Johanna Vehkoo on lies and their aftereffects

23/03/2017
Johanna VehkooJohanna Vehkoo is one of the guest speakers on the IHME Festival’s Friday. Photo: Arttu Muukkonen

The newly elected US President tweets “FAKE NEWS”, referring to media companies such as The New York Times and CNN. In the Finnish press, too, relations between the media and politicians have become strained – the Prime Minister writes that he would grade the country’s main news medium, the national broadcasting company Yle, as a “straight zero”, and the Minister of Defence calls the output of that same news house “fake news”.

Has the discussion about the misleading dissemination of information become confused, when those who speak about fake news include both the US President, when he calls the reliability of the mainstream media into question, and investigative journalists, who advocate a critical approach to sources – aren’t they, too, working to eradicate fake news?

Questionable motives

“The notion that it is impossible to define fake news is false. Fake news is a text, image, video or other content that has been made with the intention of misleading, and which outwardly mimics journalism, but is not journalism,” award-winning journalist and writer of Valheenpaljastaja (a series of online articles in Finnish titled “lie detector”)  Johanna Vehkoo explains.

Vehkoo is one of the guest speakers on the IHME Festival’s Friday. In her work she concentrates particularly on fact checking in the traditional and social media.

Vehkoo says that the motives of those who produce fake news and misinformation vary from country to country. “The motivation for many websites is financial. They try to manufacture fake news items that will go viral and attract clicks. These websites get cash, for example, through Google’s advertising network, when people visit them,” Vehkoo says and adds that not all the makers of bogus news items are even interested in politics: “The person behind a pro-Trump news item may well be a Democrat.”

According to Vehkoo, in Europe the production of misleading information is more often politically motivated than in the United States. It frequently appears on what are known as “hate websites”, whose content is motivated by racism. “Hate websites mix opinionated content that seeks to promote a particular viewpoint with unfounded information. They might, for instance, make their own news item about a real piece of news,” the journalist says.

Vehkoo herself, as one of the creators of the Huhumylly (rumour mill) app, has exposed the racist motives behind fake news making. The app locates racist rumours about refugees and asylum seekers on the map of Finland. “The work actually involves gathering statistics. The police or professional media have already debunked these stories, but bringing them all together in one place provides new information about how widespread the phenomenon is.” The name of the app also lets people know why the work is important: “The rumour always spreads more widely than the correction.”

Who believes the lies?

According to Vehkoo, social media have produced a new kind of problem: all content can appear to be of equal value when the source of the news item is not clearly identified. “For example, for about 50 percent of people in the USA Facebook is their most important news channel,” she says. “On the other hand, it is, of course, important that the breakdown of the hegemony in information production and distribution has led to more and more voices getting to join in the conversation.” Even so, calling a lie a modified truth or an “alternative fact” does not make it true.

The unaffiliated journalist, non-fiction author, and co-founder of the digital publication Long Play, and one of the managers of the Feminist think tank Hattu, Johanna Vehkoo considers why people believe misinformation at Gloria Cultural Arena at 17:00 on the Festival Friday, April 7. Please note that the presentation will be delivered in Finnish.