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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

 

Affective venting on Whatsapp

Georgiana Murariu9 April 2020

By Pauline Garvey

A St Patrick’s Day ‘like no other’ during the Coronavirus pandemic, source reuters.com (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-ireland/deserted-st-patricks-day-streets-highlight-irish-hospitality-woes-idUSKBN21431F)

On Thursday the 12th March, the Irish government announced that schools, colleges and other public buildings in the Republic of Ireland were to close in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in the country. Outdoor meetings or activities of up to 500 people were cancelled, and indoor meetings of 100 people or more were banned. These measures were followed by the closure of pubs on the 15th March, the grounding of airlines and the closure of cafes and restaurants amid the anticipation of an extensive lockdown of all public gatherings in an effort to slow the onward spread of the disease.

In his address to the nation on the 9pm news bulletin on 17th March, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar commented that this year’s St Patrick’s Day was ‘like no other’, where parades in towns and cities were cancelled, pubs were shut and celebrations confined to people’s homes. In an effort to introduce a degree of normalcy, the national broadcaster (RTE) showed short video clips of children parading in their back gardens waving flags, while other householders put ‘Happy St Patrick’s Day’ signs in kitchen windows for passing pedestrians. Social celebrations on this national holiday moved from the public arena of towns and cities to the private sphere of homes and gardens.

These are unsettling times and not surprisingly, in a situation where social distancing is enforced, online media has become the main site where people actually communicate. Whatsapp groups among family members, friends, work colleagues, school and sports’ groups were invigorated and the announcement of government measures sparked a flood of messages between people as they shared information, asked each other if the information they had received is correct or discussed plans for the care of relatives. Jokes, memes, gifs, news articles, videos and advice from purported medical professionals was (and still is) swapped, shared and commented upon. Often the same content circulated from one WhatsApp group to another, although very little of it was new. Arguably, most of the Covid-19 content that is passed between groups is composed of jokes, uplifting images, stories and funny videos.

Anthropologists have argued that here we can see one role of the media more generally. The activities of our daily lives maintain a sense of reliability and continuity, and these activities are managed through predictable order and taken-for-granted routines. According to the media scholar Roger Silverstone for example, the integration of television news bulletins provides a level of predictable routine that informs the audience of sources of anxiety while simultaneously offering reassurance that these dangers will be successfully combated.[1]

WhatsApp is different in several interesting ways, however. Unlike news bulletins that ‘address the nation’, WhatsApp messaging provides a feeling of direct participation.[2] Instead of posting or announcing or informing, on WhatsApp, people are speaking directly to known others, who often respond immediately, providing a sense of an ongoing conversation. These types of exchanges allow for more intimate and individualised communication.[3]  In Ireland, health officials have adopted this mode of direct communication to speak to people directly and the Minister for Health (Simon Harris) circulated a WhatsApp message to urge people to stay indoors and maintain social distancing on 22nd March. Also, the WhatsApp groups that sprang into activity during the lockdown often consist of jokes, thumbs-up and emojis. Indeed, very little about the interaction seems to be about acquiring news and most of it is far more about sharing the emotional burden of what is going on. The sheer number, variety and frequency of WhatsApp messages in various groups seems to suggest, then, that it is the practice of being in touch that is more important than the actual content of these messages. One 70-year-old woman told me that she forwarded short videos that were ‘rubbish’ and even mildly offensive but circulated them to her groups anyhow because her niece had sent them to her.  People laugh or forward frightening statistics regarding how many will contract the disease while also wishing others well and commenting on the exceptional circumstances we are living in. WhatsApp in other words allows a kind of affective venting that is difficult to express elsewhere.

 

[1] Silverstone, Roger 1994 Television and Everyday Life New York and London: Routledge.

[2] For a comparable argument regarding Twitter see Rosa, J. 2015 Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States, American Ethnologist Volume 00 Number 0, pp. 4-16.

[3] The World Health Organisation has launched a dedicated messaging service in Arabic, English, French and Spanish with WhatsApp partners to inform the public about the virus. In order to activate the app, you have to text ‘hi’ to the relevant number. See https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-health-alert-brings-covid-19-facts-to-billions-via-whatsapp, accessed 8/4/20