The WHO has declared that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a public health emergency of international concern. But does it mean that spreaders of pandemic disinformation have dispersed and gone dormant?
We discuss the persistence of pandemic disinformation with Tommaso Canetta, who works at Pagella Politica/Facta in Italy. He also edits regular fact-checking briefs for the European Digital Media Observatory. These briefs compare how much disinformation on the pandemic, climate, and other topics is tackled by fact-checkers in Europe.
You can find all our past episodes with transcripts here. Please subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or another platform of your choice. Follow us on Facebook as @theinoculation, on Twitter as @TInoculation, and on Instagram as @the_inoculation.
Eva Schaper 00:00
So hello and welcome to the inoculation. We are back after our holiday break. And this week we have a really interesting interview about disinformation. My name is Eva von Schaper.
Daiva Repeckaite 00:32
Hi, listeners, welcome to the podcast. We're ready to jump right into our today. Okay, let's go.
Eva Schaper 00:41
I was on vacation. This is quite unfair. And you talk to our guests last week. Can you tell me who that was? And maybe in a second step, what the interview was about?
Daiva Repeckaite 00:51
Yeah, so I have a very interesting interview with Tommaso Canetta, who leads this team of fact checkers. And we have a fact checking network in different countries pretty much cover the whole of the EU, and they try to see and publish different trends and disinformation but they find them debunk.
Eva Schaper 01:12
So did he introduce himself so that we can get an idea of who he is.
Tommaso Canetta 01:17
I am Tommaso Canetta. I am the Deputy Director of Pagella Politica and Facta news, the two main Italian factchecking outlets. I coordinate the fact checking activities of the European Digital Media observatory, EDMO. And I am a member of the governance body of the European factchecking standard network.
Eva Schaper 01:37
So he is based in Italy as well, or where is he based?
Daiva Repeckaite 01:41
Yes, he is based in Milan. And he coordinates this to the fact checking initiatives and these reports.
Eva Schaper 01:51
And is it a government initiative? Or is it an EU initiative? Or is this a private person?
Daiva Repeckaite 01:57
No, so, this is a network of newsrooms? It's it's an independent observatory. It's called EDMO, the European Digital Media observatory. And they bring together academic researchers, journalists and media literacy practitioners.
Eva Schaper 02:15
That sounds quite interesting. And was there one thing that you found the most surprising about this interview¿
Daiva Repeckaite 02:22
there were several things that you mentioned. So for example, he noticed in his work that people who are radicalised into anti-vaccine narratives got so attached to it, it came at such a major part of their identity, that they don't move on to other topics the way most disinformation actors do so they keep trying to generate new disinformation to prove that they've always always been right to be stay with us. Even though you would think that people are talking less about COVID. I find this very interesting, because I always thought that the conspiracy theories were recycled, and just bits were recycled. And then the conspiracy theorists would move on, but it seems like these people are staying.
So did he give you an idea of how many people these are? Or if it's a majority, or are they based in Europe?
he mentioned that, overall in Europe. People with these views are a small minority, it's just that the Visible Minority because they generate so much output, but he said But He's much stronger in weather. In some countries, they're such a tiny minority and mentioned Bulgaria, for example, where these views are much more widespread, and accordingly, vaccination rates are lower. And it's just a reminder that some countries were in a completely different days with the struggles and maybe it's worth linking this episode that we did with our colleague Crina Boros, about Romania, that's also struggled with low vaccination rates and right take up of scepticism wasn't necessarily anti vaccine news, but there was a very high level of scepticism.
Eva Schaper 04:20
Okay. You want to just listen to what he told you?
Tommaso Canetta 04:25
I think that the pandemic created the very important fracture inside the public unions and the societies were the minority of anti vaxxers, or sceptical or no mask, that kind of movements. They were very much polarised. And then they are now some in a way as a form of extremism. And I think that probably there is some I'm still existing sensitivity of, I don't know, the sentiment of revenge. So they now that the pandemic is over, they want to still demonstrate that they were the one being right, the Swedish model was better than the Italian model, not having lockdowns was the right thing to do. And yet you imposed lockdown on us. And these people, they still want to believe that they were right. And this is the reason why I think there is still a production and consumption of course of false news about the vaccinations.
