By Maria Giovanna Sessa, Senior Researcher at EU DisinfoLab
- As the perception of expertise has now become a question of credibility over competence, the research identifies a three-fold typology of actors who, being publicly recognised as experts despite their lack of knowledge on COVID-19, consistently transmitted disinformation in Italy during the first year of the pandemic.
- These disinformation self-proclaimed experts consist of politicians (74% from populist parties and 54% alone from one single right-wing Italian party – the League); disinformation super-spreaders; and ‘traditional’ or ‘deviated’ medical professionals, who gained notoriety during the pandemic.
- Data is drawn from the qualitative text analysis of 1,168 pieces of disinformation on COVID-19 debunked by fact-checkers, collected in Italy throughout 2020.
- Mostly disseminated across social media platforms, the analysed hoaxes come mostly in the form of entirely fabricated content (42%) or through the misleading association of unrelated issues (20%).
- The conclusions advance some hypotheses on the potential reasons why these actors engage in disinformation, although the question remains open. Overall, it emerges that disinformation self-proclaimed experts probably felt pressured to provide answers on the unparalleled situation.
Confronted with unprecedented circumstances, people look up to those they believe to have the competence and expertise on the matter for answers. However, as the lines between opinion and fact get increasingly blurred, expertise is often perceived as a matter of reputation and credibility rather knowledge and competence.
This is what happened as the pandemic unfolded in 2020, soon turning into an infodemic as the debate was overwhelmed with genuine to made-up information. Some personalities became points of reference in orienting public opinion, owing their success to the aura of alleged expertise attributed to them. Yet, their lack of actual extensive knowledge on the coronavirus often resulted in disinformation.
Hence, the study identifies a three-fold typology of what have been labelled ‘disinformation self-proclaimed experts’:
- Politicians, with a preponderance of populist party representatives;
- Disinformation super-spreaders, i.e. relevant personalities in conspiracy and disinformation communities, despite the apparent oxymoron of equating professional disinformers to experts;
- Scientists and medical professionals, either ‘traditional’ ones who underestimated the virus or ‘deviated’ ones who, despite their scientific background, propogated virus-related hoaxes.
Findings are drawn from an extensive qualitative text analysis of 1,168 pieces of disinformation on COVID-19 debunked by eight fact-checkers in Italy from 1 January to 31 December 2020. More details on our methodology are available in Annex 1.
The study highlights the difficulty of defining expertise in the presence of subjective elements of evaluation, in the face of the unfamiliar and fast-changing pandemic situation. Furthermore, it underlines the risks associated with disinformation spread under the guise of expertise by personalities who count on a large following, and thus contribute to the information disorder.
Defining expertise in the post-truth era
“We can say that an expert (in the strong sense) in domain D is someone who possesses an extensive fund of knowledge (true belief) and a set of skills or methods for apt and successful deployment of this knowledge to new questions in the domain. Anyone purporting to be a (cognitive) expert in a given domain will claim to have such a fund and set of methods, and will claim to have true answers to the question(s) under dispute because he has applied his fund and his methods to the question(s).” (Goldman, 2001:92)
Experts play a fundamental role in helping society navigate unfamiliar events in view of their know-how. However, the aforementioned definition implies consensus on the notion of “true belief”, understood as correspondence between fact and reality. In the post-truth era, said distinction becomes blurred, as trust in authoritative sources erodes in favour of alternative players considered reputable by their community.
Mis- and disinformation is a downside of any collective sense-making process, and intensifies in times of crisis. Met with new circumstances, individuals either resort to memory of similar situations or draw inferences from their surroundings, including looking up to alleged specialists in order to find behavioural cues. In this regard, Italy makes an interesting case study, as the hard-felt effects of COVID-19, combined with high political polarisation and low levels of institutional trust, have contributed to the infodemic. OCED data shows that the issue is global, as the infodemic triggered a confidence crisis in authorities, science communities, and institutions, representing a huge threat for public health and democracy.
A three-fold typology of COVID-19 disinformation self-proclaimed experts
From the analysis of Italian-speaking disinformation fact-checked throughout 2020, we extract a typology of actors that, posing as knowledgeable experts, circulated unproven or deceptive hypotheses on the origins, remedies, and management of the health emergency.
