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Information and mis/disinformation during the pandemic in Milan

Shireen Walton3 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

 

Vulnerable margins or robust mainstream? Cocooners after lockdown

paulinegarvey18 June 2020

by Pauline Garvey and Bláthnaid Butler

A Dublin City Council notice placed in public parks

After two months of lockdown, Covid-19 restrictions started to be lifted in mid-May in Ireland. Instead of having to stay at home or venture only 2 km from home, people were allowed to travel 5 km and then finally, anywhere in their own county. As in other countries, the sense of excitement was palpable and many Dubliners spoke of their sense of relief in being able to meet friends, albeit with social distancing and venture further than they had for several weeks. Sports reopened to a limited degree, particularly non-contact sports, and among them, golf clubs and tennis courts were opened.  Debate continues about whether masks should be mandatory in supermarkets and on public transport. However, the measures put in place to protect older people who were cocooning is being received as a mixed blessing.

Some over-70 years old find themselves conflicted between recognising the necessity of cocooning on the one hand, while feeling pigeonholed in the category of ‘vulnerable’ on the other. Being ‘at risk’ implies being sheltered and protected but ultimately also denied the same freedoms as other members of society. One place where this was most visible was in the opening of sports clubs, particularly tennis courts, which were ‘off limits’ to the over 70-year olds.  Aware of the bubbling controversy, chief executive of Tennis Ireland Richard Fahey commented that “We are aware that there is an issue. Over 70s feel they should be allowed to go out and play tennis. But they are not the only group that is restricted in this phase”[i]. People who see themselves as fit and agile thus find themselves excluded from their regular hobbies, not as something self-enforced but as an imposition for ‘their own good’.  And this is a particular problem for those that do not see themselves as vulnerable or who consider that the category of vulnerable is too narrowly assigned to a chronological age rather than a health condition and which does not reflect their vitality and overall general health. This issue is central to our research in ASSA and discussed in detail in our forthcoming publications[ii].

It is not surprising, then, that when it comes to food, such issues arise and are frequently fraught.  Anthropologists have long been aware that the rituals around food and producing meals is pivotal to the construction of the home and family[iii]. Mealtimes rules and routines create family roles and socialise family members. We learn about the duties of gender, care and morality through the work of provisioning and preparing food. But when is it appropriate to express reliance or autonomy? And when do practices of care transition from a help to a hindrance? One ‘cocooner’ complained that when she first emerged in the public sphere and walked around the shops, she sensed people were looking at her and that she didn’t feel welcome.  She described her sense of surprise because she felt so self-conscious that she eventually retreated home.

During the lockdown, community organisations were mobilised to shop for cocooners. In Dublin, local community groups such as church groups, scouts and sports clubs set up groups on WhatsApp to shop and drop for people who needed help. Amongst families too it was common for adult children to bring weekly provisions to their parents so that they could stay home. While adult children prefer to do the shop because ‘it’s no bother’, we have found several instances where the parents prefer to be autonomous. One couple watered down their milk rather than ask their daughter to pick them up some more. Reasons for this included a mix of emotions such as fear of being a burden, exposing her to further risk and being prepared to make ‘small sacrifices’ or ‘do without’ because they decided it was ‘non-essential’. However, as soon as it was possible to venture out and shop for themselves, cocooners have often chosen to do so, preferring some risk in order to express their autonomy. At this particular moment, when the lines between safe and unsafe, lockdown or openness are blurred, older people hover between social categories that fluctuate between the vulnerable margins or the robust mainstream. When there is a lack of clarity over what is safe or not, it is worth remembering that efforts to keep groups safe not only impinge on their physical wellbeing but may also work to pigeonhole and marginalise them in unanticipated ways. Lockdown practices are not only rationalised actions but are saturated with sentiment and often conflicted.

 

[i] Watterson, J. 11/05/20 ‘Tennis courts to remain off limits for over-70s after May 18th for health reasons’. The Irish Times, available online https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/other-sports/tennis-courts-to-remain-off-limits-for-over-70s-after-may-18th-for-health-reasons-1.4250613, accedes 11/05/20.

[ii] For example see Garvey, P and D. Miller (forthcoming) Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland: When Life Comes Craft. UCL Press.

[iii] Mintz, S. W., & Du Bois, C. M. (2002). The anthropology of food and eating. Annual review of anthropology, 31(1), 99-119