Marju Himma: Spokespeople need protection from public information attacks

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Marju Himma. Source: Kairit Leibold /ERR

We need to protect people who speak publicly from information attacks as a society if we do not want to lose access to our experts, officials and politicians who have until now made themselves available to both the press and the general public, Marju Himma finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Last week saw media coverage of an incident where representative of an anti-mask and anti-vaccine movement Andrei Vesterinen recorded a phone conversation with head of the government's COVID-19 scientific advisory council, professor Irja Lutsar. The aim of the 45-minute call seemed to be to cast doubt on the competence of Lutsar and the council.

Vesterinen published the call after recording it without permission alongside Irja Lutsar's phone number on social media that prompted anti-mask and anti-vaccination activists to bombard the professor with hostile calls and messages. In other words, she came under an information attack from a hostile social group.

It was a textbook example of a form of misinformation referred to as malinformation. Malicious harmful information in other words.

The information in question is not incorrect and is based on reality. As was the case with the aforementioned phone call – the call took place, and the victim appears with her own voice and personal stance. Had it remained just a phone call, it could be seen as just another conversation of which I'm sure Irja Lutsar has had plenty during this crisis.

But because Andrei Vesterinen recorded the call with intent to harm Lutsar's reputation, it is now transformed into an information operation and malinformation.

Not hate speech

If we leave aside the recording for which he had no permission and the act of making the call public, Vesterinen's conduct seems legal at first glance. It is not hate speech because it was aimed against a single person and not a movement or membership therein. The case could be filed under anger speech for which a person can be sued over causing damage to good name and reputation.

The larger problem this entails is that people who speak up in public and come under such attacks on social media can hardly do anything about it.

Yes, it is possible to ask the social media platform – Facebook in this case – to remove the content. However, as I know from personal experience, the process can take weeks and even months and end without producing results because their moderators simply have no meaningful way to analyze Estonian content.

It is possible to turn to the police, and credit where credit is due – I know cases where the police have contacted organizers of public attacks, investigated the causes and asked them to remove the content in question. Having your lawyer contact the organizer of the attack also usually produces results. Both approaches are more effective than the slow and often ineffectual in-houses processes at Facebook.

Openness and individual protection

But let us return to whether we should take such attacks against spokespeople seriously and why. Allow me to offer two reasons: the openness of Estonia and protection of the individual.

Estonia has had reason to be proud of the openness of its scientists, officials and politicians. There are very few countries where journalists can simply call up the prime minister or MPs.

Estonian scientists and state officials also comment on topics in their administrative area over the phone and have usually made their personal phone numbers and email addresses known for that purpose. It is by no means common in European Union member states, not to mention the rest of the world.

These spokespeople have also remained relatively open to communication with many other people besides journalists. It has been possible for me to highlight Estonia's openness as a positive example in more than one scientific communication working group in various parts of the world. In the end, it benefits no one if these public spokespeople, be they scientists, officials or politicians, withdraw and stop talking to the press and ordinary people.

Concern for free speech in the right place

If we are worried about free speech, we would do well to remember that it comes with responsibility. Orchestrating an attack against someone with the aim of publicly harming them is an irresponsible thing to do and therefore not compatible with freedom of speech.

However, true concern for free speech should be about these spokespeople becoming cautious or refraining from talking to the public. That would lead us into literal silence and would be in the interests of no one.

Additionally, one should try and imagine coming under such an information attack or public persecution oneself. Imagine getting phone calls or text messages in the middle of the night in which you are compared to NKVD butchers, called a bastard or told to set yourself on fire (all examples from real life). I doubt anyone would like to find themselves in such a situation and would feel helpless and alone if they did.

In order to make sure everyone can feel they are safe from information attacks, we need to react and condemn them.

And I sincerely believe that both the police and a lawyer to represent the advisory council would come to the aid of Irja Lutsar or any other public spokesperson who finds themselves in such a situation. However, it would be even better if various groups could keep themselves in check and refrain from inciting feud through information attacks.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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