Jessikka Aro takes fight to Russian trolls over fake news and death threats

Jessikka Aro takes fight to Russian trolls over fake news and death threats, by Hilary Rose.

For Jessikka Aro, a good day at work is one without death threats.

Aro is the Finnish journalist who exposed the breadth and scale of the fake news coming out of a single Russian troll factory in St Petersburg. Suffice to say, the trolls were not pleased. Pretty much overnight the woman who exposed the crime became the victim. Now she’s taking the fight to the trolls. …

“I receive death threats. Even some of my own friends have sent me death threats because they read the fake news that is written about me. They mock me and smear me. I’ve reported two of my friends to the police.

“My mother and my sister have become targets and have had to take serious security precautions. I fear for my life, which is part of the reason for this harassment and criminal activity. They want me to stop reporting on this.” …

It started four years ago when Aro broadcast her first investigation into the troll factory on Finnish state TV and published articles in English, Finnish and Russian.

Building on earlier investigations by Russian journalists, Aro led the first Western film crew to find evidence that the innocuous-sounding Internet Research Agency was a branch of the Russian state. …

The building known as the “troll factory” in St Petersburg.

The organisation was funded by one of President Vladimir Putin’s associates, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman and restaurateur from St Petersburg known as “Putin’s chef”, who has since been indicted by the US for alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. Between 300 and 400 people worked there, pumping out abuse and fake news around the clock. …

The aim, says Aro, was to shut down negative debate, sow doubt about where the truth lay and intimidate anti-Russian voices online. It worked.

“So many people told me they stopped discussing Russia-related issues online because they became the target of trolls and death threats.

“We know from leaked strategy papers that the entire aim of this campaign of disinformation was to twist the debate and make online comment more pro-Russian. Some people told me they left social media completely because they couldn’t deal with the abuse any more.” …

Aro, 38, knew how they felt. Social media and the web were now awash with conspiracy theories about her and stories mocking her articles and credentials as a journalist.

She was, it was claimed, variously in the pay of the CIA, Finnish security services and NATO. She was an American propagandist conducting information warfare against law-abiding Finnish citizens. She was a threat to Finnish national security. She was denounced as a drug user, a drug dealer, a brain-damaged whore, or a combination of all three. …

“It was when my former friend commented on Facebook that I used to be a normal person but had turned into a shit that I realised the power of fake news and how serious this brainwashing is.”

It was sufficiently serious that she felt compelled to leave her home in Helsinki and move abroad for a couple of years. …

“This has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” says Aro. “This is not normal political ­discussion. Saying ‘Jessikka is a crack whore who needs to be killed’ is a crime in many different countries.” …

The politics goes to the top:

In January Aro was informed by the US State Department that she was to receive an International Women of Courage award. It was to be presented to her by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump.

A few weeks later the award was mysteriously rescinded, with the State Department citing a “regrettable error”. Aro suspects that someone in Washington, DC, realised she had been critical of US President Donald Trump on social media or didn’t like her raising the issue of Russian trolls, given the role they were found to have had in influencing his election. Either way, Aro didn’t get the award and is carrying on with her work despite the abuse.