Mainstream media failed the immigration debate

Submitted on Mon, 01/09/2017 - 15:19

Professor Kaarina Nikunen finds it surprising that immigrants’ voices are not heard in public

Kaarina Nikunen/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
“There have been times of propaganda already before,” says Professor Kaarina Nikunen. Untruths and false media are not new phenomena. Photograph: Jonne Renvall

In Finland, the mainstream media has failed to involve all interested parties in the immigration debate.

“In the Finnish debate on immigration, immigrants are conspicuous by their absence in mainstream media. Social media have been the channel where authors with immigrant backgrounds have started to publish their blog texts because the mainstream media has failed to include their voices,” says Professor Kaarina Nikunen.

Kaarina Nikunen, who started as professor of media and communication research at the University of Tampere in the autumn of 2016, directs an Academy of Finland –funded research project called Racisms and public communications in the hybrid media environment (HYBRA) and another project funded by the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation called Information and emotions in the refugee debate: Research on media publicity of the refugee crisis of 2015.

Would the immigration debate have been less adversarial if the media had included all the parties?

“Such claims have been made, but of course it is always difficult to predict the past. Encounters and discussions are useful and necessary, and they would not have made things any worse. The real problem is that there is often more interest in conflict than in creating spaces for encounter in public debate.”

A revolution can start without social media

Social media are Kaarina Nikunen’s most important research theme as they offer an avenue to publicity for both the immigrants and those who are opposed to immigration. Social media made MP Jussi Halla-aho’s blog texts and Hommaforum, the Finnish racist online discussion platform, household names.

Would the opposition to immigration die down without social media?

“Political movements are active regardless of social media. There have been demonstrations and revolutions in the past, and such things do not depend on social media,” Nikunen says.

However, in the era of social media, the messages reach much wider audiences. Previous research has demonstrated that social media publicity legitimises discourses and makes the debate more aggressive than before.

Hate speech stagnated the social climate

The debate on immigration exacerbated in the late summer of 2015 when over 30,000 asylum seekers arrived in Finland mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan. MP Olli Immonen’s Facebook status update brimming with nationalistic fervour was one of the turning points in the debate.

“People have listened to this debate quite silently without taking a very active stand. Subsequently, the debate spilled over and it now seems that we need counterarguments to balance the vitriol,” Nikunen says.

According to Nikunen, the rise of the Finns Party and the increase of the anti-immigration sentiments led to a stagnated atmosphere which even journalists did not challenge.

“The people who opposed immigration used such arguments as saying that people are naïve and stupid and that we are helpless in the face of this new problem. There are historically long traditions of this kind of talk in Finland. Nobody wants to be naïve and stupid. It took several years before a large group of people became fed up with hate speech and took a strong stance against it.”

Was the way journalists behaved exceptional when they allowed the hate speech to continue and did not challenge it?

“That was partly due to the idea that being impartial is professional behaviour. The journalists did not have experience or expertise in such issues as racism, ethnicity and the rights of minorities. Such issues have not been the core competence of journalists in Finland. The situation is very different in the United Kingdom, for example, because they have much longer traditions of talking about multiculturalism.”

Others than journalists also have cause for self-criticism

The refugee crisis of 2015 was a turning point in Finland after which many journalists familiarised themselves with issues around immigration and visited refugee reception centres. Do the journalists now have cause for self-criticism?

“There is always cause for self-criticism, but that does not only apply to journalists. It concerns everyone when people just let things happen and do not take a stand. It gives cause for reflection,” Nikunen explains.

In her research, Nikunen has studied cases where the social media have been used to arouse solidarity and empathy.

“Social media are what we make of them; in itself they are neither good nor bad. Everything depends on the way they are used.”

The autumn of 2015 also saw the social media campaign titled Once I was a refugee where young people who had arrived in Finland as refugees told the audience what they had studied and what they had become.

“It was an excellent campaign highlighting the fact that coming to Finland as a refugee does not define a person’s life for all eternity.”

The campaign also attracted comments from the opponents of immigration, and they were not all negative. The campaign thus succeeded in connecting people and overcoming divisive lines.

Since the 1990s, Nikunen has followed up on a Calabrian village which engaged Kurdish refugees in the activities of the village. The refugees’ boats had shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, and the inhabitants hoped that the immigrants would liven up their dying village. The next topic Nikunen will investigate is to find out where the refugees moved to and what their lives have been like.

In Finland, there are also small municipalities, such as Pudasjärvi, Kyyjärvi and Kauhava, where the refugees together with the local inhabitants try to find ways to revitalise disadvantaged areas.

The media imagery is polarised

According to Nikunen, the Finnish media imagery is full of polarisation and contradictions. The image of refugees is stereotypical in that they are either described as victims or as terrorists who threaten with violence.

“Previous studies have shown that such imageries are repeated year after year. The perspective changes when people meet for real and live together,” Nikunen says.

According to the news from Berlin, the man behind the terrorist attack at the Christmas market in December, which resulted in the death of a dozen people, was a Tunisian immigrant. Such events aggravate polarisations and increase fears.

“If the perpetrators have immigrant backgrounds or they are asylum seekers, it means they are labelled as violent terrorists and this of course causes concern.”

The Kanava magazine published a study conducted by economic sociologists at the University of Turku on how reliable the supporters of the main parties regard the various media. The results show that Finns Party supporters think that the MV Magazine, which is widely considered a false media, find it is as reliable as Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest national quality newspaper.

“The MV Magazine intentionally publishes disinformation, which is something different than opinions or having a political outlook. The MV Magazine is not the same thing as such newspapers that are the organs of the different parties, but it draws support from publishing content that fits the readers’ worldview. In general, we can see that journalism expressing opinions and visions has increased.”

A turning point for media?

After the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election as the next President of the United States, people have started to talk about the post-truth era, but Nikunen does not take the concept at face value.

“From the point of view of research, post-truth is interesting because it can be studied and challenged. Naming eras so quickly and definitely on the basis of just one phenomenon does not make much sense. We do have examples in history of how we have previously lived in eras of propaganda. As such, these phenomena are nothing new,” Nikunen explains.

The forms of producing and presenting information have changed, society has become more fragmented and the earnings logic of the media has collapsed. Can this be called a turning point?

“I think we are talking about a continuum of changes in the longer term,” Nikunen concludes.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli