Jury reaches verdict in alleged Nxivm sex cult trial – CNN

Most of the counts that Keith Raniere is facing stem from his involvement in a secret group within Nxivm known as “DOS” or “The Vow.”

For two decades, Raniere ran Nxivm from Albany, New York, and offered pricey “self-help” classes to thousands of people across the United States, Canada and Mexico. An actress who testified in court during his trial said he was revered by his students, and some saw him as one of the smartest men in the world.

What prosecutors said: They said Raniere initially recruited eight women within Nxivm’s ranks to join the secret sex society. The women Raniere recruited for his “inner circle” saw him as their master, and they eventually came to view themselves as “masters” as they recruited more women to be their “slaves,” a criminal complaint said.

Multiple women testified they were misled about joining the group and were told it was a “women’s empowerment” group. They later found out they would become “slaves” who would be expected to have sex with Raniere, send him nude photos and allow themselves to be branded.

What the defense said: Defense attorney Marc Agnifilo has argued that no crimes were committed.

Agnifilo previously told CNN he felt that Raniere firmly believes his ideas are sound, humanitarian ideas.

“He thinks DOS is a good idea and is a pro-woman group. He created it to have women have their own society … where men would play no role,” Agnifilo said.

In his closing arguments, Agnifilo cautioned jurors to consider whether any actual crimes have been committed. He argued there was no sex trafficking in DOS because there was no commercial aspect to the sexual activities alleged by the victims.

Raniere faces a racketeering count, which itself has more than a dozen underlying acts as part of the charge, and jurors have to find two of them to be proven in order to return a guilty verdict for racketeering.

Live: Trump rally in Orlando – CNNPolitics

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A majority of Americans say they think President Trump is going to win a second term.

A new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS, finds 54% say their best guess is that Trump will win the 2020 election even as the President’s reviews on issues other than the economy remain largely negative.

The new numbers on Trump are a reversal from December, when a narrow majority of 51% said they thought Trump would lose his bid for re-election.

The shift over that time comes mostly among those who disapprove of Trump’s handling of the presidency.

  • In December, 81% said they thought the President would lose, and now, that’s fallen to 67%
  • At the same time, the share who approve of the President and think he will win has held mostly steady (88% now vs. 85% in December).

When these people are asked to explain in their own words why they disapprove of Trump, Trump’s behavior is a central reason.

Here’s why people said they disapprove:

  • Lying (13%)
  • Racism (11%)
  • Incompetence (11%)
  • Not acting presidential (7%)
  • Immigration, (7%), is the only specific issue that merits mention by 5% or more

Those who approve of the way Trump is handling his job as President instead focus on his accomplishments and on issues.

Here’s why people said they approve:

  • The economy (26%)
  • Because he has kept his promises (12%)
  • They say that he’s getting things done or accomplishing more than other presidents (9%)
  • Improved unemployment ratings (8%)
  • Policies on the border (5%)

Parkland shooting survivor says Harvard rescinded his admission over racial slurs he made two years ago

Kyle Kashuv disclosed the rescinding Monday in a Twitter thread, acknowledging that he and classmates, then 16, made “abhorrent racial slurs” in digital messages almost two years ago “in an effort to be as extreme and shocking as possible.”

He wrote an apology for his remarks and posted a screenshot of what appears to be a June 3 letter from Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, rescinding his admission.

“Harvard deciding that someone can’t grow, especially after a life-altering event like the shooting, is deeply concerning. If any institution should understand growth, it’s Harvard, which is looked to as the pinnacle of higher education despite its checkered past,” Kashuv said on Twitter.

“Throughout its history, Harvard’s faculty has included slave owners, segregationists, bigots and antisemites,” he added. “If Harvard is suggesting that growth isn’t possible and that our past defines our future, then Harvard is an inherently racist institution. But I don’t believe that.”

A Harvard spokeswoman told CNN Monday that the university does “not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants.”

