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New research project to explore racism in the media environment

The research data is exceptionally large, and its analysis combines the methods of computer science and social sciences.

Facebook provides many search results for racism.

The goal of the consortium project by Aalto University, the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki is to understand the new forms of knowledge generation, affective experience and public engagement concerning racism. The researchers will explore how racism is constituted, circulated and challenged in today’s transnational and hybrid media environment. 

‘We will study how the discursive styles associated with racism pass between different communication channels and from one country to another, for example, from Facebook to Helsingin Sanomat, the leading Finnish daily newspaper. In the present media environment, the content created by journalists is mixed with the content created by users,’ explains Matti Nelimarkka, researcher at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT, Aalto University.

Ground-breaking in its methodology, the project combines the methods of computer science and social sciences. The exceptionally large research data includes principal online material and discussions from mainstream and social media.

‘We will collect the research data from a specific period using a computer program, and it will be processed by means of computational data analysis. The analysis of temporary effects is important for determining whether any connections can be drawn between individual news events. At the same time, we seek to gain understanding of the significance of algorithms such as the Facebook newsfeed in the formation of racism speech,’ Nelimarkka adds.

The project also aims at building tools that can be used for reducing the manifestations of racism.

‘We will give a lot of consideration to the way how racism is addressed in the public discussion, for example, how racism is defined, where the discussions related to racism are conducted, are the images and texts related to racism manipulated, why racism is considered a difficult matter and why people are even afraid of talking about racism,’ says Professor Kaarina Nikunen of the University of Tampere, who is the principal investigator of the project.

Currently the biggest problem in public discussion is that opinions do not necessarily engage in dialogue despite the discussion.

Extreme opinions tend to become milder and move closer to the centre when people have to reflect their own role and engage in discussion on their opinions.

‘Currently, the biggest problem in public discussion is that opinions do not necessarily engage in dialogue despite the discussion. The fragmented media field makes it all too easy to seek support for one’s own point of view,’ Nikunen adds.

In addition to computational data analysis, the research methods employed include journalist interviews and ethnographic observation. People who participate in the discussion may be interviewed when this seems relevant from the research point of view.

The consortium project ‘Racisms and public communications in the hybrid media environment (HYBRA)’ starts on 1 September 2016 and will continue until the end of 2019. The project has a total budget of around one million euros, and it involves the Faculty of Communication Sciences of the University of Tampere, the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Helsinki and Aalto University Department of Computer Science as regards the HIIT research unit. The project is supported by the Academy of Finland.

More information:

Matti Nelimarkka
Researcher, Aalto University Department of Computer Science, HIIT
+358 50 527 5920
[email protected]

Kaarina Nikunen
Professor of Media and Communication Research, School of Communication, Media and Theatre, University of Tampere
+358 40 190 4094
[email protected]

Mervi Pantti
Professor, Communications, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki
[email protected]

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