Jessikka Aro (born December 19, 1980) is a Finnish journalist working for Finland's public service broadcaster Yle and an author of a non-fiction book "Putin's Trolls". In September 2014, she began to investigate pro-Russian Internet trolls, but became a victim of their activities herself. This harassment led to three people being convicted in October 2018. In 2019 she was notified that she was to receive an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State but this was rescinded just before the ceremony.
Aro saw the actions of Kremlin-connected internet trolls as "a threat to Finnish people's freedom of speech" telling Deutsche Welle (DW) she "was really astonished to find out that it's quite big—super big actually."
After a visit to St Petersburg to investigate the Internet Research Agency, where she interviewed employees at the troll factory who create fake online accounts and produce fake stories, she encountered a significant backlash from pro-Russian trolls. She has described abusive responses including a phone call from a Ukrainian number with the sound of a machine gun firing on the other end, as well as a cell phone text message purporting to be from her father (who had died 20 years earlier) indicating "he was keeping watch on her". Russian nationalist websites described her as working for the West's security agencies. A vocal critic was Johan Bäckman, who made false claims about her assisting the Estonian and United States security services. Aro told Foreign Policy magazine: "The goal of these campaigns is to discredit the voices in Finland that are critical of Russia." Her series of articles led to Aro receiving Bonnier's Award for Journalism in March 2016.
Officials with the European Union told the Sydney Morning Herald it was an escalation of Russian "information warfare" against the West. In 2016 Aro published an article in the journal of the centre-right European Peoples Party describing the "brutal" harassment that she attributes to Russian trolls. This behaviour includes doxing such as revealing her conviction for drug possession when she was 20, which was turned into a false claim she is a "NATO drug dealer".
Rescinded US award
Aro told Foreign Policy that the US State Department had informed her in January 2019 that she would be one of the winners of the 2019 International Women of Courage Awards. The notification, described as a "regrettable error" by a State Department representative, was rescinded shortly before the award ceremony. According to Aro and U.S. officials familiar with the internal deliberations, the award was rescinded after U.S. officials reviewed Aro's social media posts and found she had criticized President Donald Trump. A US State Department spokesperson did not respond to questions on the identity of the decision maker or the reasons for the decision. The relevant award was presented to Sri Lanka's Marini De Livera instead. An editorial in The Washington Post commented: "Ms. Aro deserved the award. She should hold her head high for courage, unlike those who denied her the honor." The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations requested an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of State, and in September 2020, the Inspector General concluded that the State Department provided a false explanation for rescinding the award.
In October 2018, the Helsinki District Court found Ilja Janitskin, Johan Bäckman and a woman guilty of sustained defamation against Aro. The final judgement said the two men had committed "an exceptionally aggravated set of crimes". Janitskin, the founder of the MV-Lehti website was sentenced to 22 months in jail on 16 criminal counts while Bäckman received a year's suspended jail sentence for aggravated defamation and stalking. They were required to pay damages to Aro and other plaintiffs in the case. The New York Times called this "the first time that a European country had taken action against pro-Russian disinformation spread through social media, websites and news outlets controlled by or linked to Russia". Bäckman described his conviction as "another dirty trick by NATO."
- Higgins, Andrew (30 May 2016). "Effort to Expose Russia's 'Troll Army' Draws Vicious Retaliation". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
- Aro, Jessikka (9 November 2015). "My Year as a Pro-Russia Troll Magnet: International Shaming Campaign and an SMS from Dead Father". Yle Kioski. Archived from the original on 26 February 2017. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
- Higgins, Andrew (19 October 2018). "Three Internet Trolls Convicted of Systematic Defamation Against Journalist in Finland". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
- Schultz, Teri (17 October 2018). "Pro-Kremlin online harassment on trial in Finland". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
- "Yle Kioski Traces the Origins of Russian Social Media Propaganda – Never-before-seen Material from the Troll Factory". Yle. 20 February 2015. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
- Miller, Nick (13 March 2016). "Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro's inquiry into Russian trolls stirs up a hornet's nest". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
- Standish, Reid (1 March 2017). "Why Is Finland Able to Fend Off Putin's Information War?". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
- Siren, Torasti; Huhtinen, Aki-Mauri (2018). "Jedi and Starmen—Cyber in the Service of the Light Side of the Force". In Lehto, Martti; Neittaanmäki, Pekka (eds.). Cyber Security: Power and Technology. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. p. 91. ISBN 9783319753072.
- Aro, Jessikka (June 2016). "The cyberspace war: propaganda and trolling as warfare tools". European View. 15 (1): 121–132. doi:10.1007/s12290-016-0395-5.
- Aro, Jessikka; Yates, Will (6 October 2017). "Jessikka Aro: How pro-Russian trolls tried to destroy me". BBC Trending. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
- Standish, Reid; Gramer, Robbie (7 March 2019). "U.S. Cancels Journalist's Award Over Her Criticism of Trump". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on 7 March 2019. Retrieved 7 March 2019.
- "Sri Lankan Marini De Livera bags International honour on International Women's Day". www.adaderana.lk. Retrieved 2019-03-09.
- "Sri Lanka's Marini De Livera awarded the Women of Courage award from Melania Trump - Sri Lanka Latest News". Sri Lanka News - Newsfirst. 2019-03-08. Retrieved 2019-03-09.
- "She exposed Russian trolling. Her award for her work was rescinded after she criticized Trump". The Washington Post. March 8, 2019. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
- Raju, Manu; Hansler, Jennifer (March 28, 2019). "New documents raise questions over State Dept. move to rescind honor for Trump critic". CNN. Retrieved April 7, 2019.
- Hudson, John (September 25, 2020). "Trump administration rescinded Courage Award for woman who criticized Trump, then gave false explanation for its decision, watchdog finds". The Washington Post.
- "Review of the Selection Process for the International Women of Courage Award" (PDF). Office of Inspector General, United States Department of State. September 2020.
[T]he Department's decision to rescind the award appeared to be an authorized exercise of its discretion. However, the Department initially stated to the public and to Congressional staff that Ms. Aro was incorrectly notified of the selection and, when asked direct questions, refused to acknowledge that her social media posts factored into the decision.
- "Jessikka Aro: Finn jailed over pro-Russia hate campaign against journalist". BBC News. 18 October 2018. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
- Jessikka Aro's prize-winning stories on Russian propaganda (Yle Kioski selection of articles in English, Finnish and Russian)