The country inoculating against disinformation
The disinformation campaign then escalated into what is considered the first cyber-attack against an entire country. The attack, which was linked to Russia, shut down websites of Estonia's government, banks and media outlets.
In the aftermath of the attack in 2007, Estonia decided to take action. The country has now become a cyber-security leader, aimed at protecting its online infrastructure from future attacks. But the country has done something else in its attempt to protect itself from digital aggression – the tiny Baltic country is using media literacy education to help its citizens spot and be wary of disinformation.
Since 2010 Estonian public schools – from kindergarten through to high school – teach media literacy to their pupils. Students in 10th grade also take a mandatory 35-hour "media and influence" course. Media literacy education is now accepted "as important as maths or writing or reading", says Siim Kumpas, former strategic communication adviser to Estonia's government. He was recently appointed as a policy officer at the European External Action Service, the European Union's diplomatic service.
Estonia ranks high in media freedom and education, which "provide solid preconditions to deal with disinformation", says Marin Lessenski, program director at Open Society Institute, based in Sofia, Bulgaria, which publishes an annual Media Literacy Index. "Better education provides for stronger critical thinking or better fact checking skills."
The powerful threat posed by online misinformation was thrown into the spotlight in the wake of 2016 US Presidential elections, where voters were targeted with disinformation by trolls with links to the Russian intelligence community. A subsequent report published by the US Senate Intelligence Committee accused Russia of waging an "information warfare campaign" aimed as spreading disinformation and dividing US society.
The apparent attempts to disrupt democratic elections, together with disinformation spread during the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to claims that the world is facing an "infodemic" or an epidemic of bad information, as Hillary Clinton put it. In July 2021, US President Joe Biden made headlines when he said social media platforms like Facebook were "killing people" by spreading Covid-19 vaccine misinformation.
But despite the threat, there is yet to be a decisive solution to such a pervasive problem. Some countries such as the US are debating new internet regulations and penalties for social media platforms that share harmful content, while internet companies themselves and media organisations have attempted to take their own steps to tackle the problem for fear of losing their audience's trust. Germany in 2017 passed NetzDG, a law that regulates online hate speech, and last year expanded the regulations under the act. In spring 2021, the UK proposed an online safety bill and later launched a new strategy to coordinate media literacy initiatives.
Even influential academic institutions such as the Royal Society in the UK have turned their not-inconsiderable brain power to the task. Although Estonia has a population of just 1.3 million, it is known as one of the world's most digitally advanced countries
Estonia's decade-long attempt to teach its people to discern between reliable information and falsehoods could be an important but less-discussed piece to the puzzle. Its approach seems to be paying off.
Last year the tiny nation ranked third in the 2021 Media Literacy Index, compiled by the European Policies Initiative of the Open Society Institute (OSI), behind Finland and Denmark. In the index of 35 European countries, top-rated nations have the highest potential to withstand disinformation and misinformation based on their quality of education, free media and high trust among people, according to OSI.
Estonia's position in the index comes even though its average annual income is less than half that of top-ranked rich European countries. And although Estonia has a population of just 1.3 million, it is known as one of the world's most digitally advanced countries. Media literacy and "digital competency" are also part of Estonia's identity as a leader in technology and digitisation of voting, filing taxes and most of civic life.
Other countries are also trying to learn from Estonia's approach. Ahead of the November 2020 elections, US military officials visited Estonia to learn about combating Russian cyberwar tactics. The UK Parliament also in 2020 heard evidence from Kumpas of the Estonian government to learn about the country's media literacy programs and how they can help its citizens "understand digital propaganda in its position as a near neighbour of Russia".
Better media literacy skills "makes our people more resilient not only to hostile interference in the digital domain but to noise, rudeness, bad journalism and everything else", Kumpas told a UK's Parliamentary Committee on democracy and digital technologies. Estonia's national cyber-security practices were galvanised by its historically fraught relationship with Russia. The country re-gained independence from Soviet rule in 1991 and has since found itself among the targets for Russian aggression.
Since the 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia, Russia has also been accused of online aggression against other nearby countries such as Georgia and particularly Ukraine as the country has come under increased pressure from its larger neighbour this winter. The Russian government has consistently denied any involvement in the cyber-attacks, but as Russian troops gathered close to the border with Ukraine in January, the US State Department went as far as to publish a fact sheet on Russian disinformation about Ukraine. The UK has also issued new guidance urging British organisations to bolster their defences against cyber-attacks.
"We weren't that surprised by what happened in Georgia in 2008, or Ukraine in 2014 or the US in 2016," says Kumpas. These threats have only emphasised the need for Estonia to help its citizens protect themselves from Russian interference, he told MPs when speaking to the UK Parliament.
The self-made concept of "e-Estonia," and a sophisticated digital society has been deeply ingrained in citizens. "We've been re-told that story so many times, we're used to that idea. We have to think of all things cyber and digital," says Maria Murumaa-Mengel, lecturer at University of Tartu and a former high school media literacy teacher for 15 years. She has designed courses on media and digital literacies at the University of Tartu and for high schools.
The spectrum of media literacy education aims to enable a culture of critical analysis and help people understand complicated and hidden messages
In Estonian elementary and middle schools, there is no specific course on media literacy. Rather, the concepts are integrated into other subjects. For example, maths teachers might dig into statistics, which are easily misunderstood or manipulated. Art classes analyse images and how advertisements or certain media depictions make viewers perceive things. Social studies classes could focus on war propaganda.
