New research from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) shows that one quarter of Estonia’s vibrant media market presents a high risk of disinforming their online readers.
These findings are based on analysis of 33 Estonian and Russian-language media sites, including some of the highest-traffic and most used sites in the country (see Figure 1).
While the country faces some notable disinformation risks, it also performs fairly well with a range of trusted sites in both Estonian and Russian scoring well.
Estonia’s public broadcaster (www.err.ee) and top business news site (www.aripaev.ee) have the lowest disinformation risks among all media sites in our sample. Strong journalistic and newsroom practices are reflected in clear and accurate content produced by these sites that mitigates their risk of disinforming readers. These sites are rated as having a minimum disinformation risk. Disinformation risk levels range from 1 (minimum risk) to 5 (maximum risk).
Yet there is a gap between these top performers and the rest of the sites in our sample. No site in our Estonian sample is rated with a low risk level (a score of 2). Two-thirds of the media sites read in Estonia – including key national and regional outlets – have been rated with a medium risk level.
Figure 2: Risk Ratings for Estonian Media Sites
For many sites in the medium risk category, they are there due to the absence of key operational and editorial policies. For example, only ten percent of the sites in our sample have full and transparent information about their owners, sources of funding and editorial independence.
Some of these polices are embodied in the Code of Practice set out by the Estonian Media Alliance. Many of the practices are also part of the universal standard established by media and journalists as part of the Journalism Trust Initiative. All media sites operating in Estonia – including those based outside the country and in Russia – should follow these universal standards.
One in four sites in our assessment – 25 percent of the sites – are rated as having a high or maximum level of disinformation risk. These sites are outside Estonian mainstream media and some are based in Russia. These sites often negatively target groups and use more sensational reporting.
This is the first report done on Estonia to assess the disinformation risks of its active and bilingual media market. It applies the GDI methodology for assessing disinformation risk in three areas: the reliability of the site’s content, the site’s operational checks and balances, and how informed online readers perceive the overall context of the sites. The assessment was conducted between June and August 2020. Only the top performing sites are named in the report.
The overall market risk score across the three pillars for Estonia is 58 (see Figure 3). Estonia is one of 10 countries which will be assessed in 2020 using this methodology. Its score is higher by 10 points as compared to the findings just released for Georgia. Additional country risk rating reports will be released by the GDI in the coming weeks and will allow for further comparison with Estonia’s risk assessment.
Figure 3: Average Pillar Score, by Risk Rating
Estonia – a country of 1.3 million people – offers a unique opportunity for analysis. It is a member of the European Union and adheres to its related rights and regulations. It is a very digitised society and one that prides itself on measures to increase transparency and access to information.
At the same time, it has a historical legacy that still shapes the country today. It was once part of the Soviet Union and has a strong Russian-speaking community. This community tends to rely on Russian-language media produced within and outside the country – which has made it a target for disinformation campaigns allegedly led by the Kremlin.
Given the country’s past, Estonians have a generally low level of trust in media. For example, research shows that nearly one in three Estonians distrust the media, and that 47 percent do not trust the news they see on social media. These are some of the lowest trust levels among EU member states.
For this study, we wanted to look more deeply into these perceptions and if they are well- grounded. Working with two researchers at the University of Tallinn, we looked at a range of some of the most frequently used media sites in Estonia, including Russian sites favored by local online readers. We defined reach and relevance based on a site’s Alexa rankings and Facebook and Twitter followers. We also consulted with local experts to identify domains with lower reach but high relevance among decision-makers and included those sites.
The report’s findings serve as a road map to address the risk areas that were found.
GDI hopes to work with news sites and media bodies in Estonia to putting into practice policies and other actions that will help to mitigate the country’s unique disinformation risks.
If you are interested in learning more about this study or GDI’s work, please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org.