Often the transmitters and amplifiers of false or misleading news, politicians are the first identified category of believed experts, given their role in orienting public opinion. They are primarily (but not exclusively) politicians from challenger parties, who are actually more prone to adopt conflict-mobilisation strategies that resonate with disinformation than problem-solving ones. The pattern is echoed internationally, as populist leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and initially Boris Johnson have contributed to the information disorder around COVID-19. Concerning the party origin of politicians, populist parties (i.e. the League, Brothers of Italy, and the Five Star Movement) make up 74% of political misinformation transmitters in our sample, with 54% of fact-checked items originating from members of the League. Other parties are Brothers of Italy (11%); the Five Star Movement (9%); the Democratic Party (9%); Independents (9%); and minor parties (10%), e.g. Azione, Forza Italia, Italia Viva, and Più Europa.
2. Disinformation super-spreaders
Our second category consists of leading personalities populating the conspiracy communities, fringe social media channels, and so-called re-informative outlets that openly oppose mainstream media. Reputable organisations as Avaaz and NewsGuard labelled them disinformation ‘super-spreaders’ on Facebook and Twitter, i.e. Maurizio Blondel, Diego Fusaro, Claudio Messora, and Cesare Sacchetti. We shall call them disinformers, although it may sound paradoxical to describe disinformers as experts. Yet, they assumed a guiding role in the interpretation of events for many supporters, by acting as possessors of the knowledge, methods, and answers to deal with the pandemic.
Like populist politicians, disinformation super-spreaders share a Manichean worldview that antagonises “good people and bad elites [that] is immune to factual corrections and nuances”, as they claim to stand by the former. Thus, disinformation is used for destabilisation purposes, and to challenge the status quo. This is done through the oversimplification of reality, which serves a double function: providing accessible answers to the audience, and conveying salient issues through the misleading correlation of unrelated events that are cherry-picked to fulfil a pre-emptively decided position. Another recurrent strategy is the vilification of the opponent, whether it is the government, mainstream media, or anyone who disagrees.
3. Medical and scientific community
Doctors and scientists are the final category in our typology, who were given unparalleled visibility during the health emergency thanks to the credibility offered by their scientific background. In this case, they are the only real experts, although they often relate inaccurate information. From the fringe positions of French scientist Didier Raoult to America’s Frontline Doctors, the phenomenon is transnational. For instance, disinformation can be a consequence of what Timothy Caulfield calls ‘scienceploitation’, i.e. when media reporting inaccurately overstates, decontextualises, or simplifies scientific claims for the general public. Our intention is not to undermine in any way the scientific community’s fundamental contribution during the pandemic, but simply to emphasise the importance of accurate public communication of scientific expertise to avoid confusion and distortion in an already highly polarised environment.
One the one hand, we identify a few so-to-say ‘traditional’ experts (physicians, epidemiologists, and virologists), who have become COVID-19 gurus in the eyes of the public, and publicly defended controversial claims. On the other hand, we label ‘deviated’ experts those doctors and scientists that at some point, in the context of the pandemic or earlier, became borderline super-spreaders of unscientific information, still owe their legitimacy to a scientific degree, but gained notoriety among anti-mainstream communities by systematically making unscientific statements.
Politicians, disinformation super-spreaders, and medical professionals that propagated disinformation all share the goal of filling an informational void from a position of expected mastery. Although regular social media users are the main receivers and spreaders of disinformation in our sample (accounting for 20%), they have far less outreach and visibility than those public profiles to whom they look up to in times of need. To quantify the outreach of the sampled fact-checks, we counted that the 779 original sources we managed to retrieve online collectively obtained 7,400,000 reactions on social media. The choice to focus on interactions (i.e. the number of ‘likes’) to quantify the dissemination of disinformation derives from the fact that all social media platforms contemplate this feature, which can be retrieved via CrowdTangle for website content. Reactions also imply that users actually engaged with the content, and were therefore somehow affected by the misinformation.
Narratives and strategies used by COVID-19 disinformation self-proclaimed experts
Concerning how these actors engage in deceptive behavior, according to First Draft’s misinformation classification framework, over two fifths of the analysed debunks (42% precisely) consist of entirely fabricated content. Another 20% of the total sample contains misleading content, which conveys information ambiguously in order to frame an issue or an individual in a certainly premeditated way.
In detail, Table 1 crosses our three disinformation self-proclaimed experts with First Draft’s classification in order to understand the type of hoaxes these actors rely on. While super-spreaders and, curiously, doctors and scientists mainly diffused fabricated content (48% and 52% respectively), politicians make widely use of misleading content (38%), as they tend to deliberately force together unrelated issues on their agenda, so that the audience is drawn to specific conclusions. To illustrate this, two defining traits of the League – Euroscepticism and anti-migration stances – are represented below.