Kashuv is a young conservative with a following

Kashuv has built a profile as the conservative alternative to other visible, outspoken members of the #NeverAgain movement — fellow Parkland students David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky. He’s been outspoken about his support for gun ownership while his classmates have called for more laws to be implemented in the wake of the February 2018 shooting, in which 17 people died.

Kashuv went to the White House in March 2018 to meet with first lady Melania Trump and had a surprise meeting with President Donald Trump.

While his classmates walked out of school in April 2018 to demand action on gun reform, the teen
hosted an livestream with conservative commentators who discussed their support of the Second Amendment. He has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter.

A few weeks ago, Kashuv said, he became aware that “egregious and callous comments” he and other classmates “made privately years ago” were being made public.

“I immediately apologized,” he said, saying he was “embarrassed” by the comments. He said the comments don’t reflect who he is and “this past year has forced me to mature and grow.”

Pro-gun students walk out of school to 'Stand for the Second'Pro-gun students walk out of school to 'Stand for the Second'

“I see the world through different eyes and am embarrassed by the petty, flippant kid represented” in screenshots of the comments,” he added.

Kashuv said the notoriety led to “speculative articles” and attacks by “former peers & political opponents” urging Harvard to rescind his admission.

Harvard said it became aware of his ‘offensive statements’

In Kashuv’s Twitter thread, he posted a May 24 letter from Harvard’s Fitzsimmons saying the university had become aware “of media reports discussing offensive statements allegedly authored by you.”

The letter added that “Harvard reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions, including ‘if you engage or have engaged in behavior that brings into question your honest, maturity, or moral character.'”

Kashuv said that in response to a request from the Harvard admissions committee he wrote back with a “full explanation, apology and requested documents” and also sent an email to the school’s Office of Diversity Education & Support “to seek guidance on how to right this wrong and work with them once I was on campus.”

This Parkland student hosted a livestream supporting the 2nd Amendment while his classmates walked outThis Parkland student hosted a livestream supporting the 2nd Amendment while his classmates walked out

But the Harvard admissions committee still voted to deny him admission, he said.

In an ironic twist, he said the school’s Office of Diversity Education & Support responded to his apology the next day, saying it appreciated his “thoughtful reflections” and looked forward to connecting with him “upon your matriculation in the fall of 2020.”

Kashuv said he then asked for a face-to-face meeting to make his case and “work towards any possible path of reconciliation,” but Harvard declined his request.

“I believe that institutions and people can grow. I’ve said that repeatedly. In the end, this isn’t about me. It’s about whether we live in a society in which forgiveness is possible or mistakes brand you as irredeemable, as Harvard has decided for me,” Kashuv said.

In his final Twitter post Monday morning, Kashuv said he’s still trying to figure out his next steps.

“I had given up huge scholarships in order to go to Harvard, and the deadline for accepting other college offers has ended. I’m exploring all options at the moment.”

Man who police say was killed after attacking an off-duty officer in Costco was a gentle giant, cousin says

Police have said the victim, identified by the Corona Police Department as 32-year-old Kenneth French, of Riverside, assaulted an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer in an unprovoked attack before the shooting.

The officer, who was reportedly holding a young child while shopping with his family when French attacked him, shot and killed French and also shot two members of his family, police said.

Lt. Jeff Edwards of the Corona police told reporters just after the incident that police believed the shooting resulted from an argument.

“From my understanding, from some people we talked to, there was apparently an argument inside,” Edwards said. “Some type of argument and ensued into a gun shot.”

But on Sunday French’s cousin Rick Shureih told the Los Angeles Times that French was nonverbal and had an intellectual disability that would have prevented him from starting any argument.

Shureih also identified the family members who were shot to the newspaper as the victim’s parents, Russell and Paola French.

Shureih was not at the Costco at the time of the shooting and did not witness what happened.

Speaking about his cousin, Shureih told the paper, “He was a gentle giant … He’s never been violent in the past. He’s always been very cooperative and kept to himself.”

Shureih said that it’s possible his cousin may have bumped into someone but he wouldn’t have been able to communicate that he was sorry, the Los Angeles Times reported.

French was able to drive and cook but was unable to live on his own and hadn’t spoken in recent years, Shureih told the newspaper. He also told the paper he wasn’t sure of French’s exact disability.

In a Facebook post Sunday, Shureih shared a photo of the victim and his parents. “Do they look intimidating to you? Did he really have to shoot them all? I’m posting this picture because the stories on social media have made them out to be the suspects, and the off duty cop the victim.”

Shureih asked anyone who may have witnessed what happened to contact him.

“This is a family that was unarmed and was just grocery shopping,” Shureih said on Facebook. “I’m sure this was a misunderstanding that got escalated for no reason!”

First responders at the fatal shooting in a Costco.First responders at the fatal shooting in a Costco.

Police have not named the officer involved and say that the officer’s gun was the only weapon involved in the case.

The officer suffered minor injuries and has been released from the hospital. His child was not injured according to Officer Tobias Kouroubacalis of the Corona Police Department.

CNN has reached out to Shureih for comment but has not heard back.

CNN has reached out to the Corona Police Department for additional comment on this story but was told there was no information other than what is on the department’s news release.

A black Boeing employee found a noose over his desk. Now hes suing the company

Curtis Anthony alleges in the lawsuit that his colleagues at the North Charleston, South Carolina, Boeing plant also used the n-word and urinated on his desk. He is suing over discrimination on the basis of race, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of the Family Medical Leave Act and breach of contract.

Anthony says he raised the issues with his supervisors and management, who promised his complaints would be addressed. But ultimately, the lawsuit claims, nothing was done.

“I hope that this shouldn’t be tolerated in America at this day and time,” Anthony told
CNN affiliate WCSC in an interview. “This is not 1819, this is 2019. Regardless of color, people should say something against it and anything that’s harmful against anyone.”

In an emailed statement to CNN, Boeing spokeswoman Libba Holland said Anthony “is a valued Boeing South Carolina teammate,” but “there is no validity to his allegations.”

“Moreover, most of Mr. Anthony’s allegations were never brought to the attention of management, giving the company no opportunity to investigate these claims,” the statement said. “The single issue he did raise was dealt with promptly and in a fair manner.”

Lawsuit: N-word was used on a ‘daily basis’

According to the lawsuit filed earlier this month, Anthony began working for Boeing as a quality inspector at the plant in May 2011, but the alleged harassment did not begin until May 2017.

That’s when Anthony’s coworkers — who were “primarily Caucasian” — began to engage in “intentionally extreme and outrageous” harassment, the lawsuit says, which included “having Caucasian workers urinate in Plaintiff’s seat and on his work desk numerous times” and using the n-word “on a daily basis.”

Anthony suffered “mental anguish and emotional distress” due to the harassment, the lawsuit says.

Noose hung at Fiat Chrysler plant Noose hung at Fiat Chrysler plant

Anthony complained about the discrimination to his supervisors multiple times, the lawsuit claims, but they allegedly did nothing.

According to the lawsuit, Anthony went on medical leave to receive treatment for the “extreme stress” he suffered as a result of the hostile treatment.

In March 2019, after a brief stint working in New Orleans, Anthony returned to discover a noose had been placed “right over” his desk.

He immediately reported the incident to HR and his managers, according to the lawsuit. He then went on leave again, and believes that when he returns, he will be sent to the same hostile work environment, the lawsuit says.

Besides the overt harassment, Anthony also alleges in the lawsuit that he was passed over for “numerous” promotions in favor of “lesser qualified Caucasian workers” as “retaliation” for him taking medical leave.

CNN’s Konstantin Toropin and Amir Vera contributed to this report.

Why Clarence Thomas wrote over a dozen pages on eugenics

Diving deep into the controversial movement from the early 20th century, aimed at improving society by encouraging the reproduction of certain traits, Thomas also charged that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was once “particularly open about the fact that birth control could be used” for eugenic purposes.

