A new research project examines the strategies employed by alternative media in different countries to mobilise people. The project has received a grant of 95,400 euros from the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation for research on the post-truth era.

It began with the terrorist attack against the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, an event that affected the French scholar Gwenaëlle Bauvois deeply. Bauvois is a university lecturer in Ethnic Relations at the Swedish School of Social Science at the University of Helsinki, and also works as a researcher at CEREN, the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism.

“Afterwards, I couldn’t help noticing that the alternative media gained visibility. People were referring to it and sharing content on Facebook without realizing the sources were from alternative media,” Bauvois says.

Bauvois could not stop thinking about this. She felt she had to know more about what was happening and how such media, which spread false information and questioned knowledge based on research, could continue to grow and advance.

“As a citizen and a sociologist I felt I had to do something.”

Bauvois and her researcher colleague at CEREN Niko Pyrhönen began to plan a research project on alternative media. Thanks to funding from the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation, the project can now be carried out. In addition to Bauvois and Pyrhönen, the team consists of Tuukka Ylä-Anttila, doctoral student at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki, and the project’s principal investigator Karina Horsti, Academy of Finland Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä.

Recruiting the “Disenfranchised”

Bauvois, Pyrhönen and Ylä-Anttila will chart the strategies that alternative media in Finland, France and the United States employ to mobilise the group of people whom the researchers call “the Disenfranchised”.

“We use the phrase ‘the Disenfranchised’ to describe people who feel that politicians and the traditional media have betrayed and forgotten them. The increasing number of immigrants makes them feel they have been deprived of their place in society. In alternative media, they regain their position,” Bauvois explains.

The researchers will focus on the web-based media MV-lehti, Fdesouche and Breitbart News and on events that have been a topic in both traditional and alternative media. The project will examine three events: the founding of the Soldiers of Odin in Finland, the burkini ban in France and Donald Trump’s Muslim immigration ban in the US.

By tapping into and feeding fears about economic and cultural globalisation, alternative media seek to advance by defending “the Disenfranchised” and by turning them against “the elites”. The project examines the narratives and word choices used by alternative media to accomplish their goals.

Alternative media are often linked to populist parties, and their activities serve the parties’ political agenda. The methods used by alternative media to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US were similar to those now being used in support of Marine Le Pen’s campaign in France.

“The transnational element in our research is important. We want to examine the similarities and differences between the three countries,” Bauvois says.

Challenging topicality

Two months into 2017, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Finnish government had already described “indigenous” inhabitants as victims of external “enemies” such as Muslims and asylum seekers. They have also challenged the legitimacy of unflattering news coverage in the traditional media, labelling such news “fake news”.

“The topicality of our project makes it both exciting and challenging. When we formulated our research plan, we didn’t believe Trump would win the election. Now we don’t know how the French election will unfold,” says Bauvois. “There is a great need for knowledge about how these media operate.”

The project combines qualitative methods used in sociology, political science and media research with big data tools. The project will be carried out in 2017-2018 as a joint effort between the University of Jyväskylä, the University of Helsinki and the Swedish School of Social Science.

Additional information:

Post Doctoral Researcher Niko Pyrhönen, tel. +35850 415 4630 (in Finnish and English)

University Lecturer Gwenaëlle Bauvois, tel. +35844 975 6259 (in English and French)