In the beginning of the pandemic, some countries’ decisions to close their borders with Italy was perhaps disagreeable to the public, yet lawful. However, it is misleading to frame it as evidence of communitarian indifference, as both the EU and individual member states have immediately and consistently provided Italy with financial and medical support. Similarly, accusing the government of a double standard that limits the freedom of nationals through curfews but permits migrants to land (after being quarantined and tested) is fallacious. Health safety measures are state-defined, while the duty to rescue people at sea is required by international law.
Narrative-wise, we provide three threads as evidence that anti-establishment politicians and super-spreaders behave similarly when it comes to conspiracy theories. When the photo of one hundred coffins of migrants who died at sea, taken in Lampedusa in 2013, circulated online with the claim that it showed COVID-19 victims from Bergamo, representatives of Brothers of Italy and the League, as well as disinformation super-spreaders exploited the debunk to deny the pandemic altogether.
Both actors spread rumours that the virus was man-made and implied a correlation with HIV. On Facebook, the League maintained that COVID-19 had accidentally escaped the Chinese lab that created it. On YouTube, misinformer Stefano Montanari defined the virus as a US-made bioweapon programmed to take down the Chinese economy.
Disinformation super-spreaders and politicians from populist alignments are also fond of deep state theories, ascribing the lengthy health crisis to an ill-intentioned elite that is allegedly keeping alternative cures (e.g. hydroxychloroquine or plasma therapy) from the public in order to profit from vaccines.
Experts in the medical field have also contributed to polarised debate around COVID-19 by circulating inaccuracies, although the approach of ‘traditional’ and ‘deviated’ experts to disinformation varies. The former usually downplayed the lethality of the virus to reassure the public: e.g. virologist superstar Ilaria Capua underestimated pandemic casualties by stressing the difference between deaths by and with COVID-19; and after the first wave, San Raffaele hospital’s head physician Alberto Zangrillo announced that the virus “clinically-speaking does not exist anymore”. These hyperbolic statements that made the headlines were probably part of a wider discourse but, taken alone, they contributed to confusing the public.
‘Deviated’ experts, acting as “health misinformation influencers”, made more worrisome claims: linking the virus to flu shots or Aspirin, promoting alternative medicine and homeopathy to cure COVID-19, and even suggesting that the COVID-19 vaccine is “produced with cancerous foetal cells”. Disinformation also travelled across borders as conspiracies by Dr. Judy Mikovits and Dr. Ayyadurai Shiva arrived to Italy.
The research identified a three-fold typology of actors that spread deceiving information during the first year of the pandemic in Italy. These are politicians, mainly from populist parties, online disinformation super-spreaders, and members of the scientific community, either ‘traditional’ doctors or ‘deviated’ professionals that currently add on the information disorders with inaccurate information. Due to the limitation of the method employed and the explorative nature of our analysis, it is difficult to assess the entirety of reasons why individuals posing as experts spread COVID-19 disinformation.
However, we can advance some hypotheses, based on our insight and the available data. For starters, some of the actors might have ulterior motives leading them to strategically exploit the crisis in order to raise the level of confusion and alarm in the public debate. Reasons appear to range from eroding trust in the government and other authoritative institutions to pushing a specific agenda (e.g. anti-migration or anti-EU policies).
Then, ego and reputation could have be in play. Some of these personalities may have enjoyed the attention and authority in the eyes of their community and tried to make it last as long as possible by feeding the infodemic. Alternatively, others – especially ‘traditional’ scientists and doctors – might have felt obliged to provide answers under the pressure of public expectations, unused to the public attention. As already mentioned, some statements were certainly decontextualised or overestimated.
Ultimately, regardless of intentions, which so far remain only speculations, we sense that claiming that the virus is somebody’s making, that the pandemic is lasting because of government inefficiency, or that a cure exists are all ways to provide an explanation for what is happening in order to make sense of the unexpected.
Finally, in light of the EU’s efforts to tackle disinformation and improve our information ecosystem, most notably the Digital Services Act, this research highlights the diverse sources of disinformation: political parties across the spectrum, influencer-celebrities, even medical professionals and members of the scientific community contribute to our information disorder. Effective regulation cannot only look at actors as potentially trustworthy or untrustworthy, but should offer harmonised rules for all messages that violates platform terms and conditions or EU law, and undermines the ability of social media users to access accurate information