Eva Schaper 05:38
And that's quite surprising. What else did he say that was new or might be new to our listeners.
Daiva Repeckaite 05:47
I was interested in hearing about Italy and his insights, specifically on the Italian anti vaccination movement. And he had a few comments on this kind of stance that we saw elsewhere in southern Europe, notably in Portugal with the right wing political parties are now we're not allowed to vote, but every with it, they're there. They're critical. So to say that, that's how they presented themselves, they're sceptical. They don't like what the government is doing. And they try to propose something else. And this way, they plug into this segment of the population that is mobilised against vaccination, so we can hear what he had to say about it.
Tomasso Canetta 06:35
We need to be at least we have some political parties, one in particular, that Lega of Salvini that it's winking to the conspiracy theories communities to the to the anti vaxxers communities. And they basically gain their trust and their votes during the pandemic. And now they don't want to lose it. For example, now in Italy, there is a whole debate about cancelling the fines that were given to the people that had to vaccinate and didn't vaccinate. This is just an example.
Daiva Repeckaite 07:13
So his view is that the current right wing ever mentioned that Salvini was just lucky that pandemic numbers were going down. So they didn't have to face the special court decisions that any government would have faced some time before. So we can hear that as well.
Tommaso Canetta 07:35
But they are also lucky that the pandemic as basically ended before they went into power. So they are managing them now the consequences but it's not a big issue anymore in Italy. So yes, there is still this. As I said before, this vengeance feeling of the anti vaxxers community that is mostly looked at by Lega. Salvini's Lega and the other government parties, Fratelli d' Italia and Berlusconi's party Forza Italia, they are not so much, let's say polarised about this specific issue.
Eva Schaper 08:18
But one thing I'm interested in. So he still says or this still, the general flow of disinformation is still from Russian disinformation actors downwards. So nothing has really changed about that.
Daiva Repeckaite 08:32
It's still the case, but it's the more elections we have and the more new national trends we have, the more complex this disinformation scene is becoming.
Eva Schaper 08:49
And that sounds interesting. And those let's I'm just gonna say those more national pieces are coming from disinformation actors who might not necessarily have a direct link to Russia, who are just taking what they see and remixing it.
Do we have a clip for that? Can we listen to that?
Daiva Repeckaite 09:06
Yes, here it is. Yes, of course.
Tommaso Canetta 09:10
We have this, let's say detection mechanism, basically, through the briefs, where we ask the organization's how many articles have been published in the previous month, and how many of those articles were about COVID-19 related disinformation, Ukraine related disinformation, climate change labour disinformation. For now, these are the three topics that that we monitor. And so of course, this is an approximation because we look at the detected disinformation but still having so many organisations, so spread across Europe, I think that degree of approximation is absolutely acceptable. And what we saw it was basically until the war, the pandemic was absolutely the major disinformation phenomenon in Europe. Then in February, at the end of February. 2022 Immediately, the disinformation about Ukraine exploded and basically substituted the COVID-19 disinformation as the major phenomenon in society. European Union detected disinformation, of course, then the disinformation about Ukraine rapidly decline. So it was around 60% in March, and by the summer it was around 15%. So it dropped a lot. And after the summer of 2020, to basically them, main topics of disinformation always stayed under 20%. Almost always. We have a constant, narrow line of disinformation about climate change. We have a constant line of disinformation about Ukraine, every line of disinformation about COVID, vaccines and COVID-19 in general, but they are not any more major phenomenon. Probably because we are outside the exception of face, let's say at least have the perception perception by the public opinions. So right now, we have probably more national kind of disinformation from state to state. So focusing on the national politics or national Chronicles evening see that, for example, in Greece, a train accident happened, that is information focused on that accident, or if we have election in a country, probably this information is focused on the elections and so on. We have this uncategorised. This information right now that it has, of course, common traits across the countries, for example, we are seeing now a surge of this information about migrants. And this is similar in different countries. But we have a lot of categorise this information that is about national, so local issues and not European scale issues. And yes, I think it's because after the two years of exceptional situation with the pandemic, after the beginning of the war, when it was perceived as something exceptional. Now, the pandemic is considered to be over basically by the public opinions. And the war. I think we can say in many countries, except in particular inside European Union, their perception of the war has been like normalised.
