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Information and mis/disinformation during the pandemic in Milan

By Shireen Walton, on 3 July 2020

During the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis was at its peak in Italy, I observed through my research participants and friends in Milan how information sharing, and particularly health and care information – from government and regional levels, through to community and family – was embracing digital and visual avenues of communication to significant and creative extents.

Figure 1: Image shared in a community WhatsApp group in NoLo at Easter. Source unknown.

Amid the broad range of sharing practices were many documents, advertisements, and images aimed to raise community awareness about health, safety, and wellbeing, as well as digital accessibility. For example, in March 2020, an awareness initiative administered by a local NGO dedicated to the needs of families and children in the neighbourhood called on neighbours to share their wireless connections within apartment blocks to assist children whose families do not have internet connections at home to be able to follow school lessons online. Often such campaigns are also translated by NGO groups into languages spoken in the area such as Arabic and Spanish, in order to reach broader members of the community.

Figure 2: Example of a local NGO campaign to assist with families during lockdown in Milan by calling on neighbours within apartment blocks to share wireless connections with those without WiFi.

These kinds of initiatives led by NGOs in Milan during quarantine were also met with programmes of ‘digital solidarity’ to assist with digital connectivity during the lockdown. Here, the Italian Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitization partnered with private companies to offer forms of assistance to citizens such as free online newspapers, faster internet, access to online education and entertainment platforms during the lockdown. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health created a series of infographics about protocols to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, many of which were widely circulated via WhatsApp and Facebook.

Amid the rapid spread of both the virus and information during the pandemic, unverifiable information also spread quickly across the community, the country, and the world via memes, short videos, and text/voice messages. By March, the Italian state increased its involvement in this issue with an attempt to communicate the facts about the virus, with a significant pushback by Italian medical authorities against ‘fake health information’ that was circulating via WhatsApp. The Italian Ministry of Health soon published a list of ten particularly pertinent ‘fake news’[1] items about the Coronavirus that had been identified within the Italian social web, from the myth that drinking tap water was dangerous to health to the rumour that wearing face masks in the home would help limit contagion, to the idea that taking a hot bath would kill off the virus.

Figure 3:Screen shot of the Italian Ministry of Health website section on Coronavirus and Fake News. Image Source: http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/news/p3_2_1_1_1.jsp?lingua=italiano&menu=notizie&p=dalministero&id=4380

In a widely circulated YouTube video appeal Roberto Fumagalli, a senior Medical Director from Milan’s Niguarda hospital, pleaded to people in Milan, and to the nation, to stop circulating unverified information and gossip about Coronavirus, including a stream of official-sounding voice messages that had been sent via WhatsApp to people across Italy about what doctors are/are not doing or who they are/are not treating.

In light of false and misleading information concerning the virus, and in the context of high anxiety and stress caused by the experience of quarantine, a number of research participants in NoLo had intervened on social media, asking for people to stop sharing unverifiable facts and misinformation that were proving inflammatory and divisive – a practice of regulation and control of the social web that I had witnessed more broadly in the community in the previous two years during fieldwork in Milan.

Figure 4: Daily news and chats in Milan. Photo taken by author.

The spread of misinformation, or unverified or false information via smartphones and social media remains a significant part of public conversation in Italy, as in other parts of the world. This issue is particularly seen to affect older populations and is a priority concern and main point of focus within ageing policy discussions, with the assumption that older people are particularly vulnerable to ‘fake news’.

Figure 5: ‘Anziani e Fake News’ (Elders and Fake News). Advert for a discussion event on ‘information and disinformation in the era of social media’) organised by AUSER, a main nation-wide ageing NGO in Italy. https://www.auser.it/comunicati-stampa/anziani-e-fake-news-come-non-cadere-negli-inganni/

My broader research encountered concerns amongst middle-aged and older adults about the role of smartphones in spreading unverified information quickly and easily in today’s world, while a number of research participants also recognised that dis/mis information[2] also has historical roots, reflecting uses of sectors of the media and television to misinform and/or mislead, citing examples from the media and television era of Berlusconi in the 1980s to the propaganda of the fascist era in the 1930s, which many of them and/or their parents had also lived through.

Overall, the multifaceted and deep-rooted issue of contemporary information and mis/dis-information in Milan, amidst and beyond the pandemic, highlights a range of contemporary tensions and paradoxes concerning social and public life within the present information age, which smartphones – as products of, and companions to the current age ­– are complexly implicated in.

 

[1] ‘Fake news’ is a significant feature of media coverage and popular conversation in Italy. The Collins English Dictionary defines fake news as the ‘false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting’: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/fake-news

[2] The distinction between misinformation and disinformation has been defined in terms of intentionality. The former describes the sharing of information regardless of intention, while the latter involves the intention to mislead, misinform and/or manipulate. See: https://www.dictionary.com/e/misinformation-vs-disinformation-get-informed-on-the-difference/ and https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews

 

Death and Social Duties during COVID-19 in Dar al-Hawa

By Maya De Vries Kedem, on 29 June 2020

By Laila Abed Rabho and Maya De Vries

As in the rest of the world during COVID-19, in Dar al-Hawa, al-Quds, social distancing regulations have impacted the social behaviours and norms that we were used to, changing our lives. Schools, universities, workplaces and mosques have been completely shut down. People stayed home and it was forbidden to walk more than 100 meters away from your home for about three weeks. There were cases of patients testing positive in Dar al-Hawa from the beginning of the crisis – first, one patient, followed by another few people. This raised people’s awareness that anyone could be infected, and social distancing is important.  Hence, the strict prohibitions that came with the new social distancing norms were received relatively well, despite the difficulties we’re following them in a relatively small and crowded place like Dar al-Hawa. In addition, many families share the same residence or residential space with their older parents, so young parents and grandchildren immediately felt that they are responsible for keeping the older people living with them safe and healthy. That feeling of shared responsibility helped enforce the new norms of behaviour that COVID-19 forced upon all of us.

