LONG BEFORE fears erupted in the United States about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, Jessikka Aro, an investigative journalist in Finland, was poking around an unusual company in St. Petersburg, the Internet Research Agency. In early 2015, she identified the building that housed the firm, and by looking at job advertisements and building on earlier reporting by Russian journalists, Ms. Aro identified the Russian online troll factory.
After she reported her findings on the Finnish broadcasting company YLE, she was mercilessly attacked by the same Russian trolls. One troll activist filmed her appearance at a journalism seminar, then posted video online ridiculing every sentence she said in the seminar. “This discrediting method is used almost every time I appear on TV or radio,” she said in a retrospective about living as a Russian troll magnet, subject to vicious hate and abuse, which also spread online. “I was accused of engaging in information warfare, distributing American propaganda and waging war,” she recalled.
One posting that called her and a colleague “media prostitutes” was spread to 16 Facebook pages that mostly disseminate news from the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik. Their faces were illustrated with a graphic that was a hybrid of the NATO logo and a swastika. Another time, “I received a text message from a person pretending to be my father, who died 20 years ago. My ‘father’ told me in the message he’s not dead, but ‘observing me.’ ”
What Ms. Aro exposed in St. Petersburg was ground zero for the Russian mischief campaign against the 2016 presidential election, according to an indictment subsequently returned in the United States. The troll factory was funded by one of President Vladimir Putin’s cronies, Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin.
For her journalism, Ms. Aro was informed in January by the State Department that she was to be one of the winners of this year’s International Women of Courage Award, presented Thursday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump. The award has been given since 2007 to women around the world who have “demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.” Ms. Aro got a formal invitation from the State Department on Feb. 12, and a tour around the United States was envisioned.
However, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which broke the story, the State Department then wrote to Ms. Aro to rescind the award, saying there had been a “regrettable error.” In fact, Foreign Policy reported, the award was rescinded because Ms. Aro had criticized President Trump on social media. It wasn’t clear who made the decision. But it is in keeping with a president who has set the tone of prizing loyalty and personal sycophancy over wisdom and vision.
Ms. Aro deserved the award. She should hold her head high for courage, unlike those who denied her the honor.