This week’s newsletter is brought to you by EU DisinfoLab researcher Maria Giovanna Sessa, with a little plot twist. She’s based in Italy, and the EU DisinfoLab has chosen to focus this week’s newsletter on Italy’s disinformation landscape and measures to fight it, as the country recently marked one year since the first COVID-19 case.

 We hope you enjoy reading it and much as much as she did writing it! Ciao 🙂

One Year Onward: Platform Responses to COVID-19 and US Elections Disinformation in Review

Our latest research by Prof. Trisha Meyer (VUB) and EU DisinfoLab Director Alexandre Alaphilippe provides two detailed timelines of Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter’s responses to COVID-19 and political disinformation. During the first pandemic year, curatorial responses have been rapidly and regularly expanded. These prompt reactions are both encouraging and worrying, if not accompanied by a known hierarchy of principles, and stringent transparency and review measures. This research is assembled from the self-reporting produced by the platforms for the Commission, specifically the reports of the COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme set up under the European Commission’s Communication “Getting the facts right”. This programme, originally established for six months, has been extended for another six months. The most recent reports highlight the measures taken by the platforms in January 2021 to fight disinformation on COVID-19 vaccines, including new tools to magnify authoritative information on vaccines. Some signatories have also started to provide more precise data about the impact of their policies.

State-directed disinformation on COVID-19 in four countries

DFRLab and the Associated Press released a jointly produced report that examines the information environments of four countries (China, Iran, Russia, and the United States) during the first six months of the COVID-19 outbreak. “Weaponized: How rumors about COVID-19’s origins led to a narrative arms race” focuses on how disinformative narratives regarding the origins of the virus spread globally on social media and beyond, with geopolitical consequences. The report reveals state-directed efforts by Russia, China, and Iran to undermine the United States using the narrative that the virus was a man-made bioweapon. Overall, adversarial government messaging added to the chaos of the global information space, and complicated efforts by health authorities to build public trust in the pandemic response.

Disinformazione all’italiana 

Clubhouse vs. Garante per la privacy
Invitation-only audio app Clubhouse is the trendiest social media right now. It has also caught the attention of European data protection authorities. On February 8, the Italian data protection authority ordered Clubhouse to provide evidence of compliance with the EU’s data protection rules. The company was given 15 days to explain how user data is stored, the procedures and timing for requesting data deletion, and the use of user address books, as well as the collection of biometric data (e.g. voice stamp).  Clubhouse has already raised some privacy-related concerns, which only increased as it suffered from a data breach.  (First Draft has outlined a few recommendations for journalists and researchers that aim at tackling misinformation of the platform.)

Facebook: attenti alla multa!
Italy’s competition authority has now fined Facebook twice over alleged failures to improve and clarify its treatment of user data: in 2018, for €5 million and, this time, for €7 million, claiming the company has failed to inform users when they sign up about the data it would collect and how it would use this data for commercial purposes. 

Un’identità digitale per Tiktok?
Following Italy’s regulatory intervention on TikTok in response to child safety concerns, the Chinese social media is facing a number of regulatory complaints in Europe. In fact, consumer protection groups have filed a series of coordinated complaints alleging multiple breaches of EU law. In Italy, the Data Protection Authority’s order started a conversation on how to make sure that certain content is not accessible to underage users. So far, proposed solutions rely on the System for Public Digital Identity (SPID), i.e. the nations e-ID. Currently used to access online services provided by the public administration, the digital identity tool could contribute to user data protection.

Bank of Italy uses Twitter to predict inflation
A working paper by the Bank of Italy was released recently titled “Can we measure inflation expectations using Twitter?”. Using over 11 million tweets collected between 2013-2019, and exploiting techniques of text analysis and machine learning, researchers were able to build a set of real-time daily indicators of inflation expectations for Italy. These Twitter-based indicators highly correlate with other customarily employed inflation prediction measures, such as monthly survey-based and daily market-based inflation expectations. This study shows that big data collected on social media can offer a powerful monetary policy tool that allows for real-time estimates to predict inflation. The finding definitely calls for further consideration on how users’ data can be used.

Good reads about Italian-centric disinformation

  • As International Women’s Day (March 8) approaches, we take the occasion to share a study on gendered disinformation (a topic we addressed before) against politician and former UN official Laura Boldrini. In Italy, women in politics are often the  victim of sexist insults and misogynistic threats by colleagues, as it very recently happened to Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni.
  • A collection of papers on media and education during the pandemic, released by Firenze University Press, contributed to increase understanding on how digital technology can enhance media education, including ways to fight online misinformation.
  • Media and Communication published a commentary on the strategic role played by the Italian Ministry of Health in using its official Facebook page to mitigate the spread of coronavirus-related misinformation in a country with low trust in public institutions and official sources of information.
  • “Coordinated Hateful Disinformation on Italian Politics and Social Issues, since 2017” is a recent study that analyses a network of 10 Facebook Pages. It unveils a disinformation operation that performed coordinated link sharing activities, and which started immediately after the fall of the Five Star Movement-League coalition government and intensified from the COVID-lockdown on.

Events and Announcements