Cyber experts fear Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin has become the victim of a carefully orchestrated smear campaign, just as she has was gaining support on her call for an EU-wide ban on visas for Russian tourists.
Tell-tale signs of a potential misinformation operation were the apparent hacking of a private Instagram account linked to one of her close friends, from which two videos clips were stolen.
Despite being recorded on the same night several weeks ago – the first in a private home and the second in the VIP room of a Helsinki nightclub – they were leaked separately 24 hours apart.
The first was uploaded by an anonymous account to Insta Stories, an Instagram platform where users can share content for a day before it is deleted, during which time it was picked up by Iltalehti, one of the country’s leading tabloids
The second was published online by Seiska, another Finnish mass-market newspaper, just as the furore over the first clip was dying down.
Both newspapers said the footage had been posted first on social media, enabling them to sidestep privacy laws by saying they were only doing their job of reporting what was already in the public domain.
Seiska later admitted that the footage showing Ms Marin partying with friends who included her sister Anna, singer Alma Miettinen, radio presenters Tini Wikström and Karoliina Tuominen, had been posted first in a private Instagram account.
It claimed the account, which had just 92 followers, was administered by Janita Autio, a celebrity photographer whose credits include a widely-circulated snap of Ms Marin posing up in a leather jacket and shorts during the summer.
Yesterday Ms Autio published a statement on her official Instagram account (@Janitaautio) in which she spoke of her shock and devastation.
Petteri Järvinen, a Finnish journalist who specialises in cybersecurity, believes Russia had a hand in the distribution of the videos.
“It looks like a social media account or phone with the videos has been hacked or broken into by the Russians,” he said. “I mean, would someone really be so stupid that they filmed something like this at the prime minister’s party and put it on social media? Even basic common sense should say that something like this shouldn’t be published.”
Mr Järvinen also predicted that the Russians would manipulate any future leaked videos.
“It’s really easy these days. Then we will no longer be able to distinguish videos from real ones. There could be something really dangerous in the next videos,” he added.
Philip Ingram MBE, a former senior military intelligence officer who studied Russian spies during seven years at NATO, meantime called on the press to look at ‘the story behind the story.’
“Vladimir Putin will be pouring himself a large glass of celebratory Russian brandy at the way that the western media has been pushing these smears,” he said: “I am calling on them and others to take a closer look. This is all driven by a Moscow inspired disinformation campaign aimed at undermining Finland because of them joining NATO. It is a classic attack. Textbook.”
Finland’s Foreign Ministry recently announced it was slashing the number of visas issued to Russians from September 1, prompting fury in Russia, where MP Oleg Morozov said it should retaliate by refusing all visas to Finns unless they were attending funerals or receiving medical treatment.
Ms Marin also put herself in the firing line by calling for an EU-wide ban.
She said: “It’s not right that at the same time as Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists. It’s not right.”
Her comments were reported throughout Europe, putting pressure on other nations such as the UK to show similar support for the Ukraine by following suit.
That on its own is likely to have been enough to prompt Russian agents to consider her a target, and follows Putin’s deep unhappiness at the looming prospect of Finland joining NATO.
The Russian president warned his Finnish counterpart back in May that joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and abandoning Finland’s neutral status, “would be a mistake.”
Finland shares an 810-mile border with Russia, and has thus far stayed out of joining NATO so as to avoid antagonising its much larger neighbour. Finland has meantime been reinforcing its security, updating its Parliament in April then May, along with proposing that Ms Marin should consult the country’s Parliament about joining NATO. The plan was passed by a landslide vote so that talks could then be opened about joining.
Although the talks have been conducted by the country’s Foreign Ministry, Ms Marin is a key figure behind the plans, so forcing her to step down would hugely welcomed in Russia.