Online media has become the battleground for a new kind of warfare.

Organisations with support from states and quasi-states like ISIS are using a combination of new digital tools such as fake news and troll bots – alongside political, military or financial tools – to cause chaos and mayhem. The aim of these “hybrid threats” is to weaken social cohesion and public trust in governments and institutions.

Finland is all too aware of the danger these attacks pose to the country – and to nations across the world. The government has created a new role to rally international cooperation and unity, share best practices and build new deterrences globally. GovInsider sat down with Mikko Kinnunen, Finland’s Ambassador for Countering Hybrid Threats, to find out more.

Tackling fake news

Many of the tools used in hybrid attacks are new, like social media campaigns, fake news and cyber operations to create social tension. These came to prominence when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, using a combination of military forces, cyberattacks and propaganda campaigns. “Something that we will not accept is the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia,” Kinnunen says.

Meanwhile, last summer Greece said that Russians had financed and organised protests in Athens to fuel a dispute on renaming Macedonia – an emotional issue in the Balkans, linked to ethnic minorities and going back centuries. The outcome of the dispute “relates to the question of Macedonia being able to join EU and then being able to become a better country for its people”, the Ambassador says.

Since 2014, EU has been targeted with “systematic disinformation” campaigns, he adds. There has been “external interference” in elections, with attackers trying to change results or using the elections to sow distrust in a society.

Of particular concern now is the upcoming European Parliament election in May, he says, when millions of people across the continent will go to the polls. The EU has created a package to help member countries prepare, including an action plan to fight online disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting elections, and new centres across Europe to coordinate cybersecurity funding.

The Ambassador’s role

A little less than a year into the job, Kinnunen believes his most important task is to build international cooperation against hybrid threats. He was in Singapore and Australia a couple of weeks ago, and meeting with EU leaders in Brussels before that.

Attackers target unique weaknesses in each country, but common patterns of operation emerge when you look at cases across the world. Among the top targets have been election and democratic processes, migrants, refugees, minorities and critical infrastructure. “The ways of operating, the methods, they are often quite similar,” Kinnunen says. “International cooperation helps to put the pieces together to connect the dots.”

With this new role, Finland is learning from hybrid attacks in other countries, how they have countered them and developed capabilities, and sharing its own lessons. The country is constantly facing hybrid threats, he says. “We recognise that it is an issue for the safety and for the wellbeing of the people who live in Finland.” Ultimately, the goal is to protect the civic rights and trust that exist in the country, he adds.

The Scandinavian model

The threat is apparent elsewhere. In Asia, India and Pakistan have accused each other of hybrid warfare. Singapore’s Minister of Defence has spoken on the serious impact of hybrid threats and signed a cooperation with Germany to tackle these.

One way to deter these attacks is to increase the level of public awareness and media literacy on disinformation campaigns. This is a “very Scandinavian model”, Kinnunen says, but one that every country can learn from. Students in Finland now learn to identify propaganda and fake news online, understanding what is true and what isn’t. “If an external actor does something, people more or less start laughing: ‘Okay, we know that it is country x’, and so that might increase the cost.”

Another key component is Finland’s Total Defence strategy. It involves very close cooperation between agencies on how they should respond to threats, and closely working with private businesses, NGOs and individual citizens. At the heart of this strategy is preparedness, he says. “It was built in the 1950s. We were a small country, we noticed that we need to be united, and we need to be prepared. We were next to a massive superpower.”

This is an approach that Singapore has taken too. This month, it added “digital defence” as a sixth pillar of its total defence strategy to raise awareness of the risk of disinformation campaigns. “Malicious malware can cripple our systems. Fake news can cause racial riots and divide our people,” the Defence Minister wrote in a Facebook post.

Naming and shaming

An important principle to Finland is to be “state agnostic” in countering hybrid threats, Kinnunen says. “There are no bad countries; there are no bad states. But sometimes there are bad acts that are sponsored by certain countries. But this agnosticism is extremely important, and we’ll continue with that.”

Publicly naming the state behind an attack can be a deterrence, but should be considered on a case by case basis by governments, he adds. Countries need to set certain thresholds for what they will tolerate. “Every country needs to think of a criteria: when is it clear that an act sponsored, supported, mandated by an external country goes over what you can accept?”. For Finland, this involves a threat to its sovereignty, or breaking international laws, norms and rules, he says.

For instance, Finland named Russia as being the origin of an attack to disrupt the country’s GPS location systems in November. “Finland decided to say publicly that this GPS jamming, in that case, came from the territory of the Russian Federation,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the Salisbury nerve agent poisoning in the UK prompted a strong reaction from governments globally. Countries across the world named Russia as being highly likely responsible and expelled an unprecedented 150 Russian diplomats as a show of support to the UK.

This “naming and shaming” should be carefully considered, and not be the default reaction. The Ambassador’s work, he stresses, is “not against any countries; it is against a phenomenon that is unhealthy for our society”.

A new reality

Finland believes that hybrid threats are a “new reality” and a trend that will continue. Already there are new cases which are being considered as possible examples of what could go wrong.

The 2018 attack on Singapore’s healthcare system, that targeted the records of millions of patients including the Prime Minister, pops up in global discussions as a possible hybrid attack, according to Kinnunen. This in itself is significant. “It has the impact of a hybrid threat because then people start questioning and wondering what is happening and who’s done this,” he adds.

Meanwhile, an £8m (US$10.5m) donation to the Brexit campaign – the single biggest made to a political campaign in UK history – is being investigated as having links to Russian sources. “They want to study whether it is a normal donation or whether it is de facto influencing of an outside country,” Kinnunen says. The details are still being established as an inquiry is ongoing, but there’s certainly a possibility of it being a hybrid attack, he adds, aimed at dividing the society and weakening trust.

There are two things governments can do as a start. One is to honestly assess their own vulnerabilities and how they can be used in a hybrid operation. This knowledge should, obviously, not be made public. The second is to prepare a list of possible motivations and aims adversaries may have against the country. “If you compile these 2 products, you have a package with which you can start your work on countering hybrid threats,” he says.

Whether in classrooms, chat rooms or boardrooms, only a coordinated and concerted approach is going to protect people from these threats. Mikko Kinnunen is travelling the world to make this known.

Image by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland