Jessikka Aro: How pro-Russian trolls tried to destroy me

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When Jessikka Aro started investigating pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, she was targeted by trolls both online and in real lifeImage source, Jessikka Aro
Image caption,
When Jessikka Aro started investigating pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, she was targeted by trolls both online and in real life

An investigative journalist's reporting turned her into the target of trolls in a harassment campaign that has continued for years. What kind of toll has it taken on her life?

Jessikka Aro works for the Finnish national broadcaster YLE. In 2014, she was investigating the existence of pro-Russian troll factories. She was uncovering evidence of a state-sanctioned propaganda machine pushing a pro-Kremlin line through Twitter bots - automated accounts - and bot networks.

The Russian government has repeatedly denied using bot networks or online tools to interfere with Western countries. Soon after Aro started looking into the story, she became the target of a systematic campaign of abuse which has continued to the present day. She's been doxxed - her personal information including her address, contact details and whereabouts has appeared online - and trolls have spread fake stories about her.

The harassment has led to police investigations and court cases - some of which she can't comment on - but she spoke about her experiences with BBC Trending radio.

What first got you interested in online misinformation and bots?

In 2014, I realised there was a new phenomenon of Russian information warfare. This was anonymous or fake profiles spreading propaganda on social networks - Facebook, Vkontakte, Twitter. I wanted to find out what kind of influence and impact they actually have in Finland, on freedom of speech and public debate.

I asked Finnish people to tell me about their experiences.

[Soon after], propagandists started to spread fake information about me in Russian information spaces. I was framed as some kind of foreign agent or foreign spy. My contact information was put online along with that disinformation. This is the worst problem: some people actually believe it and they contacted me, and called me, and sent nasty text messages and threatening phone calls. So that's where it started. This was September 2014 and it's still going on. And it has gotten so twisted and disturbing.

What else did the trolls do?

One really horrible racist neo-Nazi promoting fake news site started publishing tens or hundreds of pieces on me, in which they frame me as a person who has brain damage or a person who is spreading conspiracy theories.

They have also published my private health information. Some troll activists went through old court files and they found that when I was really young, 20 years old, I received a 300 euro fine for drug use because I had a serious drug problem. They made that into really horrible, propagandist stories trying to frame me some kind of "NATO drug dealer".

Also, they stalk me by releasing information about where I'm going to give presentations, where I'm going to give training courses. They are just really trying to character assassinate me.

At some point there was a music video campaign against me. Troll accounts were sharing a studio-quality song about me, alleging I'm a "stupid blonde" who was only imagining this whole troll phenomenon and I'm some sort of American or NATO spy. They hired an actress to play me in some of these videos, and they shared these videos on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image source, Jessikka Aro

Did this make you think again about carrying on doing stories about alleged Russian disinformation?

Well in the beginning when I noticed that there is so much misinformation being spread about me, I realised that this is actually a much more important topic than I originally thought.

They wouldn't have attacked me so heavily if this was some sort of small issue, so in a way, with all this brutality and all this campaigning they have only exposed that this whole troll phenomenon is real and it's really serious.

Many people who have been investigating these stories have seen a new tactic, where bots follow you en masse on Twitter.

I've had that too. Many of those bots are super hot girls and they look really interesting, but when you look at them closer, you can see that often these are parts of troll and bot networks. It's really disturbing with the bots, how quickly they operate, how quickly you might get for example, a thousand or two thousand new followers.

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Some people might think "oh my god so many trolls are after me", and wonder what are they going to do. So it's perfectly understandable if someone feels anxiety. They are kind of creepy.

What cost have you paid for following this story?

Some days are much more difficult than others. But because I have so many good friends and so many experts who are also looking into this topic and who are helping me to investigate - and also because Finnish people are very supportive of me - I get by really well.

I cannot thank enough the Finnish police, who have been the key in helping me. Some of these [pro-Russian] activists are suspected of serious crimes and also the Finnish police have now set up an anti-hate speech unit.

Interview by Will Yates

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