One of the most challenging things at the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic was the fact that visiting family or friends’ houses was not allowed. In Dar al-Hawa, there are several occasions when social visits are an obligation – for example, during holidays like Ramadan or Eid al-Adha and when someone passes away.

Before coronavirus, when a person died in Dar al-Hawa, their family would announce their death through the Muezzin of the mosque. Usually, the Muezzin would turn on the speakers and as he calls for prayer out loud, he also announces the person’s death, letting the entire neighbourhood know about it and enabling everyone to operate according to the accepted social norms around visiting the deceased’s family. In addition, prior to COVID-19, the process of preparing the body for burial took place in the mosque, together with the deceased’s close family and followed by the option to honour the deceased for the last time before taking his or her body to the cemetery. Usually, men carry the coffin while praying and heading to the main cemetery for the burial ceremony. Women who are not from the immediate family are not accepted in the cemetery and cannot participate in the burial ceremony.

Some of these norms have changed due to COVID-19. While the muezzin still calls the deceased’s name through the mosque’s speakers, gatherings inside mosques and houses are not allowed. The process of purifying the body prior to burial has also stopped and is not taking place at the mosque but at the hospital. The burial ceremony itself has also stopped, as there is a limit of only 20 people. The restriction on the number of people is significant in Dar al-Hawa, as most of the families typically consist of over 20 people who define themselves as first degree relatives. The social norm of gathering and participating in the burial ceremony is not the only thing that has been altered.  The custom of neighbours and other family members bringing food, mainly breakfast, during the three-days mourning period, has also completely stopped. People were afraid to eat something that they did not cook themselves and did not want to take responsibility for accidentally infecting someone with the virus through the sharing of food.

The mourning period lasts for three days and takes place at the deceased’s home. The family’s duty is to open a mourning tent if possible or to receive visitors in the living room.

During the beginning of the current health crisis, particularly in the first two months, when gatherings and visits were forbidden, the opening of mourning tents did not happen – most of the offering of condolences moved from face to face to online correspondence, being sent mainly through WhatsApp and Facebook messenger, including video calls.

This different way of sending condolences also occurs among Palestinian families who originate in Jerusalem and live in Jordan can enter Israel since the Peace agreement between Israel signed in 1994 allows it. The Palestinian community in Jordan generally has broad family ties to the Palestinians living in Jerusalem and Israel[1]. Previously, such interactions and movement were easier, as families travel to Jordan or enter Israel from Jordan to attend either the funeral or the mourning.

Another custom that has been suspended because of the coronavirus is one that happens on the third day of mourning when the deceased’s family prepares food to feed the visitors at their home while reading suras (chapters) from the Quran, a religious duty during the third day of mourning. But when there are no visitors, there is no need for this custom.

All these important practices constituting both a religious duty and social norms around death have become impossible to maintain. However, as COVID-19 becomes part of our lives, it seems that big, open mourning tents can return as it becomes easier for social distancing rules to be followed inside them.

Aside from all these challenges, Covid-19 has brought about some other changes which are actually beneficial.  During the strict lockdown period, Laila and Maya talked to several women who had been caring for their sick husbands for a long time.

For them, the lockdown was quite a positive development since all family members stayed home, including children and grandchildren, the direct consequence of which was that the burden of care did not fall on them alone. For about two months, they said, they felt less lonely. Social distancing from the rest of the world brought together the nuclear family and, in the case of Dar al-Hawa, when families live in the same household, or near each other, directly benefitted the older population.

In a way, it seems that the physical help and in-person support that older women received from their children and grandchildren were much more important than any online assistance or communication that was so popular in public discourse while COVID-19 dominated our lives.

Recently, Laila and I went to offer condolences to one of her relatives in Dar al-Hawa. She told us that she has been feeling less lonely since visitors who come to offer condolences now call in advance to set specific times to visit in order to avoid overcrowding, meaning their visits are spread across a longer time, thus extending the three-day mourning period, but on the other hand – that the bitter coffee pot the deceased’s family pours to each visitor is constantly being put to work. This stream of many mourning days can be exhausting but at the same time, it this very constant stream of visitors that may help reduce this her feeling of loneliness after separating from her husband.

Since death, according to many of the people we spoke with in Dar al-Hawa, is considered as fate and something that can only be decided by God, during our visit we felt that there is a genuine acceptance of the situation, even if the deceased’s death came as a surprise. “It always comes from God”, we were told.  The acceptance of death is accompanied by sincere sadness, but God’s will helps overcome this sadness and allows people to move on with their life. As people accepted death, they also accepted the new social distancing norms quite easily as these are perceived as God’s will: death is in His hands and so is the coronavirus.

Coffee pot in Dar al Hawa

[1] Habeeb, W. M. (2012). The Middle East in turmoil: Conflict, revolution, and change. ABC-CLIO.