Why Finnish children see through fake news

Published by The i paper (25th May, 2023)

Darja Rekani clearly remembers the day in primary school when a teacher showed a series of news reports before asking the class of Finnish 10-year-olds to pick out the fake item buried among them and explain their choice. “Then she told us, don’t always click on the first news you see and don’t believe everything you see on the internet – that was the most important thing in our lessons,” she says.

This was the start of teaching this set of young Finns how to traverse the turbulent and often toxic digital world so they can assess news stories, challenge conspiracy theories, handle data, see hoaxes and spot hate speech. Instead of abandoning them in an anarchic world filled with false prophets, phoneys and propagandists, they are drilled in the skills to navigate safely through cyberspace.

Now, Darja is 17 years old and a pupil at Otaniemi lukio, a buzzing new secondary school with 1,150 pupils and a striking bear logo painted on its exterior in Espoo, the sprawling coastal city beside the capital Helsinki. Like so many teenagers, she is an avid user of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tik-Tok, closely following discussions on politics and climate change, and admitting she spends up to 10 hours a day online. 

However, that first lesson stuck in her mind. “I don’t believe everything I see,” says this affable young woman. “I double-check everything and only believe something if it is confirmed by other sources. I want to look a little deeper, search a little more and compare news. It takes time but it’s worth it.” 

Topias Vakkilainen, also 17, underlines how these Finnish students have had it drummed into them to question data and information. “It is pretty basic stuff: check more sources, check a site’s sources, don’t trust only one page,” he says, adding that such scrutiny has become natural. “Even with Wikipedia, which can be a good source, we are told not to blindly trust it but look into the sources.”

These are the children of Generation Z – digital natives of the post-truth age, brought up using the internet, social media, tablets and mobile phones from infancy. Yet in Finland, a country famous for having one of the world’s finest and most equitable education systems, they are taught critical thinking from an early age to help resist the flood of fake news and conspiracy theories. 

The UK would do well to learn the lessons too. Democracies face increasingly fraught online struggles against dictatorships, fanatics and fraudsters, with artificial intelligence looming to make the fight even harder – so we need to do everything possible to equip our own children for the realities of the world in which they live.

This Nordic nation encourages school pupils to become digital detectives as part of a national strategy to help citizens steer through an online landscape swamped with menacing armies of bots, trolls and muck-spreaders. 

So in art classes, pupils analyse images from advertising and discuss deep-fake videos. In history, they compare Allied and Nazi wartime propaganda. In maths, they discuss the use of algorithms and abuse of statistics. In language lessons, they discover how words can be manipulated, how they can mislead and be used to sow division.

As in other parts of the school system, teachers are required to teach media literacy in a curriculum centred on critical analysis, but given discretion over the content of their lessons in a system without standardised testing and outside inspections. 

Many used the Covid pandemic to examine conspiracy theories, and in recent months the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine to look at state-led misinformation. Some teachers even discussed with pupils the video leaked last summer that showed then prime minister Sanna Marin singing and dancing at a party – which led to complaints to the parliamentary ombudsman that she was neglecting her official duties (though she was later cleared of any misconduct). 

It is difficult to envisage such lessons in Britain, let alone in the increasingly politicised world of education in the United States. Yet such classes are seen as a cornerstone of the fight to defend freedom in Finland, a nation of just 5.5m people that shares an 830-mile border with Russia and was so alarmed by the invasion of Ukraine that it ditched long-standing neutrality to join Nato last month.

“We have to be on guard against disinformation,” says Aki Saariaho, an English teacher at Otaniemi lukio. “It’s a battle we must fight all the time.”

Aki admits it can be hard for teachers to keep up with the latest trends and technology, pointing to the popularity of misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate among teen boys, along with the recent spread of pandemic conspiracy theories. He estimates about two-thirds of his pupils end up as diligent as Darja and Topias.

The country’s public library system offers classes for older people to navigate the internet. Finland’s aim is not to establish “truths” but to arm citizens with the means to sift through the torrents of information found online, challenge falsehoods and come to their own informed conclusions. 

