomed. The percentage of readers and viewers of Russian state-backed media who considered these to be “important sources of information” has fallen by nine percent in just 10 months.
The war in Ukraine, you could argue, further improved media freedoms in Estonia, which already stood apart from most of its neighbors. Last year, as the grant was introduced, Estonia jumped 11 spots, up to fourth place, in the Press Freedom Index. The United States, for comparison, is ranked an abysmal 42nd.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
On February 7, 2023, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell announced the building of a new platform to help counter disinformation by Russia and China. It’s yet another effort, in Borrell’s words, “to understand how these disinformation campaigns are organized.” The EU plans to share whatever knowledge it gleans with NGOs and governments to improve transparency and help shutter those networks.
But we already know how disinformation networks operate. One company, for instance, uses a system called “AIMS” to control 30,000 fake accounts across Amazon, Airbnb, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Big Tech is, whatever its protestations, an accomplice in the spread of disinformation.
What might work better than yet another bureaucratic-sounding “platform” to counter disinformation is to create more publicly funded media with high standards, as in Estonia.
Maybe — and hear me out — a possible answer to disinformation might be the corkboard accountability I learned back in Alaska. Publicly funded media is only accountable to its consumers. Create hyperlocal, well-funded media, and a media literate population will hold it to account in the spirit of the corkboard of shame.
Grants and fact-checking collaborations meant to fight misinformation aren’t new. They are also not without their pitfalls. When the funding in Estonia was first announced, readers wondered whether the government in Tallinn would now oversee all news appearing in those selected publications, some of Estonia’s largest. The publications, though, have maintained that they remain editorially independent.
The Estonian government’s decision was a novel and arguably effective way to contribute positively to the information landscape without outright restricting access to alternative media. “When COVID came, the government supported cinemas and restaurants,” Andrey Shumakov, the editor-in-chief of the Russian-language edition of Delfi, told me when we met in his office. “But we don’t see them as government-run cinemas and restaurants.”
While governments and social media platforms work globally to combat harmful online content, Estonia’s approach to encouraging balanced reporting while also making that reporting more accessible is of great consequence. If it lasts. Media outlets in Estonia are now waiting on the next round of funding, though at about $1 million, it is less than half the previous budget.
“If you don’t support the media in this way for a long time, the experiment will mean nothing,” Metlev, the editor at Postimees, told me. “But there was life before and we will not vanish. Readers need us.”
Yes, because to overcome falsehoods and malicious misdirection, local media must rely on the bonds of community woven through trust and accountability.
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