The School of Media honored Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro with the Fleischaker/Greene Award for Courageous International Reporting on Oct. 15 for her bravery in uncovering the truth about the propaganda coming from Russian “troll factories.”
Two years prior to the 2016 elections, Aro was investigating the places where young Russians are paid to build fake profiles on social media to influence support for President of Russia Vladmir Putin.
She called these people “social media propagandist” who worked in “troll factories.”
In February 2015, Aro visited a poorly guarded “troll factory,” and after asking people leaving the building, learned the place was recruiting copywriters and graphic designers to fulfill their mission.
“I used the method of crowdsourcing,” Aro said. “I knew this was a big topic, and I couldn’t do it alone.“
She tried to speak to as many people as possible but not everyone was able to talk to her because they had been forced to sign a non-disclosure contract.
Aro said the purpose of Russian propaganda is to “agitate and immobilize people into hateful actions.” With this perspective, it allowed her to see that Russia had more than just an influence in the presidential elections.
Not long after she started reporting on the topic, the troll factory diverted their attention from their pro-Putin campaigns and made her a victim of their cruel propaganda.
Hundreds of defaming articles were published online along with numerous youtube videos featuring a similar-looking actress, discrediting Aro as a journalist and a drug addict and secret agent for NATO.
Hackers invaded her personal life and leaked Aro’s phone number and email in 2014. In one slide, she showed a letter received from someone posing as her father who’d passed 20 years ago and was never in public domain.
While listing the different ways she was cyber bullied and threatened, students and staff members listened to stories of the dark side of journalism not often talked about.
During a presentation to a journalism class at WKU, one of the students questioned Aro for wanting to pursue the topic with the danger that came with it.
“I am a journalist,” Aro said. “And that’s what journalists do.”
The fearlessness and sense of purpose behind Aro’s words is why WKU freshman Hannah Foster decided to come to the event to learn more.
“I have an interest in the topic of Russian interference,” Foster said. “I was fascinated by Jessika Aro’s dedication to journalism. I was hoping that her speech would motivate me as a journalism student.”
A professional working for Kremlin founded a Facebook group and recruited people who fantasized about killing Aro.
They were going as far as to pay for their defamation posts to be published on Facebook.
“Many people want me dead,” Aro said. “Even former friends have sent me death threats.”
Journalism professor Andrea Billups admires the qualities in Aro for which she received the award.
“Her tenacity in reporting on issues of global importance helps to affirm why aggressive reporting matters and serves to protect us all,” Billups said. “In an era where members of the media are often called out as ‘fake news,’ she's a role model for real courage and the power of a free press.”
Through the betrayals and constant swarm of lies, the Finnish Broadcast Company stuck by her side and has provided legal support to put some of these people behind bars.
Last October, two of her harassers were convicted in a Finnish court and one was sentenced to 22 months in prison for defamation and negligence.
In July 2019, she testified about the Kremlin’s campaign against the West before Congress.
More court dates will be soon-to-come for Aro and until then, she is reporting on Russian troll factories and promoting her investigative book about the Kremlin’s information warfare.
Reporter Matthew Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.