And this approach has helped make Finland more resistant to fake news than any other nation in Europe, according to an annual survey of media literacy that put Britain in 11th place. 

Another study of 46 nations last year by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University found Finland had highest levels of trust in news at 69 per cent of the population – and this figure had grown significantly over the previous two years, despite the pandemic. Finland also has comparatively high trust in government.

“There is no single silver bullet,” says Mikko Salo, founder of Faktabaari (Fact Bar), a fact-checking and digital literacy group initially focusing on elections that began also assisting teachers in 2017. “The digital information ecosystem is polarising our society while people have to learn to navigate it.” 

Like others, he speaks about “vaccinating”’ citizens against the virus of conspiracy theories. “We need to equip our children as well as possible for a world of tech and social media.”

Yet this strategy, centred on developing critical analysis, is not simply designed to help young people thrive in a world of fast-changing technology and artificial intelligence by learning how to filter out lies, hate and harmful material. It has a far more profound aim – as an essential weapon in defending their democracy, retaining faith in institutions and helping to bind society together in their sparsely-populated nation. “Our first line of defence is the school teacher,” said one state official.

Finland has taught media literacy in schools for almost a century. But in 2014, just as it was revising the curriculum, Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation of Crimea and attacks on east Ukraine highlighted the dangers of damaging propaganda and lies spread online by malicious actors. 

The following year, as hostile trolling ramped up on issues such as immigration and Nato, Finland’s president Sauli Niinistö called on every citizen to take responsibility for the fight against fake news. “We are all defenders of the country,” he warned.

We know now that Putin’s allies – notably Wagner group chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin – set up troll “factories” to push Kremlin propaganda online and try to corrode democracies by winkling open divisions, spreading mistrust and interfering in elections. Similar tactics have been adopted by other dictatorships. Unfortunately, the technology giants have shown disturbing complacency in response to such threats.

Little wonder that Finland’s drive to develop resilience is seen as a potential model for other democracies as they confront both autocracies and unfettered technology giants. “It is not enough just to know about current threats – people must also have the right means to understand and resist the threats,” says Antti Sillanpaa, chief preparedness specialist at the National Emergency Supply Agency, which oversees crisis planning and stockpiling.

Sillanpaa accepts that many Finns thought that cooperation with Russia might be more effective than confrontation in the past, but the invasion of Ukraine changed their mindset.

“Hostile actors have more tools at their disposal, especially with the development of artificial intelligence, so they can do all sorts of nasty tricks,” he says. “Hybrid warfare means defence of our country can no longer just be done through military means.”

Living next door to Russia, its former imperial ruler until 1917, Finland developed a unique strategy of “comprehensive security” involving preparation for war, disaster or cyber attack that includes building up civil defence systems, retaining military conscription and stockpiling significant supplies of food and drugs. 

It is well aware of Moscow’s threat. In 1939, Finland was invaded by the massive Soviet Red Army, losing chunks of land after a brutal four-month winter war despite heroic resistance that carries echoes of current events in Ukraine. 

After rebuilding the nation, Finns vowed to protect themselves by all means possible – and this desire for physical and psychological “resilience” included building one of the world’s best education systems and now bolstering the battle against fake news. 

“It is everyone’s responsibility to take care of their country,” says Päivi Tampere, head of government strategic communications. “We can’t debunk all the falsehoods but we can try to teach people to use credible sources and recognise conspiracies.”

She argues that retaining trust in government, official transparency and a strong, self-regulated media also aid national security by binding citizens together. “We’re defending democracy and if we lose our values, then we lose everything,” she says.

No doubt it helps that this largely homogenous country performs well in many other comparative international indexes, from happiness and literacy through to press freedom and social justice, making it harder for hostile forces to exploit divisions.

Officials admit it is becoming harder to detect fake news as artificial intelligence grows smarter. Others also told me they worry the retreat into online worlds may be weakening communal bonds since citizens meet and mix less than in the past. 

But they say this makes it even more important to protect democracy by equipping citizens to evaluate data and information. “I find it amazing that we do these things differently,” said Kristina Kaihari, a senior education adviser. “They seem so normal for us.”

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