How Finland’s fake four-day week became a ‘fact’ in Europe’s media

We take a look at how media outlets in the UK - and in Europe, Asia, Australia and USA - were all caught out by a Finland story that was just too good to be true. Because it wasn't.

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Social Democrat panel discussion, Turku, 20th August 2019 / Credit: Jukka-Pekka Flander, SDP

Have you heard the news? Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) is doing something radical.

“Finland’s new prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin, has announced plans to introduce a four-day week” says the Guardian, underneath the statement that Marin has “promised” a short working week.

“Finland’s new prime minister calls for four-day working week” says the Independent.

Britain’s commercial television channel ITV writes that “Finland PM calls for four-day working week and six-hour days.”

“Four-day working week and six-hour shifts to be introduced in Finland” trumpets Metro.

Meanwhile in the Daily Mail, with millions of readers every day, the headline is “Finland to introduce a four-day working week and SIX-HOUR days under plans drawn up by 34-year-old prime minister Sanna Marin.”

The story is not just confined to UK media outlets either: over the course of 12 hours on Monday it’s been repeated in a Belgian media website; and been the topic of a call-in during an Irish radio programme. It’s been published in Australia, India and the USA as well.

And it’s not true.

Not only are these proposals not included in the Finnish government’s policy programme, multiple government sources told News Now Finland on Monday evening that it’s not even on the horizon.

SDP politicians and party activists gather at 120th anniversary event Turku, 19th August 2019 / Credit: Jukka-Pekka Flander, SDP

Charting the origins of the story 

So how did this fake news story begin, and how did the misinformation spread so quickly?

Back in August 2019 some senior Social Democrat politicians and party activists gathered in Turku on Finland’s southwest coast, for an event to mark the organisation’s 120th anniversary.

The weather was warm, the drinks were flowing, and the Turku Workers’ Association brass band – resplendent in their scarlet blazers – played traditional tunes while the guests sang along.

After then-PM Antti Rinne had made a speech, it was time for a panel discussion.

The participants included Sanna Marin – at the time Minister of Transport; Tytti Tuppurainen, Minister for European Affairs; Ville Skinnari, Minister of Development and Trade; and Antti Rönnholm, the SDP’s Party Secretary.

They sat under a canopy on a small raised stage, with a potted ficus and some SDP banners for decoration.

A moderator posed questions and kept everything moving along, but the whole event that day was about a celebration of the party’s history rather than formulating policy – which had anyway already been enshrined in Rinne’s government programme just two months before.

At one point during the discussion Sanna Marin floated the idea that Finland’s productivity could benefit from either a four-day working week, or a six-hour working day (she never suggested both).

Marin also tweeted about it at the time, noting plainly that it was an SDP party goal to reduce working hours – but to be clear, again, this was never official government policy.

The comment got some modest media attention in Finland but the news cycle soon moved on.

Composite picture showing some of the misinformation about PM Sanna Marin

Tracking the spread of the fake news story

Four months after the Turku event, on 16th December 2019, Austrian news outlet Kontrast picked up the story.

Journalist Patricia Huber quoted Marin as saying that day: “A 4-day week and a 6-hour work day. Why shouldn’t that be our next step? Are eight hours really the last truth? I think people deserve to spend more time with their family, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of their lives – like culture. That could be the next step in our working life.”

It’s the key quote to follow here, and it matches almost exactly to what Finnish media quoted Marin as saying at the time. So in that sense it’s accurate.

The next time the story crops up is 2nd January 2020, when Brussels-based newspaper New Europe published an article by journalist Zoi Didili whose headline was “Finnish PM Marin calls for 4-day-week and 6-hours working day in the country.”

It gives the impression that this is an initiative announced after Marin became PM with the opening paragraph “Sanna Marin, Finland’s new Prime Minister since early December has called for the introduction of a flexible working schedule in the country that would foresee a 4-day-week and 6-hours working day.”

It gets several things wrong in that one sentence, and while it does reference the SDP’s Turku event, it doesn’t actually quote Marin saying there should be a four-day week, or six-hour days, and frames the whole context as if it’s a new initiative since Marin became PM.

It’s this article which seems to have sparked other stories especially in the British press, who quote Marin’s comments about people deserving to spend more time with their families, but offer no context or timeline for the original information.

File image of computer, cyber / Credit: iStock

How should the government respond to fake news?

This is not the most damaging piece of fake news, but the way it’s been picked up, adapted, and crucially not fact-checked by so many otherwise credible media outlets is worrying in an era where people are quick to spread information without verifying its provenance.

“If the misinformation is harmful then you should really attempt to address it as soon as possible. But always consider that the misinformation is likely to travel faster than the truth, so you are looking more at damage limitation rather than anything more effective” says Fergus Bell, CEO of Fathm, a consultancy for the news industry with a specific focus on countering misinformation in media.

“It is useful to have a communications team that know how to spot stories that might be surfacing – this is going to be the quickest way to put out a correction as quickly as possible” he advises.

It’s sound advice, and may have been hindered in Finland by Monday’s public holiday with civil servants and politicians trying to enjoy a day off. But Bell says that countering misinformation might anyway have a limited impact.

“Because of the way misinformation can spread a rebuttal might only fan the flames of the misinformation and give it life. Drawing additional attention to it isn’t going to make it go away any faster.”