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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


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


Managing uncertainty: livelihoods in lockdown

charlotte.hawkins.1722 May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the widespread uncertainty of everyday lives in global capitalism. For example, uncertainties related to health and resources have been exacerbated, and it has been clearly exposed how they are both often so closely intertwined. Various ethnographies around the world have demonstrated the contextual specificities of how people pragmatically mitigate uncertainties, for example through work and cooperation. This is at once a global and a specific experience.

The expected linearity of ageing is evidently disrupted by factors in the wider world, such as pandemics, politics and the economy. Typical ‘industrialist’ categories of age assign certain everyday activities of economic production to particular life stages (Honwana, 2012: 12): education and childhood, a time of dependence; work and adulthood, a time of independence; and retirement and rest in old age, which in Uganda, is said to be ideally said to be a time of interdependence (Whyte, 2017). This feeds into the stereotype of old age as a condition of certainty, in contrast to precarity faced by youth. The majority of older research participants in Kampala are still in full-time work to provide for their families, often ‘Monday to Monday’. This challenges notions of work in the city as an activity of younger generations, and of transient uncertainty as a preoccupation of youth (Honwana, 2012; Thieme, 2018).

Woman carrying mangoes to sell in April 2019.

Many sources of income have been interrupted by social distancing regulations in Uganda. Many people rely on daily income to feed their families, so relief efforts for social protection at a household level are increasingly urgent[1],[2]. To friends in Kampala, this has emphasized the importance of social networks, and particularly neighbours, who can share whatever they have, sometimes assistance they may have received from further afield. And besides resources, the current pandemic situation has shown how people often ‘engage with the ambiguity of our surroundings’ through solidarity and dialogue with each other (Whyte, 1997). Particularly accentuated is the role of mobile phones as a tool to navigate conditions of uncertainty. We saw this across our fieldsites, in the ways people use mobile phones to overcome distances and maintain relationships and care for older people. And we’ve since all seen how important phone calls and WhatsApp have been to adapt to unprecedented times and keep us in contact. This uncertain context also supports the role of ethnographic research, which allows us to look at the patterns in dialogue, how people engage with the wider and indeterminate world, and how this responds to and shapes certain trajectories.


  • Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/04/09/kampala-epidemic-un-ugandan-society-in-times-covid-19/
  • Honwana, A.M., 2012. The time of youth: work, social change, and politics in Africa, 1st ed. ed. Kumarian Press Pub, Sterling, Va.
  • Whyte, 2017. Epilogue: Successful Aging and Desired Interdependence., in: Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. Rutgers University Press., NEW BRUNSWICK, CAMDEN, NEWARK, NEW JERSEY; LONDON, pp. 243–248.
  • Thieme, T.A., 2018. The hustle economy: Informality, uncertainty and the geographies of getting by. Progress in Human Geography 42, 529–548. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132517690039
  • Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA). https://cda.co.ug/2140/ugandas-economic-response-to-covid-19-the-case-for-immediate-household-relief/
  • Whyte, S.R., 1997. Questioning misfortune: the pragmatics of uncertainty in Eastern Uganda, Cambridge studies in medical anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York.

[1]Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/04/09/kampala-epidemic-un-ugandan-society-in-times-covid-19/

[2] Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA). https://cda.co.ug/2140/ugandas-economic-response-to-covid-19-the-case-for-immediate-household-relief/