Mervi Pantti: “The war in Ukraine illustrates how developments in information technology have moulded the way 'we do war' ”

Mervi Pantti is a professor of Media and Communication in the University of Helsinki. We spoke to her about media narratives and representations of war and the creation of new tools to tackle challenges in the changing media environment. 
The research of Mervi Pantti addresses the ways in which technological, economic and social change is reconfiguring the media and the role media plays in shaping the dynamics of public life and the public sphere




How can your research or findings on the changing media environment be applied to global current events, for example to the war in Ukraine and the media representations and narratives of the war?

We speak of mediatization when we refer to the increasing role of the media in all aspects of society. In today’s world, it is difficult to separate media or communication from other social phenomena because they are so closely dependant on one another. For example, media and war have become intertwined and the public debate, as well as our understandings and practices, have changed through the transformations in the media. The developments in information technology have moulded the way “we do war”.

The conflict in Ukraine illustrates this: previously, the information regarding war was in the hands of professional journalists and the political and economic elites who could control the narrative. Today, the sources of information have broadened as citizens actively participate in the “information war”. Now, the narrative of the war is produced at multiple levels and is spread out because anyone with a smartphone can create content. They can for example, uploading videos of air strikes and the misery of war. Now, social media platforms allow for Ukrainians to speak directly to an international audience.

The media landscape has become very complex, multi-layered and opaque, and it may be difficult to differentiate between reliable messages and messages that seek to manipulate and twist the truth. It can be challenging to distinguish false information, parody, satire and lies, from real information. A broad range of actors, such as government officials, professional journalists, trolls, and regular citizens interact on the same social media platforms.  

When the conflict in Ukraine began in 2014, I was the editor of an essay collection Media and the Ukraine Crisis: Hybrid Media Practices and Narratives of Conflict (Global Crises and the Media) (2016), which addresses how media and communications are transforming armed conflicts and how conflicts are made visible in the media in different national and transnational settings. At the moment I am working on another book that will be directly related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Despite these different actors participating in the production of information regarding the war, it seems that, at least the information that we receive here in Finland, has a rather united narrative of the war. How is this possible?

Yes, it is true that the narrative in what we read and hear is surprisingly, even frighteningly, uniform. There are many factors that contribute to this: in the case of the traditional media, although independent and to some extent impartial, studies have found that in exceptional circumstances, such as war, the opinions of the political elites tend to guide the mainstream media. Since the beginning of the war, the EU has stood rather unanimously by Ukraine and has framed the war similarly to how Ukraine has: Ukraine is understood to be fighting for its independence, as well as for western democracy itself. The media follows this main narrative, and most of the people as well as journalists agree with it.

Another important factor that contributes to the uniformity of the narrative is the fact that immediately following the the Russian invasion, the EU decided to limit the information space by blocking Russian state-owned media and broadcasting within the EU. Following this, the largest platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter in different ways blocked, shut down or limited the Russian pro-war messages on their platforms. In the media, we often hear that “Ukraine has won the information war”; this is true to an extent because we are currently in a situation wherein there is a surprisingly uniform narrative of the war. This is also partly because Russia has failed in its information interference in which it had previously been very skillful. The reason for this may be that Ukraine and its western allies were better prepared for the cyber attacks. 

From the European point of view, do you see anything problematic in this? Is this just an exceptional move under exceptional circumstances or is this a sign of a larger pattern of limiting the field of debate?

These are vey complex questions because in a way it is an unusual move conducted under exceptional circumstances: in the context of a war. However, there are also problematic aspects. The first being the question of freedom of speech and how diverse the field of public debate within the EU really is. Another aspect is the future: the large media platforms blocked or closed Russian content upon the request of the EU, and to an extent by the Ukrainian government as well. This raises the question of to what extent will these platforms be guided by the requests of single states or governments in the future.

To me, the debate around the Finnish NATO membership last spring also seemed relatively one-dimensional, do you see similar dynamics working here? 

In Finland, the Russian invasion was a huge shock and that shock defined the public debate and to an extent, created limits to what were acceptable opinions. Very quickly the dominant approach came to be that the freedom and the borders of Finland were also threatened. Particularly in social media, people who expressed diverging opinions regarding NATO or criticism towards the reasons for joining were quickly labelled as defenders of Russia. The atmosphere of the public debate was very tense with no room for divergent opinions. The debate was dominated by historically based fears of war, including nuclear war. In this way, similarly as in the reporting on Ukraine, the Finnish journalists “rallied around the flag”, as we say, and the national defence interests became the most permitted narrative or rhetoric in the situation.

I believe that the public debate would have been different if the war would have been happening elsewhere.  The debate and news discourses in Finland have been strongly impacted by our geographical and cultural closeness to Ukraine and Russia.

You recently received a grant from the Academy of Finland Strategic Research Council to study The Democratic Epistemic Capacity in the Age of Algorithms. Can you tell us more about this project?  

In just a few decades the information environment has drastically changed and the new challenges and risks require new approaches, attitudes, capacities and guidance at many levels. This is a cross-disciplinary consortium, each discipline participating at different levels of the project. The goal is to create concrete suggestions and policies for decision-makers in Finland and the European Union. We work closely with ministries, ethnic minority organisations, as well as many grassroot organisations. 

The project includes researchers from social psychology, communication studies, computer science, law, translation science, journalism research, sociology, and youth research. At the level of politics, we look at democratic epistemic capacity by researching epistemic rights, regulation and policy networks. We also look at epistemic institutions, particularly the news media and journalism in the context of transformations in trust, distrust and authority.

The social psychologists in the project study collective ownership of knowledge, the production of knowledge and how trust and the epistemic capacity is affected when knowledge is produced by one's own group.  We seek to conduct very specific research on how the dynamics of trust and distrust are experienced within the context of certain groups.

The project also explores lived experiences and everyday resistance at the grassroots level. We are interested in how people deal with and oppose the challenges of the information environment, including disinformation. We also look at linguistic limits and individual skills, including media literacy and linguistic barriers in the epistemic capacities. A small part of the consortium also looks at the possibilities of machine translation in the context of epistemic capacities.

Which works or authors would you recommend for students interested in media studies?

I recommend Platforms and Cultural Production by Thomas Poell, David B. Nieborg and Brooke Erin Duffy (2022). This work interestingly describes how social media platforms, for example TikTok, Instagram and Facebook affect cultural production. It deals with, among other things, creativity, governance of platforms, and changes in cultural production. In today’s world, platforms and platformisation are a highly relevant field of study.

Last question, is there any good book or movie that you would want to recommend us to read during the autumn?

I recommend the The Loudest Voice. This mini-series is about the founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, who changed politics and media in the US.