Why eugenics? At the core, Thomas was explaining his thinking about an Indiana abortion law that bans abortion motivated solely by the race, sex or disability of the fetus. But critics say he was also taking up an oft-used argument made by opponents of abortion who say the procedure threatens those deemed undesirable by society.

“We denounce eugenics in all forms for the same reason we are working to fight abortion bans across the country,” said Melanie Newman, senior vice president of communications and culture for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Every person should have the freedom to make their own decisions about their body.”

The opinion came on Tuesday, when the court said it would leave in place a lower court opinion that invalidated a provision in Indiana’s law.

In an unsigned opinion, the court reasoned that only one federal appeals court has addressed such a law, and that it would “follow our ordinary practice” and stay away from the issue until other courts have had a chance to weigh in.

Thomas concurred in the opinion that allowing “further percolation” was acceptable, but he stressed that the court’s action should not be interpreted as an “agreement” with the lower court.

In making his point, Thomas dedicated more than a dozen pages on the history of the eugenics movement to explain why “the use of abortion to achieve eugenic goals is not merely hypothetical.”

Wading through history, he noted that some eugenicists believed that the “distinction between the fit and the unfit could be drawn along racial lines,” and others would define a person as “feeble-minded.”

READ: Supreme Court ruling on Indiana abortion lawREAD: Supreme Court ruling on Indiana abortion law

In 1927, the Supreme Court, Thomas pointed out, “threw its prestige behind the eugenics movement” in its decision upholding the constitutionality of Virginia’s forced-sterilization law in Buck v. Bell.

He said that while the court’s decision gave the eugenics movement “added legitimacy,” support for eugenics waned considerably by the 1940s as “Americans became familiar with the eugenics of the Nazis and scientific literature undermined the assumptions on which the movement was built.”

Thomas said he was prompted to address the history of the movement because the case at issue “highlights the fact that abortion is an act rife with the potential for ‘eugenic manipulation'” and he urged his colleagues that they could “not avoid” such issues forever.

“Having created the constitutional right to an abortion, this Court is dutybound to address its scope,” Thomas said.

Jessica Levinson, a professor of law at Loyola Law school notes that Thomas in his opinion suggests that the fetus is being discriminated against.

“He may try to place abortion laws under the rubric of anti-discrimination laws” in the future, Levinson said.

Critics say that what Thomas was doing in the opinion is adopting a tactic of the anti-abortion movement.

“For a long time, opponents of abortion have charged that abortion threatens those deemed undesirable in society,” said Johanna Schoen, a professor of history at Rutgers University.

“In arguing that Indiana’s law that bans abortion based solely on race, disability or sex, could one day pass legal muster, Thomas is harkening back to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century,” she said.

But Schoen, who supports abortion rights and has written a book called “Abortion after Roe,” argues the comparison is invalid.

“Eugenics — at its core — is based on the state making reproductive decisions for others. Indiana’s law basically does the same thing, limiting a woman’s reproductive autonomy,” she said.

“He is tying eugenics to particular reproductive technologies — here abortion — instead of recognizing that eugenic laws robbed women of their ability to make their own reproductive decisions — the state decided for them,” Schoen said.

Kamala Harris rolls out proposal that would require states to prove abortion laws were constitutionalKamala Harris rolls out proposal that would require states to prove abortion laws were constitutional

Schoen acknowledges that Sanger did adopt some of the eugenics framework in order to gain the support of medical professionals in the 1920s and ’30s. But Sanger was arguing for access to birth control.

“She was advocating for women’s rights, not for selective breeding,” Schoen said.

Indeed, Thomas did allow that Sanger distinguished between birth control and abortion. But he said, “The arguments that she made in support of birth control apply with even greater force to abortion.”

Ex-Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox 1B Bill Buckner Dies at Age 69

Former Boston Red Sox's players Bill Buckner, right, and Wade Boggs prior to a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies in Boston, Wednesday, May 25, 2016.  The Red Sox defeated the Rockies 8-3. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Bill Buckner, the former MLB first baseman who became infamous for his error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series while a member of the Boston Red Sox, died Monday morning.

