Inside Estonia’s approach in combating Russian disinformation

Russian disinformation is rife in countries formerly ruled from Moscow. Some ex-Soviet states have tried to suppress it altogether by banning Russian television stations and even limiting the use of the Russian language on their own domestic channels. Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky visited Estonia, which is trying a different approach. The story was produced in partnership with the Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellowship.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Russian disinformation campaigns aren't confined to attempts at tampering with U.S. elections. In fact, they are rife in countries once ruled from Moscow. Some former soviet states have tried to suppress the propaganda by banning Russian television stations, and even limiting the use of the Russian language on their domestic channels.

    But as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports, one country — tiny Estonia, which sits right on Russia's western border — is trying a different approach.

    His story was produced with support from the Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellowship.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    This is the Bronze Soldier, a monument commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Ggermany in World War II. Prior to 2007, it was prominently situated in the center of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, but when it became a flashpoint for competing nationalist narratives, it had to be moved.

    The Estonian authorities moved the statue here to a military cemetery on the outskirts of Tallinn. But according to some of the wilder reports in the Russian media of the time, this statue doesn't even exist.

    Channel One Russia, 2007: The Bronze Soldier has been cut into pieces and taken to an unknown destination. This photograph appeared on the Internet and immediately went around the globe. This is what's left of the monument commemorating Soviet soldiers.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    This doctored photo, which Russian state-owned news outlets purported showed the total destruction of the statue, was part of a months-long media disinformation campaign that ultimately led to the 2007 riot among Estonia's Russian-speaking minority, members of whom had clashed with estonian far right nationalists who wanted the statue to be torn down.

    The uprising lasted several days and resulted in the death of one man. These events, known as the Bronze Night, are seen as the fallout of the first modern Russian disinformation campaign of its kind. They marked a turning point for this small northern European country.

  • Former President Toomas Ilves, Estonia:

    We have never had a riot before. No riots. Zero, none. I mean, this is as you. I don't know if you've been here before, but it is rather kind of a quiet, quiet place. We don't have riots.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Toomas ilves, who grew up in New Jersey, was Estonia's president from 2006 to 2016. He told Newshour Weekend that the events of the Bronze Night forced Estonia to look for new ways to make its Russian speaking minority less susceptible to propaganda from Russia.

    In the United States, when we're talking about fighting disinformation, we're often thinking about doing things like tweaking the algorithm on social media or putting legislative pressure on Big Tech companies in Silicon Valley. But when your border with Russia is this close you really don't have that option because it's enough to turn on your television set to get an earful of propaganda from the other side. So Estonia has decided to choose a different path.

    Meet Dmitri, he's a Russian-Estonian and a father of three from Estonia's eastern-most city, Narva. Like many members of this group he struggles with the Estonian language, even though he's lived here all his life.

  • Dmitri, Electrical Engineer:

    The problem is that Estonian just isn't used in Narva. At work, we only speak Russian. You get the feeling that there's a wall between us because I don't have a single Estonian friend I can speak Estonian with.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Dmitri and his kids are taking part in a government-sponsored course for а group of Narva residents who've been bussed into the Estonian capital Tallinn.

    This is a very unusual cooking class, because the point here isn't to learn how to make pizza. The point is to learn how to do it using the Estonian language.

    The goal is to enable Russian-speaking Estonians to interact with typical Estonians who they wouldn't otherwise meet in their day-to-day lives.

  • Dmitri:

    I'm really glad these women who organized this today aren't even trying to use a single word in Russian with us.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Cultural courses like this one are just one part of the suite of integration efforts Estonia has enacted to make the Russian-speaking community feel more welcome and, it's hoped, less susceptible to grievance-based narratives spread by Russian state media.

    Ekaterina Taklaja is a Russian-Estonian and the editor- in-chief of ETV+, a new Russian-language channel that's part of Estonia's public broadcasting system. Since becoming independent, Estonia has made knowledge of the Estonian language a requirement for gaining citizenship, a rule she told me angered many Russian-speakers who found themselves stateless when the Soviet Union collapsed.

  • Ekaterina Taklaja, ETV+ :

    This provoked a kind of rejection, a sense of protest in them. After the 2007 events of the so-called Bronze Night in Estonia, the authorities thought it might not be such a bad idea to have a TV channel created in Estonia for the Russian-speaking audience in order to inform them and give more objective local information about what is happening in Estonia in order to create an alternative to Russian media.

