A Swedish university came under criticism when a guest lecturer turned out to be a pro-Kremlin blogger sharing disinformation about the war in Syria and Ukraine.
In June, over 60 students and staff from academic institutions across the Baltic and Nordic states joined the summer school at Uppsala University, one of the country’s top ranking universities.
The program was called “War and Peace Journalism in an Age of Global Instability” and was partially funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers’ education program Nordplus.
But 12 students who came from the Estonian University of Tartu later went to the media due to the false narratives told by one guest lecturer, bringing greater awareness to pro-Russian disinformation infiltrating universities in Europe.
Vanessa Beeley, a blogger who is frequently published by Kremlin-controlled media platforms Sputnik and RT, gave a lecture on war propaganda, which centered around contesting the narratives of western media surrounding the war in Syria.
“The Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, has always wanted to bring peace to the world,” was one notion she imparted to the students.
Another concerning slide stated that the NGO Human Rights Watch is a fake organization, funded by Zionists. She later added that the United Nations is anti-Russian.
When asked about the annexation of Crimea, Beeley echoed the Kremlin line that the Crimean population freely chose to join the Russian Federation in a fair referendum.
However, many students confronted her for spreading these myths, and some walked out of the lecture in protest. They noted that her slides lacked sources and the presentation as a whole was not fit for an academic institution.
The students from the University of Tartu boycotted the final day of the five-day summer school to show their displeasure, believing that the pro-Russian agenda of the lecture left the course resembling a “propaganda camp.” They went to Estonian media to voice their disgust.
After their story broke, Sputnik’s Estonian-language service reported Beeley’s opinion that the behavior of the students from Tartu “was not only the result of poor education but also a part of the overall negative attitude of Estonian society towards Russia.”
Additionally, the Editor-in-Chief of the state-funded Russia Today news and TV service Margarita Simonyan offered a cynical invitation to the students to visit Moscow. Simonyan has been banned from entering Ukraine because the Ukrainian authorities believe she has been “stirring hatred” via the propaganda channel.
Meanwhile, the students remain steadfast in their conviction that due to Beeley’s lack of journalistic and academic principles, Uppsala University should never have invited her.
The Center for European Policy Analysis noted that the students’ reaction is a lesson to other European countries, showing that they do not have to be defenseless against disinformation and propaganda. By recognizing, publicizing, and de-bunking propaganda, information threats can be effectively resisted.
Uppsala University’s Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES) later apologized for hosting Beeley.
“IRES believes it was totally unacceptable to invite Beeley and apologize to students, staff and partner universities,” they said.