What will today’s media controversy be?

A project called Mediakohu (Media controversies – (dis)information, affective flows and cultures of interaction in the internet era) was launched in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in spring 2017. As the title suggests, the project explores events that provoke strong public reactions and moral debate along with the spread of information – and especially disinformation – on the internet. We also examine how the media, social media platforms and the discussions on them are involved in media controversies and the dissemination of (dis)information.

– We focus on fast-spreading news and events that gather a lot of attention, says Jonne Arjoranta, summing up the focus of the Mediakohu project.

According to Arjoranta, recurring patterns can be distinguished in the anatomy of media controversies. Typically, something contradictory happens first, and parties that manage to attract media attention take a position on the event. This leads to the first news cycle, followed by a social media uproar, where views typically become critical. After this stage, there is usually a second news cycle, which deals with the ongoing discussion.

– Expressions such as ‘social media controversy’ and ‘social media outrage’ have become common. This is an interesting way to interpret the issue. When a few dozen individuals comment critically on an issue, the media may define it as social media outrage. It is important to bear in mind that when the media report on social media controversies, the motives are also financial, Arjoranta notes.

Jonne Arjoranta.jpg

Arjoranta is convinced that at least some of the parties that focus on advertising and marketing know the dynamics of media sensationalism and take advantage of it. They either consciously build media or moral controversies, which help them promote their own business, or they take advantage of an existing controversy.

– This phenomenon is actually not new at all. For instance, when people were concerned about videogame violence in the 1970s, one game company deliberately published advertisements highlighting violence and organised protests in front their office to make the issue seem as controversial as possible. This naturally attracted huge media attention and was directly visible in sales. It is difficult to say if this has become more common, but it has at least become more apparent as a conscious strategy, Arjoranta says.

Media controversies as a tool for media education

One of the objectives of the Mediakohu project is to cooperate with local schools and develop media education materials for handling these themes. Arjoranta says, however, that mere critical media literacy is not enough.

– The media have numerous influence processes that cannot be tackled by a critical approach alone.  Readers cannot influence, for example, what the media choose for their news coverage.

It is also important to determine the concepts to be used in the discussion. One potential problem according to Arjoranta is that we do not have a functional way of talking about the so-called alternative (or “counter”) media. The term ‘alternative media’ creates a false media balance and includes a slightly glorifying tone.

– Occasionally, the alternative media report on an issue before any other source and happen to be right. These cases reinforce the belief of alternative media readership that the alternative media are worth following. This helps us understand how the false media balance is generated, Arjoranta says.

Media controversies reveal cultural flashpoints

Typical topics for extensive media attention and hot debates include such cultural arguments as sexuality, minorities and immigration. In these debates, the aim is to control what and how is discussed as well as who is allowed to discuss. In this way media controversies also serve to draw social battle lines.

– Some political polarisation can be identified here, but perhaps we should not overestimate the role of so-called bubbles. When we examine people’s social networks, the bubbles are visible but not very strong. The networks seem to be more diverse than the bubble discussion suggests, Arjoranta says.

There would be no controversies without ordinary people. The logic of controversy requires that people participate in it and, for example, comment sharply on social media. When it comes to ordinary people’s responsibility, Arjoranta emphasises that each of us could consider how to participate in discussions: we can either feed the media circus, or try to control it or place it into a broader framework.

– Media controversies also reveal that we are very social. It is very human to let oneself be carried away by them, Arjoranta states.

Mediakohu project (Media controversy – (dis)information, affective flows and cultures of interaction in the internet era)

  • Funding from: Kone Foundation (follow-up funding is applied for after the six-month start-up grant)
  • Scientist in charge Urpo Kovala
  • Other project researchers: Tuija Saresma, Irma Hirsjärvi, Maria Ruotsalainen and Jonne Arjoranta
  • Project website: https://mediakohu.fi/

Text and images: Sari Laapotti