Eva Schaper 12:38
Well, that was that was really interesting way.
Daiva Repeckaite 12:39
He talks about AI because this, I think, is an evergreen, and I wanted to ask him, in fact, checkers are already dealing with AI generated disinformation.
Tommaso Canetta 12:52
So let's say written his own words. Yeah. I mean, this is the last edition of our add more monthly briefs, we'll have a part dedicated to AI generated this information. In the questionnaire that we sent to the 42 organisations member of the network, we asked a new question. So you published how many article factchecking articles have you published in the previous month? How many of those were about AI generated this information, so we will start monitoring the amount of AI generated this information that the different organisations that act in the different countries. So we will have an idea if this phenomenon will grow a lot in the future. Right now, we had very popular examples like the pug with the white puffy jacket or Trump in getting arrested or Putin kissing the hands on his knee of decision being excetera. So these are very, let's say clear cases, it doesn't require a lot of expertise to understand that they are fake. But still, the potential evolution of the situation is Warri on one hand, I'm not, of course, exciting on the other one, that it's not like technology's always bad. It can do amazing things. But it poses very big risk, especially about this information. And what concerns us the more is not the production of this information in itself, but their absence of intermediation. So if you ask Google something, Google will give you a list of results. And you can look at the different results and you decide which one you want to click. If you ask any information to ChatGPT it provides you with just one answer. And if you believe that answer is the best answer possible. It's dangerous because sometimes that answer is not the best one possible. So Sometimes it contains mistakes or disinformation and so on. And there is no possibility for fact checkers or others to check these information.
Eva Schaper 15:11
Okay. So he does think that AI is going to have an impact just because the volume is going to go up and the quality is going to be better the way I understand it.
Daiva Repeckaite 15:22
Yes, exactly. He also mentioned that, oh, what's he also mentioned that firms are trying to deal with this in a systematic way, but the progress that these law firms are making is quite limited.
Eva Schaper 15:40
Okay, can we listen to that?
Tommaso Canetta 15:41
the platforms are not doing enough to find this information. Let's say that Facebook Meta is now in the best position among the platform's because at least they have a cooperation agreement with fact checking organisations, that is good, they still need to do better in giving access to data in particular to checkers. But let's say that Meta is doing at least something good. TikTok is doing something a little bit less than not a little bit less than middle than Facebook. But at least they have a programme to cooperate with fact checkers to fight disinformation circulating on TikTok, this programme can be improved. And there are some issues, but at least tick tock is doing something the other platforms like Google, YouTube, of course, Twitter. Twitter, it's, it's so bad at it's basically doing a favour to the other platforms, because everybody is looking at Twitter and forgetting that Google, YouTube, Microsoft, Bing, LinkedIn, they're not doing their part. So the list is long, we have many platforms that didn't deliver what we hoped. And honestly, if it's understandable, at least, not justifiable but understandable that for the first set of records, after six months.
Eva Schaper 17:12
So they're monitoring, and they're seeing all these things happening, first of all, does this European group and I actually should pose it's known, do they have any kind of power to change thing? Do they have any kind of power? Can they take action, for example, against a social media platform?
Daiva Repeckaite 17:33
That I don't think anyone can do much apart from regulators against platforms, but later in discussion, so they can bring into the platform's attention and tell them that people are trusting your nest? Because you haven't done what you promised to do?
