Today I met the former Estonia’s president (2007-2016), an engineer and a leader Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
I left work early to catch a train down to Palo Alto. That’s where the famous Stanford University is situated. On a sunny day, most of the students were leaving lectures as I cycled through the stunning Stanford campus to the Green’s library.
There were less than 10 people in the room 15 minutes before the talk, so I grabbed a seat in the front. American and Estonian flags in the front made the room look official and ready for filming.
It took a good 5 minutes to introduce Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his accomplishments. He has lived, studied and worked all over the world including the US, Canada and Germany. He worked at the EU parliament and made Estonia known as the most tech-savvy, digitalized government in the world.
In today’s session, Mr Ilves shared his fear of recent attacks on the Liberal Democracy. Technology has revolutionized the democracy as we know it, starting with printed word and more informed electorate hundreds of years ago. However, in the last few years we’ve seen at least 5 different attack vectors on democracies around the world, Mr Ilves argued.
Those five types of attacks are hacking, doxxing, fake news, twitter bots and super-targeting using big data (read my notes on presentation here). Ilves argued that two years ago we couldn’t have imagined these type of attacks would ever take place.
He chose examples that illustrated his points well. From the Trojan Horse to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, from the recent US attacks on Syria to Facebook’s feature updates, Toomas Hendrik Ilves was relevant and easy-to-follow. His thought-provoking speech showed how technology and free speech coupled with malicious intent can harm modern democracies.
The public has been left disoriented: 62% of Americans use social media as the main source of news and are vulnerable to fast-spreading fake news. Malicious doxxing and hacking practices are strategically targeted at key individuals who often fall for it.
And who cares if there was never any evidence of three “muslim-looking men” raping a 13 year old Lisa in Germany, or German NATO soldiers raping a young Lithuanian girl. With enough backing from twitter bots, low journalism standards and easy-to-influence public such propaganda can cause serious threats to democracy. Threats that raise questions of whether free speech should be limited to protect the public.
How can we protect ourselves?
Although his main goal was to “have others think along”, Ilves also gave a few practical tips.
Firstly, people should use a two-factor authentication on digital accounts. It’s the easiest step with the most significant impact. Secondly, we should educate the youth on how to identify fake news. Distinguishing them from trusted news will decrease efficiency of propaganda.
Also, somewhat wishfully, Mr Ilves mentioned that Bundestag has proposed increased fines of up to 50M euros for social media outlets if they don’t remove fake news immediately after spotting them.
What have I learned from Estonia’s President?
- “When in Rome, do what Romans do.” As a joke, Mr Ilves explained why he’s not wearing a suit and a tie. “If you do, everyone knows you’re a visitor at Stanford. If you wear jeans, you’re a faculty member. Shorts – you’re a student.”
- Be relevant. Whatever the topic, do your research and stay up-to-date with recent developments. Mr. Ilves impressed me mentioning few days’ old Facebook announcement on flagging fake stories, recent events in Syria, and referring to Stanford multiple times.
- Be vulnerable. Ilves admitted multiple times he doesn’t know what the answer to these new problems is. He admitted he’s afraid about what influence these methods might have on France’s presidential elections two weeks from now, or in the Netherlands. He raised questions to get people “think along” him.
- Raise thought-provoking questions at the end of your presentation. Questions make the audience think. Questions allow planting seeds into people’s’ minds, without carrying the burden that statements have.
The event was part of a series of Stanford events leading to next year’s The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence conference at Stanford. Read more: http://aabs2018.stanford.edu/
* Read my notes on the presentation.