He was 69.

“After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family,” Buckner’s wife, Jody, said in a statement to ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap. “Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Buckner played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Red Sox, California Angels and Kansas City Royals during a 22-year MLB career. He recorded 2,715 hits, 174 home runs and 1,280 runs batted in, winning the 1980 batting title and earning an All-Star berth in 1981 with the Cubs.

However, Buckner’s most infamous moment came five years later with the Red Sox. With Boston already having already blown a two-run lead with two outs and no one on, Buckner allowed an easy ground ball to dribble through his legs and give the Mets a game-winning run.

The Mets would go on to win Game 7 and the World Series, continuing Boston’s World Series drought. At the time, the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918. Buckner’s error became one of the most infamous plays in baseball history, and he was the scourge of Boston sports for a lengthy period of time.

Buckner returned to Boston in 1990 for a brief stint with the team but later stayed largely away from Fenway. He returned again in 2008 and received a warm welcome from the fanbase, which had since seen two World Series championships.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner told reporters then. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

After his retirement from baseball, Buckner worked in real estate and did some coaching in independent baseball. 

Parasite in paradise: Rat lungworm disease confirmed in three Hawaii visitors

The three cases newly confirmed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are unrelated, and affected three adult travelers from mainland United States.

All five of this year’s cases were contracted on Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island. That island is one of several in the state of Hawaii.

A parasitic infection causes the disease formally known as angiostrongyliasis, which is often mild and goes undetected.

However, rat lungworm can also cause severe effects on a person’s brain and spinal cord, according to the CDC. Symptoms vary, and the most common are severe headaches and neck stiffness. The most serious cases experience neurological problems, severe pain and long-term disability, the CDC says.

The exact moment of infection is unknown for each of the three newly confirmed Hawaii cases, though one individual remembers “eating many homemade salads while on vacation,” while another ate unwashed raw fruits, vegetables and other plants straight from the land, according to the Department of Health.

'Kissing bug' case in Delaware raises alarm for summer'Kissing bug' case in Delaware raises alarm for summer

One of last year’s 10 total confirmed cases became sick after purposely eating a slug on a dare, according to the Department of Health. Most people, though, become ill by accidentally ingesting a snail or slug infected with the parasite, it said.

The illness usually lasts between two weeks and two months, and on average, the incubation period is one to three weeks. However, an infection can incubate in only a single day or in six weeks, according to the CDC.

Endemic in Hawaii

Heather Stockdale Walden, an assistant professor of parasitology at the University of Florida, previously told CNN that rat lungworm disease has “been endemic in Hawaii for at least 50 years.”
He ate a slug on a dare, became paralyzed and died He ate a slug on a dare, became paralyzed and died

The parasite can fully mature in rats. Garden-variety slugs and snails, which eat rat feces, can serve as intermediate hosts, allowing the parasite to grow to a stage where it’s capable of causing infection, though never to full adulthood (and so never capable of reproduction).

When the parasite gets into a human, it can get lost, and in some cases “go to the brain,” Walden explained.

In such cases, meningitis, a swelling of the thin membrane covering the spinal cord and brain, may be the result. The ingested parasite “can also move to the eye, and you can get ocular angiostrongylus,” Walden said. Surgical removal may be necessary in these cases. In the best of cases, patients develop mild illness and simply get better on their own.

People sick with rat lungworm disease do not become contagious.

Preventing an infection

“It’s important that we ensure our visitors know the precautions to take to prevent rat lungworm disease,” Hawaii Health Director Bruce Anderson said in a statement.

Foodborne disease infections are on the rise. Here are the most commonFoodborne disease infections are on the rise. Here are the most common

The state’s Health Department recommends you wash all fruits and vegetables — especially leafy greens — under clean, running water to remove any tiny slugs or snails. Snail, slug and rat populations need to be controlled around homes, gardens and farms by clearing debris where they might live, and also using traps and baits.

Also inspect, wash and store produce in sealed containers, regardless of whether it came from a local retailer, farmer’s market or backyard garden.

