November 14, 2022

By Maria Giovanna Sessa, Senior Researcher at EU DisinfoLab

On November 9, the VUB and EU DisinfoLab have come together under the EDMO BELUX project to publish an investigation, “The disinformative ecosystem”, about the link-sharing behaviour of a subset of 30 Dutch-speaking Telegram far-right and conspiracy communities. The goal was to understand the information-sharing habits of controversial channels that gather thousands of members and to gain insight into the broader media sphere to which they pertain and on which they feed.

A picture of complexity and interconnectedness emerges. Disinformation needs to be understood as an ecosystem of cross-platform interaction and contamination, which calls for articulated and systematic counter-disinformation initiatives.

Concerning the data, the 30 Telegram channels analysed were identified from the previous EDMO Belux investigative report (“From Infodemic to Information War”) as the largest channels by number of posts in the summer of 2021. Overall, the text messages dataset spans the period August 2018-September 2022, from which the domain names shared were extracted. The findings are summarised hereafter.

A typology of the 50 most recurrent domains shared by the sampled channels (August 2018–September 2022). 

A typology of the most recurrent domains: 

  1. Mainstream social media platforms, also known as very large online platforms (VLOPs).
  2. Alt-tech social media platforms, namely outlets that position themselves as alternatives to mainstream outlets and are often chosen for their lax content moderation policies. 
  3. Mainstream press, including Dutch- and English-speaking newspapers, broadcasters, and tabloids that are usually misinterpreted to spread conspiracies or mocked and attacked for allegedly lying.
  4. Disinformation websites, which push different disinformative narratives and tend to amplify each other’s content.

Nonetheless, many URLs fall into other categories that are worth mentioning:

  1. Russian platforms, i.e., Russian-state media and VKontakte.
  2. Institutional websites whose trustworthy information is manipulated to perpetuate dissatisfaction towards authorities.
  3. Publishing platforms (e.g., WordPress) that allow virtually anyone to open their website or blog and spread inaccurate content. 
  4. Crowdfunding platforms, which constitute a popular way to finance disinformation, especially when other platforms demonetise malign actors.

The investigation also advances some policy considerations related to the Digital Services Act (DSA).

  • Since the DSA does not provide a specific list of VLOPs, it is unclear whether the new regulation will affect a messaging service such as Telegram – i.e., the most shared domain in the dataset.
  • In the DSA, systemic risk assessment and mitigation of risks, including disinformation, will only apply to VLOPs and VLOSEs, which leaves out a macrocosm of alt-tech platforms that users specifically choose for their tepid content moderation policies.
  • As article 14 of the DSA on terms and conditions will apply to all platforms, it is crucial that all platforms clearly state that disinformation is not allowed and constitutes a violation of their terms and conditions.
  • The number of alternative news outlets regularly shared within these communities demonstrates their abundance and potential outreach making a strong case for the rejection of any form of media exception allowing the media to escape online content moderation in any current or future tech or media legislation.