Tragedy and the Troll

How a fake account tried to twist the news of a triple shooting in Finland, and how it was outed.

Source: Saara Jantunen / Twitter

A triple shooting in Finland on the night of December 3–4, 2016 brought trolling, as well as tragedy, back to the attention of Finnish observers. In the aftermath of the attack, a fake Twitter account began spreading false claims about the event; however, the lie was rapidly exposed, and other Twitter users launched an effort to limit its spread.

The incident is a case study in how rapid action can limit the spread of online fakes, if they can be identified in time.

The shooting

At around midnight between 3 and 4 December, the police were called out to deal with a man with a gun in front of a restaurant, Vuoksenvahti, in the center of Imatra, a city 14 kilometers away from the Russian border. When the police arrived, three women were lying dead. They had been shot in the head and chest. The victims were ultimately identified as Tiina Wilén-Jäppinen, the chair of Imatra city council, and two journalists.

The Finnish public broadcaster, YLE, reported that the suspect in the shooting was standing by his car. When the police came, he did not resist arrest. The true motive of the murders is unknown, but the initial police assessment was that the killer picked his victims at random.

The fake

Online reporting quickly established the main lines of the incident. YLE published a report at 01:04 local time on 4 December indicating the number of victims and the fact that the suspect had been detained. The news spread rapidly in Finnish and Russian, being picked up by outlets including Kommersant and Vesti.ru and being shared on the VK social network.

In a post on VK at 09:25 Finnish time on 4 December, user Igor Bodak wrote that Agence France-Presse had already identified the victims as the mayor (actually chair of the local council) and two female journalists. (In this and subsequent images, the screen shots were taken on a computer set to UTC, two hours behind Finnish time.)

Source: Igor Bodak / VK. The second paragraph reads: “The victims of the shooting in the Finnish town of Imatra, not far from the Russian border, were two female journalists and the mayor, according to Agence France-Presse, citing a police source. A 23-year-old local resident is suspected of the murders: he has been arrested and is being questioned.”

Despite this, an hour later, and well before the police’s official press briefing on Sunday at 14.00, a fake account on Twitter launched the false claim that the three victims had been Russian citizens, and the perpetrator was an “anti-Slavic” Finnish soldier who had served as a peacekeeper in Moldova, and who shouted nationalist comments.

The account was called @ImatranUutiset (Imatra news). Its tweets are no longer available, but a number of users have posted screen shots. These include Saara Jantunen, a researcher at the Finnish Defense Forces; Laura Halminen, an investigative journalist at national media outlet Helsingin Sanomat; and activist Milla Halme.

These screen grabs, while not archived, are consistent with one another and with similar posts, and give a relatively clear picture of the account’s output, which appears to have begun shortly before 10:30 local time (as is apparent from other tweets referring to it):

Source: Milla Halme / Twitter. The central, Finnish tweet reads, “The shooter was a serviceman in the Finnish Defence Forces and a right-wing activist in several organizations. The victims were selected by their ethnicity. #FDF.”

Further tweets can be seen in a screen shot tweeted by user Jussi Larkkonen:

Source: Jussi Larkkonen / Twitter

One more image posted by outlet Paivanlehti showed the account’s profile, indicating that it had been created in December 2016, posted 10 tweets and only followed two accounts.

Source: Paivanlehti

The account was, in fact, an obvious fake. It was newly-created; its avatar image was an egg; it had no followers; its only tweets were on the Imatra shooting. Its use of English and knowledge of geography were poor (“in Moldova as a peaceobserver near Transistania”). Its repetition of the same claims, tweeted to news accounts such as Risk Map and Åbo Underrättelser, also marks this as a deliberate attempt to spread a story.

The exposure

It was outed quickly. At 10:47, Jantunen posted a tweet exposing it as a fake:

https://twitter.com/saara_ilo/status/805332719823622145

Nine minutes later, she issued a similar tweet in English, adding that the fake was a “pro-Russian” account:

https://twitter.com/saara_ilo/status/805334863230472192

Together, her tweets garnered over 550 retweets.

Half an hour later, Halminen also tweeted on the subject, with a further 68 retweets:

Following these tweets, other users took to Twitter to amplify the exposure. Their engagement included tweeting to some of the media outlets which had been targeted for the initial disinformation, such as Wiki Insider News, RT and Nordic News.

It is impossible to say definitively to what extent this rapid and targeted debunking helped check the spread of disinformation. However, the story was not repeated by the English- or Finnish-language media (other than as a fake), and it did not spread into the social media of either language: None of the troll’s posts gained a significant number of retweets.

It is therefore likely that the online exposure contributed significantly to the failure of the troll’s attempted disinformation.

The aftermath

A few hours after its expsoure, the account holder confirmed that the account was a fake, in a tweet that has been cached:

Source: Google cache. The final tweet reads, “Yes. This was a troll. I brought up how people depend on open foreign media. #troll # sourcecriticism #info”. The account bio now reads “Troll. Test.” — compare with the grab from Paivanlehti, above.

The time is unclear, but can have been no later than 16:24, when Halminen posted a tweet on it:

The following day, YLE contacted the mysterious troll via Twitter. He refused to reveal his identity, but said that he was a lonely man, over 30, a Helsinki resident and an outsider. He also said that he enjoyed cheating. He deleted the account after this conversation.

It is impossible to verify, or disprove, his claims: All that can be said for certain is that the @ImatranUutiset account was a demonstrable fake which was quickly and effectively outed.

Not all Twitter users approved of the outing. One Finland-based British journalist, David MacDougall, criticized the public exposure, arguing that it gave the troll more publicity:

The question of whether to counter or ignore trolls is an important one and can be debated at length; in this case, however, the very low rate of retweeting of the troll’s tweets, compared with the high rate of retweets for Jantunen and Halminen, suggest that their intervention had the desired effect.

Other Twitter users challenged the attribution of “pro-Russian”, many of them from accounts which were quite clearly pro-Russian themselves.

The case of the Imatra troll shows the effects which can be achieved through the rapid exposure of a fake. The false posts were exposed within half an hour; they were widely publicized; some users sent tweets to the media outlets which had been initially targeted. The rapid spread of information prevented the uncontrolled spread of disinformation. Trolls often attempt to feed on tragedy. In this case, the troll failed.

Ben Nimmo is the Senior Fellow for Information Defense in the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. Nika Aleksejeva & Donara Barojan in the @DFRLab’s Digital Research Unit Baltics contributed to the dispatch.