Speaking about disinformation might not make the problem go away just like that. But what would be the consequence of failing to speak about disinformation? In an essay with the title “Your silence will not protect you“, the critically acclaimed Finnish-Estonian novelist and playwright Sofi Oksanen addresses this question from the perspective of her personal experience of growing up in Finland during the Cold War.
Oksanen recalls how caution and elements of self-censorship were generally observed when speaking critically about her home country’s Soviet neighbour, even though Finland stood outside the Soviet-dominated block. In Oksanen’s words, this allowed the use of “expressions such as Russia’s or the Soviet Union’s ‘sphere of influence’ and ‘area of privilege’ [and] ‘buffer states'”. But the problematic atmosphere Oksanen describes did not limit itself to the acceptance of such geopolitical terms. It was also characterised by distinct elements of silently accepting disinformation, for example about recent historical events. The author mentions the example of school atlases in Finland “which did not include Estonia or the other Baltic countries” and “Soviet tales of how the Soviet army ‘liberated’ the Baltic states and how the peace-loving Soviet Union has not fought once since World War II”. Also from her school years, the author recalls a “huge diagram showing the growth of industrial production” in the Soviet Union, whereas “the United States was presented via diagrams showing how violent crime was growing in its large cities”. But Oksanen also remembers elements of civil disobedience when Finns chose truth and facts over accommodation and silencing: “One librarian”, she recalls, “secretly collected books at home which had been taken off the library list, because they were considered anti-Soviet and were to be destroyed”.
Oksanen’s essay becomes relevant beyond its function as memoir when she makes the claim that some of the arguments used these days echo similar ones dating back to the Cold War. She identifies “active distribution of disinformation and the manipulation of public opinion in the West” as something that “shaped the direction of how people in the West got used to speaking of the Soviet Union, as well as its legal successor Russia”, and says that her observations are examples of “how far-reaching the effect of propaganda and the manufacturing of a psychological atmosphere can be. Its traces remain in the language and in memory for decades”. According to Oksanen, much of the thinking about Russia in the broader West can be traced back to Soviet propaganda schemes: “The Soviet Union left a fertile ground from which it was easy for Russia to continue psychological influencing”, she says, and claims that “Russian psychological influence works […] by leading activities in such a way that the one being led reacts in a desired fashion”.
In Oksanen’s words, “if every person who criticises Russia’s actions is sooner or later called a provocateur, fascist or Russophobe, what we hear in this condemnation is the echo and language of Soviet propaganda”. She identifies the “fictious schemes, according to which Russia is surrounded by enemies” and sees a tie between silencing and “the step-by-step progression of the normalisation of violence”. In other words, disinformation, both when it appears as lies and as silencing facts, was, and still is, according to Oksanen, a form of violence. “Your silence will not protect you” is both the title and the last sentence in her essay. Translated into the challenge of acting on the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign, this means that the disinformation problem does not go away if you choose to not address it. On the contrary, if you accept a counterpart’s counterfactual political and moral atlas, you risk losing the ability to see borders between right and wrong.