In the Hawaiian islands, about 80% of land snails are carriers of the parasite, according to a
2014 research paper.
First discovered in China in 1935, rat lungworm disease has spread to Asia, Australia, the Americas (including Brazil, the Caribbean islands and the United States) and the Pacific islands. More than
2,800 cases of human infection have been reported in 30 countries.

Anyone worried that they might be infected should consult a health care provider.

President Trump meets Abe in Japan – CNNPolitics

President Donald Trump awarded the “President’s Cup” to sumo champion Asanoyama in Tokyo following a 15-day tournament. 

Trump made brief remarks before handing the 4.5 foot trophy over to the winner.

Trump said the cup was in honor of Asanoyama’s “outstanding achievement” at the sumo grand championship. 

“I herby award you the United States President’s Cup,” Trump said to loud applause. 

Trump also shared photos of the event in a tweet.

“Tonight in Tokyo, Japan at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan Stadium, it was my great honor to present the first-ever U.S. President’s Cup to Sumo Grand Champion Asanoyama. Congratulations! A great time had by all, thank you @AbeShinzo!!” the tweet reads.

When asked how it felt to be awarded the Cup, Asanoyama said “I was overjoyed, almost too much to say in words.”

Asanoyama had clinched the championship on Saturday, but still competed in front of Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Irish expatriate sports columnist and former amateur sumo wrestler John Gunning told CNN that Asanoyama’s win is a huge upset.

“To win a tournament just over three years after reaching the highest division is a great accomplishment, it’s a huge shock, its something you don’t normally see,” Gunning said.  

“He’s the kind of guy who will probably never win another tournament. But he’s also the first winner of the new imperial era,” Gunning said. 

Finland is winning the war on fake news. Other nations want the blueprint

Helsinki, Finland (CNN) – On a recent afternoon in Helsinki, a group of students gathered to hear a lecture on a subject that is far from a staple in most community college curriculums.

Standing in front of the classroom at Espoo Adult Education Centre, Jussi Toivanen worked his way through his PowerPoint presentation. A slide titled “Have you been hit by the Russian troll army?” included a checklist of methods used to deceive readers on social media: image and video manipulations, half-truths, intimidation and false profiles.

Another slide, featuring a diagram of a Twitter profile page, explained how to identify bots: look for stock photos, assess the volume of posts per day, check for inconsistent translations and a lack of personal information.

The lesson wrapped with a popular “deepfake” — highly realistic manipulated video or audio — of Barack Obama to highlight the challenges of the information war ahead.

The course is part of an anti-fake news initiative launched by Finland’s government in 2014 – two years before Russia meddled in the US elections – aimed at teaching residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to sow division.

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Jussi Toivanen teaching students how to spot fake news at Espoo Adult Education Centre.

The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today – and tomorrow. The Nordic country, which shares an 832-mile border with Russia, is acutely aware of what’s at stake if it doesn’t.

Finland has faced down Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online.

Toivanen, the chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most play on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO (Russia is not a fan).

As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.

Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in

a study measuring resilience to the

post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society

Institute – Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in a study

measuring resilience to the post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society Institute –

Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in a study measuring resilience to the post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society Institute – Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in a study measuring resilience to the post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society Institute – Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Although it’s difficult to measure the results in real-time, the approach appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.

“It’s not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” Toivanen said, before adding: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

At the French-Finnish School of Helsinki, a bilingual state-run K-12 institution, that ethos is taken seriously.

In Valentina Uitto’s social studies class, a group of 10th-graders were locked in debate over what the key issues will be in next week’s EU elections. Brexit, immigration, security and the economy were mentioned with a flurry of raised hands before the students were asked to choose a theme to analyze.

“They’ve gathered what they think they know about the EU election … now let’s see if they can sort fact from fiction,” Uitto said with a smirk.

The students broke off into groups, grabbing laptops and cell phones to investigate their chosen topics – the idea is to inspire them to become digital detectives, like a rebooted version of Sherlock Holmes for the post-Millennial generation.

