Over the past decade, social networks have become the dominant means of reading and sharing information at an unprecedented pace. Although this can be seen as an improvement, it also poses serious risks for social media users.
In an interview with BlastingTalks, George Lucas, coordinator of Eunomia and professor at the University of Greenwich, told us more about the project – a user-centric open source platform that helps social media users combat misinformation, and how journalists can and should help. Evnomie is currently funded by the European Union under the European research programme Horizon 2020.
Eunomia is a project aimed at developing decentralised tools to help social media users combat misinformation. What was the impulse for this programme as project coordinator?
Eunomia was designed in response to the European Commission’s call for innovative solutions to combat misinformation. There are many ways to do this. So there’s usually some kind of intermediary. It may be a third party or a fact checker who can tell you what he or she has identified as true or false. There may be technologies such as artificial intelligence that are used to label something as misinformation, or – more often nowadays – the social networking platform itself that does this.
For example, I don’t like hearing what I’m supposed to believe. And I guess I’m not the only one. That was my motivation. Eunomia follows an approach that allows the user to think about what is disinformation and what is not.
What is the purpose of the Eunomia project?
Our experience in other areas is a major challenge involving users.
If they don’t believe in it or don’t see themselves as part of the problem and the solution, they won’t do anything about it. So if people don’t see this as their problem, they’re not gonna do anything, no matter what technology you give them. This is what Eunomia does, it is much easier for someone to say that they are not only part of the problem, but also part of the solution.
His book Cyberphysical Attacks shows how cyberspace can influence physical space. Would you say that social networks have such an impact on physical activity? Can you give us an example?
Their views on cyber attacks and their physical effects have become clearer with the Internet. We see things that are physical and connected to the internet. What people don’t see is that the social networks are almost the same. For example, if you think that VIDOC-19 is being abused, this will have a direct physical effect on you.
What would be the ideal hygiene routine when reading the news?
It’s hard to find the ideal. It’s probably different for everyone. We haven’t done enough research to find out for whom.
Instead, we have established guidelines for which there is important scientific evidence – for example with regard to coronaviruses. There are many examples of advice you can get from experts. But some of them are personal opinions of experts, without any research behind them. So we’re trying to find people who study behind his back.
I’d say maybe the best way to fight misinformation is not to share something if you haven’t read it. That seems obvious, but it’s not at all. When we share something online, we do so not necessarily because we read it, but because it supports our opinion. Actually, that’s what spreads the wrong information: Speed. We feel like we take something out of our social environment by sharing it with others or by being the first to talk about it.
As you wrote in the Eunomia blog, disinformation spreads faster than reliable information. Can you explain why?
It is the new information that makes the exchange interesting. You’re interested in sharing it with someone because you seem to be the only one who knows him for everyone. It therefore creates these conditions for exchange much more quickly than the exchange of information that can be considered reliable. The numbers can be overwhelming.
Information from experts is not necessarily the most popular in social networks, contrary to the opinions of non-experts, who spread rapidly on the Internet. How can the experts reverse the roles in this situation?
Experts don’t always know how to make viral news or even understand it easily.
An expert is not an expert, because he makes things understandable. They are experts because they are best placed to know a specific and narrow scientific field. What they can do is say yes every time a journalist asks them for an interview. A journalist is someone who knows how to translate this into something more understandable and interesting.
How can journalists better manage the news broadcasts?
One thing they shouldn’t do is use fear as a tactic to sell more. In recent years it has become clear that fear does not work. This can work in the very short term, not the long term. It has a very low luminous intensity. The vast majority of people are very sceptical about vaccinations because they don’t like to be told what to do.
It’s largely due to fear. And fear, of course, is not generated by journalists, but reinforced by journalists. I think a more balanced presentation of the latest news would probably be better in the long run. COVID-19, for example, is a long-term problem. Maybe it’s better to trust people by giving them more information than by frightening them.
They provide a new mechanism for opening information cascades by showing the first original messages to show how the information has evolved over time. What are the main points of information transformation/manipulation?
First of all, the same news can be presented in a completely different way, but by different people with different objectives.
I would say that the best example is when the legitimate photo used in the article is used many years later in a completely different article to support a completely different point of view. For example, against immigration or otherwise. You can also use a single comma, which completely changes the meaning of the article. It’s still true that it was said by the man of time, but that doesn’t mean it is. Our tool, which searches the entire macro system, as we call it, for similar messages from the past, helps to identify similarities. He’s not saying he’s unreliable or anything. It just says here that the same photo was used three years ago. They are users of social networks that are intelligent people who are able to make their own decisions.
If you just talk to them about it, they can decide what to do with it and if they should actually pass it on.
The World Health Organisation has described the coronavirus pandemic as an infection. To what extent does the Infodemia influence the course of the virus?
It is very difficult to quantify the actual impact, for the simple reason that it is difficult to quantify the pandemic itself. Nevertheless, we have problems such as the number of infections. This makes it even more difficult to assess the factors contributing to change. In August, a publication was published stating that around 800 people worldwide died as a result of misinformation, almost directly as a result of poor medical advice.
That was the real tip of the iceberg. It is clear that it is very different now, because it was in August with dates that were probably even older. We’re talking about a very large number of people who have been injured.
Do you think that before and after COVID-19 social networks can exist in the digital world? Is this a turning point for the digital world?
There is no doubt that this has already accelerated the process. It was already clear that social networks are more important than most people think, because they are seen as a form of entertainment. For many people, it’s the only real interaction, especially when you’re locked up. This means that the dissemination of information via social media will have a number of different effects in the future.
For example, if people understand how important social media are for misinformation, I suspect there will be strict rules.
In the coming weeks or months, different social media platforms will try out different things. This is a very good thing, because some of these measures will actually work. But we have doubts about the extent to which the social media platform does something. Secondly, as I said, I expect very strict rules to be introduced in the coming years. Unomia prefers to hand over power to the people.
Did the pandemic affect or change Unomia’s mission?
I don’t think it had a negative impact on productivity. On the contrary, we have had much more attention, because if there is a very clear threat to everyone, there is a very clear goal.
It is easier for people to work together to achieve a common goal. It was also easier to talk on a technical level, to change the user interface, to make something that people can use against misinformation. It has also speeded up the approval procedure. A few months ago we weren’t planning on opening it publicly, but now we are. The co-pilot will arrive in the next few weeks. It also accelerated the development of the project.
What is your vision on the world of social media for the next ten years?
We will develop social media in areas where we do not currently use them. For example, devices, machines or systems will become part of the ecosystem of the social network. I expect that the car will be another user on, for example, social networks.
We will use this paradigm for communication, which has nothing to do with social networks, simply because it is so natural.
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