Forget “fake news” – we need a smarter approach to countermedia

Forget about “fake news” and “post truth”. We need a more nuanced approach beyond the juxtaposition of facts and lies when dealing with alternative news outlets. And we need to take them more seriously, according to researchers at the University of Helsinki.

“The alternative news outlets are constantly developing and getting more credible, whether we like it or not. Their influence is growing, and their effect on mainstream media is very strong”, says Gwenaëlle Bauvois, who works as a researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Bauvois and fellow University of Helsinki researchers Niko Pyrhönen and Rūta Kazlauskaitė, as well as Tuukka Ylä-Anttila (University of Tampere) and Karina Horsti (University of Jyväskylä), have concluded an extensive research project on the strategies that alternative news outlets use to mobilise a “disenfranchised” community of people who are losing trust in the mainstream media. They have analysed data from Finland, France, the United States and Poland on polemic news event coverage in the so-called hybrid media space.

­An important observation that the researchers have made is that alternative news outlets shouldn’t primarily be analysed through questioning whether the information they provide is true or false. Often their news stories are based on real news and real facts, but carry a very strong bias. Moreover, political issues are, to a large degree, matters of interpretation, and can’t unconditionally be labelled true or false.

“We need to depart from this very popular idea of ‘fake news’. Their reporting is in fact often based on actual news. The problem is that they’re curating the facts, handpicking the best facts for their agenda, while consistently denying this practice and accusing the ‘elite media’ of cherry picking instead.

“For example: a news story about an immigrant crime might be true, so the story is not based on a falsehood. But if you only focus on those crimes and create fear that way, it is then no longer about information but about curation of information”, says Bauvois.

A question of identification, not information

The researchers suggest that we move on not only from the concept of fake news, but also from the concept of “post truth”. They argue that terms such as “counterknowledge” and “reinformation” are more appropriate, and define reinformation as an ultrapartisan, opportunist process in which actors seek to influence the public debate.

The concept of the “alternative media” in its turn is problematic since it tends to have positive connotations, for example, in providing a welcome alternative to mainstream views. Therefore the researchers prefer “countermedia”, as these media outlets tend to explicitly oppose the mainstream media.

By focusing on facts and the fixation with true and false, the critique presented against the countermedia often misses the mark. It is important to understand that alternative news outlets primarily operate within the realm of identification, rather than information, encouraging their audiences to identify as the disenfranchised collective and a counterforce to “the elite”. Emotions are a significant feature in this rhetoric.

“It’s not that people are actually disenfranchised, it’s the feeling of disenfranchisement – they’re made to feel that way.

“The latent shame of not meeting certain criteria, not being successful, not making money is turned into hate. The cause is not you – the cause is external, it’s other people”, according to Bauvois.

Debunking can be counterproductive

During the last decade or so however, there’s been a slight shift in the populistic rhetoric concerning who the “others”, the enemy, are. The focus has shifted to a growing degree from just immigrants to “traitors” – the liberals, the left wing – that enable the immigration.

“Immigrants are more and more portrayed as a force of nature, who will of course reap benefits if we allow them to. We’re seeing a new narrative that focuses on the ones who make it possible”, says Niko Pyrhönen.

For the mainstream media the online partisan news outlets and their fallacious content have proven to be a problematical challenge. The researchers have been able to conclude that the efforts from the mainstream media and fact checkers to debunk falsified news stories or conspiracy stories are not only ineffective – but can actually be counterproductive.

One case of fallacious content that the researchers delved deeper into was Donald Trump’s accusations of voter fraud that he presented on Twitter before the presidential elections in the United States (2016).

Trump tapped into an old theory of illegal votes which tends to peak during every election. Trump managed to be successful by making deeper, more far-reaching accusations than in past cases, claiming a larger scale of conspiracy within the political elite across the divide between Democrats and Republicans.

Mainstream media considered it an important story to debunk, which also further legitimised the attention paid to it. By making the decisive effort to debunk the story, the media behaved exactly as suggested in the countermedia narrative of the “elite media”, trying to hide their complicity with the likewise corrupt political elite. This way bad press can actually become good press.


"Mobilizing the Disenfranchised: Post-Truth Public Stories in Finland, France and the United States"  is a research project funded by the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation. The research was also founded by The Alfred Kordelin Foundation and The Ella and Georg Ehrnrooth Foundation.

A selection of published articles:

Politicization of migration in the countermedia style 

Conspiracies beyond Fake News. Produsing Reinformation on Presidential Elections in Transnational Hybrid Media System

Further information:

University researcher Gwenaëlle Bauvois,

Phone: +358 44 975 6259 (comments in English and French)

Postdoctoral researcher Niko Pyrhönen,

Phone: +358 50 415 4630 (comments in English and Finnish)

Bauvois and Pyrhönen work at the Swedish School of Social Science, a unit at the University of Helsinki.