In kindergarten, children might play with toys with knobs that direct an insect to do different things, explains Kumpas. He points out this is an early lesson in the basics of coding and the concept of algorithms. Young children learn how digital content is created, as well as how to use the internet safely, adds Britt Järvet, a strategic planning adviser at Estonia's ministry of education.
Estonia's national educational standards give schools goals and study outcomes to reach. Schools themselves decide how to reach the goals, so teachers have flexibility when choosing study materials and methods.
But Estonia's mandatory high school "media and influence" course focuses on the role of media and journalism in society, including how social media works, how bots and trolls function and how to protect against them. Students learn about fact versus opinion, reliable versus doubtful sources, and other tools of critical analysis.
In addition to the mandatory class, high schools usually offer additional elective classes about media. In many such courses, students make media themselves, says Liisa Koik, a high school media literacy teacher in Lähte, Estonia. This, she says, helps them learn how content is created whether videos, photos, social media posts, blogs – and how it can be designed to persuade or manipulate.
Media literacy classes in schools do not focus on politics. It's an unspoken rule, but in any case, kids "don't care about politics", says Murumaa-Mengel. Lessons should be relevant to what interests children, she points out.
Memes, social media posts, videos and animations can help illustrate simple but important lessons about evaluating information.
One Estonian educational website featured cartoons for kids about online safety with advice also relevant to parsing out misinformation, such as: "Remember that the information on the internet is not always reliable. Compare the data you find with other sources."
At the university level, Murumaa-Mengel designed an elective media literacy course at the University of Tartu that educates students about how journalists work in mainstream media, and teaches skills need to independently seek additional information that might be needed to verify facts.
On a broad level, Järvet says that the spectrum of media literacy education aims to enable a culture of critical analysis and help people understand "complicated and hidden messages", whether on TV, in movies, music or the internet.
There is no one way to teach media literacy. But Estonia's government mandates that the country's teacher-training universities teach elements of "digital competencies" as part of their courses. More plans are in the works for training teachers specifically on media and information literacy.
In schools, there is no standardised national test on media literacy, so teachers conduct their own exams and assign papers. However, there are other evaluation tools. The Estonian Digital Research Center and the State Chancellery this spring launched a free online test with 20 questions that assess skills in detecting disinformation. The test is based on software from an Estonian cyber-security company.
One challenge is that Estonian teachers are already tasked with many subjects and want flexibility with their lessons. They can integrate media literacy themes into existing lessons, but they are "under pressure to do so much", says Koik.
"The purpose of education is to support students and help them become a person who adequately perceives the environment around them and critically understands and evaluates information," says Järvet.
One 2021 study found that people often shared misinformation on social media because they did not pay close attention to the content
Teaching older people media literacy remains a challenge. "I'm not worried about youth. I'm worried about 50-somethings," says Maia Klaassen, development specialist at the Institute of Social Sciences in Tartu. "When you haven't come across algorithmic models, you don't understand how and why you see things and why other people don't see the same things."
Another limitation is that the high school media manipulation course is not compulsory in the country's Russian schools. Russians comprise about 25% of Estonia's population. But Russian schools usually offer elective classes about media so students still get exposure to media literacy, says Igor Ljapin, strategic communication adviser to Estonia's government.
Nevertheless, Estonia is working on making a "media and manipulation" course mandatory in all high schools, including Russian ones. The Estonian government is also attempting to reach older citizens through advertisements, public service announcements, open talks, and an annual Media Literacy Week to raise awareness across the country. Animated videos about online safety also have tips relevant to parsing out misinformation. The simple messages and tips are important. One 2021 study found that people often shared misinformation on social media because they did not pay close attention to the content.
Researchers say that social media platforms are designed in a way that encourages users to quickly scroll through a broad mix of content and seek instant feedback on posts. That design "may discourage people from reflecting on accuracy", warned a recent study in the journal Nature. To remedy that, researchers suggest that platforms "periodically ask users to rate the accuracy of randomly selected headlines" to encourage careful scrutiny of content.
Other research shows some evidence that media literacy education increases "resiliency to disinformation and is able to change the way participants consume, create, and share information", according to a report from Rand, the US think tank. However, it added that more research is needed to assess what are the most effective methods for media literacy education.
Estonia's own battle against misinformation comes amid a growing number of wider campaigns to recognise and tackle the issue. In 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) spotlighted the concept of "immunising" people against misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The United Nations' "Pause. Take care before you share" campaign also encouraged people to verify sources before sharing online content.
Officials at the WHO have also been working with 50 digital companies and social media platforms including Facebook, TikTok, Google, Viber, WhatsApp, and YouTube to ensure that WHO health information appears first in searches on social media feeds, while also giving users a way of reporting misinformation when they come across it.
In 2020, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also warned about cyber-security threats during the pandemic lockdown, especially when people were working or studying remotely. It created an "Online Zoo" website for children that used cartoons and videos to teach them about cybsersecurity.
There areother global media literacy initiatives such as the European Commission's Media Literacy Week and the National News Literacy Week in the US, which took place earlier this month. Unesco, the United Nations' education and culture agency, also sponsors an annual media literacy week and promotes online media literacy courses.
In Estonia, there are signs that all the education is having an effect, according to Kumpas. Estonia has some of the highest media literacy skills in Europe, according to some assessments and its young people appear to consume news differently to their contemporaries in some other countries (although there are some signs that those differences are lessening). Kumpas, however, highlights the increased awareness of the problems misinformation can cause as the real victory.
"Misinformation and disinformation are actual threats," he says. "Media literacy is not something we have to sell anymore. It's something that people demand."