Her class is the embodiment of Finland’s critical thinking curriculum, which was revised in 2016 to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that has clouded recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe.

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Students in Valentina Uitto’s social studies class research the issues at play in the upcoming EU elections as part of their critical thinking curriculum.

The school recently partnered with Finnish fact-checking agency Faktabaari (FactBar) to develop a digital literacy “toolkit” for elementary to high school students learning about the EU elections. It was presented to the bloc’s expert group on media literacy and has been shared among member states.

The exercises include examining claims found in YouTube videos and social media posts, comparing media bias in an array of different “clickbait” articles, probing how misinformation preys on readers’ emotions, and even getting students to try their hand at writing fake news stories themselves.

“What we want our students to do is … before they like or share in the social media they think twice – who has written this? Where has it been published? Can I find the same information from another source?” Kari Kivinen, director of Helsinki French-Finnish School and former secretary-general of the European Schools, told CNN.

He cautioned that it is a balancing act trying to make sure skepticism doesn’t give way to cynicism in students.

“It’s very annoying having to fact check everything, not being able to trust anything … or anyone on the internet,” said 15-year-old Tatu Tukiainen, one of the students in Uitto’s class. “I think we should try to put a stop to that.”

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Gabrielle Bagula (left), 18, and Alexander Shemeikka (right), 17, in the Helsinki French-Finnish School library.

In the school library, Alexander Shemeikka, 17, and Gabrielle Bagula, 18, are watching YouTube videos together on an iPhone and chatting about other social platforms where they get their news: Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and Twitter but, notably, not Facebook – “that’s for old people.”

“The word ‘fake news’ is thrown around very often,” Shemeikka said, explaining that when their friends share dubious memes or far-fetched articles online he always asks for the source. “You can never be too sure,” Bagula agreed.

That’s exactly the type of conversation that Kivinen hopes to cultivate outside of the classroom.

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Students aged 5 to 8 gather in the library to read paperbacks and scroll through social media feeds.

“What we have been developing here – combining fact-checking with the critical thinking and voter literacy – is something we have seen that there is an interest in outside Finland,” Kivinen said.

But Kivinen isn’t sure that this approach could serve as a template for schools elsewhere. “In the end … it’s difficult to export democracy,” he added.

It may be difficult to export democracy, but it is easy to import experts, which is precisely what Finland did in 2016 to combat what it saw as a rise in disinformation emanating from accounts linked to its neighbor to the east.

“They knew that the Kremlin was messing with Finnish politics, but they didn’t have a context with which to interpret that. They were wondering if this meant they [Russia] would invade, was this war?” Jed Willard, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard University, who was hired by Finland to train state officials to spot and then hit back at fake news, told CNN.

Russia maintains that it has not and does not interfere in the domestic politics of other countries.

Behind closed doors, Willard’s workshops largely focused on one thing: developing a strong national narrative, rather than trying to debunk false claims.

“The Finns have a very unique and special strength in that they know who they are. And who they are is directly rooted in human rights and the rule of law, in a lot of things that Russia, right now, is not,” Willard said. “There is a strong sense of what it means to be Finnish … that is a super power.”

Not all nations have the type of narrative to fall back on that Finland does.

2019 World Press Freedom Index,

Reporters Without Borders

World Happiness Report 2019

Corruption Perceptions Index

2018, Transparency International

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

Global Gender Gap Report 2018,

2019 World Press Freedom Index,

Reporters Without Borders

World Happiness Report 2019

Corruption Perceptions Index

2018, Transparency International

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

Global Gender Gap Report 2018,

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

World Happiness Report 2019

2018, World Economic Forum

Global Gender Gap Report 2018,

2019 World Press Freedom Index,

Corruption Perceptions Index

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

Reporters Without Borders

2018, Transparency International

World Happiness Report 2019

The small and largely homogenous country consistently ranks at or near the top of almost every index – happiness, press freedom, gender equality, social justice, transparency and education – making it difficult for external actors to find fissures within society to crowbar open and exploit.

