Opinion: There is nothing patriotic about fake news

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Police have found there is no substance to a widely reported incident where a foreign woman had rocks thrown at her (and her dog) in a xenophobic attack. But what are the implications of unfounded anecdotes finding their way into the mainstream media?
Police have found there is no substance to a widely reported incident where a foreign woman had rocks thrown at her (and her dog) in a xenophobic attack. But what are the implications of unfounded anecdotes finding their way into the mainstream media? Source: rawpixel / Unsplash

It turns out that it was all made up. The two Estonian men attacking a foreign woman in Tallinn, throwing rocks at her and her dog, shouting "Go home, foreigner", in English. Founder and CEO of Jobbatical Karoli Hindriks, once she heard the story from someone she refers to as a friend, took the chance to write a lengthy post reporting the case and addressing how "Estonia has become angry", an unfriendly place towards foreigners who come here to work, contribute to our economy, and pay taxes.

The piece, published on the online news portal Maaleht (in Estonian, here) and later in an English version on online magazine Estonian World, is a letter the author writes to her father. She explains how episodes of xenophobia don't fit with the concept of patriotism she knows, how Estonia needs foreigners for its economy to flourish, and that an aggression to a migrant is just something inconceivable. It is so far from reality, indeed, that the event – as we learned earlier this week – never actually took place.

Someone on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean wouldn't have hesitated to label this as "spreading fake news", and that is indeed what the fact has turned out to be – fake news. Should it be given a beacon of legitimacy, or more consideration, because it tries to play against xenophobia and eventual racist tendencies?

Absolutely not, and for a very simple and plain reason: the same people it was aimed at, now they have one more bullet to shoot when someone tries to call them out on similar cases. It is true, xenophobic tendencies and support for nationalist organizations and parties are on the rise in Estonia. But do we really have to oppose them with an event that turned out not to be true and faltering essays on labour markets and patriotism? If we think about it, there could be better ways. There are better ways.

Back then, the article made its appearance on the newsfeed of my social media channels pretty consistently, both in its Estonian and English versions. Call it the social media bubble, call it virality, call it whatever you like, but it did, and it struck me from the very beginning for three distinct features: A dismissive approach on the connections between patriotism and nationalism; a simplistic analysis of the sustainability of Estonia's welfare state, and the evidently utilitarian attitude towards foreign workers in the economy.

It is assumed that patriotism and nationalism have nothing to do with each other, and while the first is healthy and a blessing for the country, the latter is instead bad and leads to resentment towards the other. But the two terms, often enough, have a clear point of intersection: the way you generate feelings of belonging, and the making of people's identity.

Now, in the case of Estonia, we all know – foreigners included, believe me – why it is important to celebrate its independence, its culture, its values. I see my home-away-from-home in this country, I feel part of it, I got to discover its traditions and people – and I love them. But when every single smallest occasion becomes a chance to exasperatingly reaffirm its identity, patriotism lays itself open to nationalist tendencies, especially when fractures run deep in the society. And Estonian society, made of its citizens and residents, men and women, is extremely divided: Vertically, due to severe income inequalities and socioeconomic imbalances; horizontally, due to a lack of social cohesion across regions and groups of people, whichstill presents us with a dichotomy between Estonian and Russian speakers based on language, area of origin, real opportunities. If we want to address the "internal polarisation" that's taking place in the country, those are the first issues we need to look at.

And the paradigm of economic growth we choose to have has a lot to do with polarisation. Yes, Estonia is facing a demographic decline, and changing labour markets pose a serious challenge to the sustainability of the European welfare states. But how can anyone imagine to tackle such changes, or support pensions and childcare, only by attracting workers from abroad? Scattering employment data here and there from different reports does not provide evidence – and it never should, if this is not paired with a more inclusive and forward-thinking vision of the country's socioeconomic outlook. We talk about income taxes continuously, but what about wealth? What about corporate taxes? People's wages, particularly from the middle and lower classes, are not the only option to go through to make our state budget breathe. In a place where not everyone gets a fair share of the growth we generate, we need more redistribution and bold tax reforms.

However, everything is not lost apparently, if we manage to increase the "talent movement" of foreigners who are "smart and skilled". But instead, to paraphrase someone else's infamous quote, "if you lack, go back". Probably this is one of the biggest novelties that the article shines a light on: Foreigners can come to Estonia, and they're worth our respect, but only if they're highly skilled – which I didn't know was a prerequisite to be eligible for tolerance. Otherwise, the risk is that "they'll simply go somewhere else and contribute to another economy instead". Because that is exactly what high skilled foreigners are good for – enriching our economy, but god forbid if they bring with them (or, even worse, confront us with) their culture or their systems of values.

The rise of EKRE, and of the nationalist tendencies that some other politicians and commentators often indulge in too, is not only the result of rising xenophobia and isolationism. Equally, an out-of-touch, elitist approach to the social issues of this country plays in favour of those who want to deepen the existing conflicts in our society, not against them.

Ms Hindriks is right on one point – people are all we are. People who love Estonia, though not being born here; people who want to see this country flourish and have a life here; people who want to enrich the culture of this place, and feel safe and respected in return. Here we have our significant others, our new and old families, our hopes and fears, our friends and jobs. We come in peace, and you took us with you – but please, fake news aside, take us seriously too.


Editor's note: Following the publication of the opinion piece above, the alleged victim of the attack has announced their intention to challenge the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) conclusion that no such attack took place at the time and place specified. ERR has continued to address the topic in its news stories, such as here.


Federico Plantera is a journalist and political commentator for one of Italy's largest online news portals, Il Fatto Quotidiano. Plantera holds an MA in political science and currently conducts research into social policy and demography at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, after previous stints at the University of Strathclyde and at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). Plantera moved to Estonia first in 2014 and then in 2016, and relocated to Tallinn in 2017 to work as a copywriter for both public and private sector entities - positions he continues to hold as a freelancer.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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