Eva Schaper 17:53
Did he have any ideas? Or did you talk about solutions to this problem?
Daiva Repeckaite 17:55
He believes that every user of information or every user of these platforms can take a few steps in their consumption of information to verify what this is about. So he thinks that we should try to make this basic verification tools as accessible and as popular among regular audiences as possible. Let's hear it.
Tommaso Canetta 18:21
Yeah, I maybe want to end with a positive note that we as as users have information that is simpler than we can do a lot to find this information. With meaningful math for it, we don't have to study for hours, then they don't know to take trainings and courses. And I don't know, dedicating a lot of time to find this information. Just knowing a few tricks. For example, how to do a Google Image, reverse search, it's good, just to know that maybe that that image is old, and you are looking at an image that says this is about Ukraine, and in Maybe it's from 20 years ago, and it was from Chechenis, just to give an example. And so getting learning how to use few very basic tools. It's of course, good, but probably the most important thing that we can do is just having some good critical thinking. So just knowing and I really experienced this on my skin because I realised I was doing exactly the same. When we hear any information that aligns with our worldview. We tend to think that it's true. When we hear any information that opposes our worldview. We think that it's false. And this is basically how our brains function because we have confirmation bias, we have the laziness of the brain. So we cannot dedicate the maximum of attention to all the issues, we dedicate the maximum of attention to the issues that we think are false. And we dedicate the minimum of attention to the issue that we think are true. So just knowing this, if you look at a news or a piece of information, I read your image or everything. And this is absolutely confirming what we already believe. Beware of this mechanisms just cultivate some critical thinking. And as a general rule, if it's too broad or too bad to be true, probably it's not true.
Eva Schaper 20:49
That does sound interesting. Did you talk about anything else that you think is interesting, or that you think is worth sharing?
Daiva Repeckaite 20:56
So speaking of the trends, what they see in their monitoring is that that disinformation is becoming more sporadic and becoming less aligned across countries there are more national narratives coming up. So for example, some countries have the new insect conspiracy narrative, becoming very prominent, as opposed to climate or COVID, or War narratives.
Eva Schaper 21:25
Can you catch me up on the insect conspiracy narrative, because I think that's one I miss.
Daiva Repeckaite 21:32
So this has to do with the European Commission, authorising the placing of them on the market of certain insects thrive to product. And conspiracy theorists took this information and run away with it. They claim that insects are already in our foods.
Tomasso Canetta 21:56
It was the major phenomenon in disinformation that we detected in January. And also it was quite big in February. It was detected basically, in all the EU Member States, of course, with different intensities. So for example, in Italy, where we are called sometimes food fascist, you can imagine how discussion was eaten around eating insects. Oh, my God, this is absolutely unacceptable and against our tradition, and yeah, it was declined differently from country to country. I didn't detect much about this purity element, even though I'm pretty sure that there are communities that are very sensitive to this aspect. And we see the same about vaccinations. So I don't want to have foreign substances inside my body. Maybe this could be similar for insects, so they are unhealthy. My body is a temple that kind of sensitivities, and it could be what we detected, it was an overlap between these EU insects, disinformation and fraud Russia against Europe narratives, these implement disinformation narratives, especially in the Baltic states, because over there in Russian language that circulated this information, basically claiming that Europeans are forced to eat insects because they lost all of their crops and wheat due to the sanctions against Russia for the war. So basically, we are leaving such a shitty lives that we need to eat insects to survive.
Daiva Repeckaite 23:36
So that was the interview. We can wrap up for this week. And we're back to our usual programme shedule and let's see you in two weeks.
Eva Schaper 23:46
See you in two weeks. Thank you for listening. Bye.
Daiva Repeckaite 23:49
In the meantime, you can find us on social media, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. You can find us individually on Mastodon and please check our website www.theinoculation.com For transcript, extra information, all links and all the research that website