Finland also has long tradition of reading – its 5.5 million people borrow close to 68 million books a year and it just spent $110 million on a state-of-the-art library, referred to lovingly as “Helsinki’s living room.” Finland has the highest PISA score for reading performance in the EU.

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On the Oodi library’s ethereal third-floor, Finns browse the internet and leaf through national daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

And as trust in the media has flagged in other parts of the globe, Finland has maintained a strong regional press and public broadcaster. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, Finland tops the charts for media trust, which means its citizens are less likely to turn to alternative sources for news.

But some argue that simply teaching media literacy and critical thinking isn’t enough — more must be done on the part of social media companies to stop the spread of disinformation.

“Facebook, Twitter, Google/YouTube … who are enablers of Russian trolls … they really should be regulated,” said Jessikka Aro, a journalist with Finland’s public broadcaster YLE, who has faced a barrage of abuse for her work investigating Russian interference, long before it was linked to the 2016 US elections.

“Just like any polluting companies or factories should be and are already regulated, for polluting the air and the forests, the waters, these companies are polluting the minds of people. So, they also have to pay for it and take responsibility for it.”

Facebook, Twitter and Google, which are all signatories to the European Commission’s code of practice against disinformation, told CNN that they have taken steps ahead of the EU elections to increase transparency on their platforms, including making EU-specific political advertisement libraries publicly available, working with third-party fact-checkers to identify misleading election-related content, and cracking down on fake accounts.

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Jessikka Aro scrolls through her Twitter mentions, pointing out the type of trolling and abuse she has faced online as a result of her investigations.

Aro’s first open-source investigation back in 2014 looked at how Russia-linked disinformation campaigns impacted Finns.

“Many Finns told me that they have witnessed these activities, but that it was only merely new digital technology for the old fashioned, old school Soviet Union propaganda, which has always existed and that Finns have been aware of,” Aro said. “So, they could avoid the trolls.”

The probe also made her the target of a relentless smear campaign, accused of being a CIA operative, a secret assistant to NATO, a drug dealer and deranged Russophobe.

Aro received some respite when, last year, the Helsinki District Court handed harsh sentences to two pro-Putin activists on charges of defamation – Ilja Janitskin, a Finn of Russian descent who ran the anti-immigrant, pro-Russia website MV-Lehti, and Johan Backman, a self-declared “human rights activist” and frequent guest on the Russian state-run news outlet RT.

It was the first time that an EU country had convicted those responsible for disinformation campaigns, drawing a line in the sand between extreme hate speech and the pretense of free speech.

Perhaps the biggest sign that Finland is winning the war on fake news is the fact that other countries are seeking to copy its blueprint. Representatives from a slew of EU states, along with Singapore, have come to learn from Finland’s approach to the problem.

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The scene outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Helsinki. Since 2016, government officials have trained over 10,000 Finns how to spot fake news.

The race is on to figure out a fix after authorities linked Russian groups to misinformation campaigns targeting Catalonia’s independence referendum and Brexit, as well as recent votes in France and Germany. Germany has already put a law in place to fine tech platforms that fail to remove “obviously illegal” hate speech, while France passed a law last year that bans fake news on the internet during election campaigns. Some critics have argued that both pieces of legislation jeopardize free speech. Russia denied interference in all of these instances.

Finland’s strategy was on public display ahead of last month’s national elections, in an advertising campaign that ran under the slogan “Finland has the world’s best elections – think about why” and encouraged citizens to think about fake news.

Officials didn’t see any evidence of Russian interference in the vote, which Toivanen says may be a sign that trolls have stopped thinking of the Finnish electorate as a soft target.

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Jussi Toivanen, who has traveled the country to train Finns, at his office in Helsinki.

“A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues said that he thought Finland has won the first round countering foreign-led hostile information activities. But even though Finland has been quite successful, I don’t think that there are any first, second or third rounds, instead, this is an ongoing game,” Toivanen said.

“It’s going to be much more challenging for us to counter these kinds of activities in the future. And we need to be ready for that.”