  • Dr. Tetiana Slavina:

    Inhale, inhale. That's it, that's it. Exhale. More, more. There. The more you cough the easier it will be for you to breathe. Again. Good job. Again.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Perhaps there's no area in which reaching Russian-speaking Estonians is more crucial than in the country's pandemic response. In Narva's local hospital, Dr. Tetiana Slavkina tells us many of her patients end up in her care because they've refused vaccines available in Estonia, like the American Pfizer vaccine.

  • Dr. Tetiana Slavina:

    I'd say about 85 to 90 percent of them aren't vaccinated. There are a lot of explanations. The first is "if we'd known we'd get so sick we would have gotten vaccinated." We're a border town and of course the broadcasts and other channels of information we get talk about the effectiveness of the Sputnik vaccine so people really want that specific vaccine.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The broadcasts she's talking about are Russian news reports like this one a year ago, as Covid vaccines were rolled out around the world, Russian state-owned news outlets sowed mistrust of the Pfizer vaccine—and promoted the much less effective Sputnik V vaccine, which is manufactured in Russia and which Moscow aimed to sell all around the world.

    Channel One Russia, January 2021: World leaders have started getting vaccinated with Sputnik V. The president of Argentina got his first dose. The United Arab Emirates have switched to the Russian vaccine after saying "no" to the American drug from Pfizer after all, seeking medical help after getting vaccinated with Pfizer has almost become the norm. In Estonia about a dozen medical workers got Covid after their first dose. In Israel, almost half the doctors experienced side-effects after their second dose.

  •  Simon Ostrovsky:

    Estonia has invested a lot of time and resources into integrating its Russian speaking minority over the last three decades of independence. But what the last couple of years of the pandemic have revealed is that its two main communities, Estonian speaking and Russian speaking, still live in somewhat separate information ecosystems.

    I asked Katri Reik, the mayor of Russian-speaking Narva, if she thought integration was possible.

    Despite all of Estonia's efforts at integration you still have a big difference for example in the number of people who want to be vaccinated. Russian-speakers are far less likely to get vaccination, how do you explain that?

  • Mayor Katri Raik, Narva, Estonia:

    When you turn on the TV and are told everyday that Western vaccines are poison, you have to understand that this is going to have an impact.

    Channel One Russia, 2020: In the US, another medical worker has been hospitalized after the Pfizer shot. What is this? Experimentation on people or an absurd accident?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Raik told me the drumbeat of negative Russian reports as well as lingering distrust of the Estonian authorities meant that only 58 percent of the residents of the European Union's most Russian-speaking city had chosen to be vaccinated as of this past december. compare that to a nationwide average of 72 percent.

    We stopped by a small outdoor market to learn about the local media diet. Vjatseslav Stolfat, a grocer, told me he stopped watching broadcasts from Russia because of the unending coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.

  • Vjatšeslav Stolfat, grocer:

    I'm so tired of this Ukraine scandal. It's the same thing on every channel. And I don't really care about news from Russia. I'm more interested in what's happening over here.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    But older residents have remained loyal to some of the most provocative propagandists on air in Russia.

  • Older Woman:

    I never miss Solovyov or Sixty Minutes. I don't watch "Health" though. Don't want to.

  • Tamara Levina, Pensioner:

    The old man and I mostly watch Russian Channel One. We only watch Estonian TV for the news.

  • Producer:

    Did you get vaccinated?

  • Tamara Levina:

    No. My son has been trying to get me for a while. But I told him we don't go out. Just to the store, nowhere else.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    When it comes to Estonian integration efforts, the pandemic has yielded a silver lining. viewership of Estonia-based outlets has increased dramatically over the last two years as Russian-speakers sought out health advice and local pandemic regulations. and, as Narva's mayor pointed out, the vaccination gap between majority-Russian areas and Estonia overall has shrunk significantly over the course of the year.

  • Mayor Katri Raik, Narva, Estonia:

    We can't ban Russia. Just walk a hundred meters and you can go look at Russia, see what it's really like. And no one, not you or I, can come into an old grannie's apartment and take her remote control and pick the channels that we want. No. That's the wrong way. You have to offer an alternative.

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