A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Nikos Sarris about SOMA consortium

Interview with Nikos Sarris, SOMA Project Coordinator, Head of ATC Innovation Lab.

Can you explain how SOMA, ATC, TruthNest and Truly Media work and how they fit together?

Nikos Sarris ESMH ScientistNikos Sarris: At ATC, we have been working for almost 10 years on ways to help professionals assess the trustworthiness of online content. As part of this work and through several research activities we developed TruthNest, which is a tool that provides extended analytics on Twitter content. Then, together with Deutsche Welle we created Truly Media, which is a platform that helps teams of users work together on verification investigations. These tools are offered through SOMA as a basic technological infrastructure that empowers a wide community of fact-checkers and researchers to work together towards a common goal, which we envision as a pan-European observatory against disinformation.

How are the Provenance, Eunomia, WeVerify and SocialTruth projects embedded in SOMA and what are their goals and timeframe?

Nikos Sarris: These four projects are funded by the European Commission and are tasked with developing new tools to help professional and non-professional users combat disinformation. Selected outcomes of these projects, as they become mature enough, will also be made available through the observatory.

What is the Source Transparency Index (STI)? Is SOMA intending to create a credibility index?

Nikos Sarris: Yes, SOMA is looking at all current research, both in the applied and academic spheres, to propose a metric that helps users assess the transparency of sources. This work is still in its early phases though.

What is your relationship with Aarhus University, LUISS Guido Carli, T6Eco and Pagella Politica, the other members of the SOMA consortium? What are the backgrounds of the teams you are engaging with at these organisations and what kind of expertise do they bring to the table?

Nikos Sarris: ATC is the coordinator of SOMA, but the work is the collaborative effort of the consortium, which consists of these five partners. We all have specific tasks, but in short, I can say that Aarhus University brings the academic expertise of social media analysis, Pagella Politica represents the practical world of fact-checkers, the LUISS University Department of Journalism raises awareness of verification practices in the media world and T6 studies the impact of disinformation and the practices against it. ATC tries to bring all sides together by producing practical tools against disinformation.

To what extent and in what way do you collaborate with digital intermediaries such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, if at all?

Nikos Sarris: We are in contact with these platforms to try to gain elevated access to data that will help the tools and the community of the observatory work in a more effective way. This is a long and difficult process, but we hope that the platforms will understand its importance and work with us towards our goal.

Can you explain a few things about ATC – how it came to be, who are the core members of the team and what is the scope of its work?

Nikos Sarris: ATC is a 30-year-old SME based in Athens that works worldwide, constantly investing in innovative ideas and technologies. For more than two decades we have been offering forward-thinking tools to the media industry and this has been achieved through the enthusiasm and dedication of a large group of colleagues. I would not want to name core members as I believe that the work of each one is equally important.

SOMA also co-organised the SXSW panel discussion on AI and disinformation along with the EU Delegation in the US. Can you provide some feedback on how it went? Any comments from the speakers or the audience? How did the questions or comments you received in the US contrast with the way the debate is framed in the EU?

Nikos Sarris: Our colleagues from T6 and LUISS Data Lab who co-organised the session came back with excellent impressions from a very vibrant session to which many members of the enthusiastic audience contributed. In particular, Mr Giuseppe Abbamonte, Director of Media Policy at the European Commission, commented on the importance of the Code of Practice, seeing this as ‘the first time worldwide that industry agrees on a voluntary basis to self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation’. Professor Gianni Riotta also noted as crucial the need to rebuild trust in an age distrustful of truth, with many academic sources ready to vouch that there is no such thing as truth. More information is available on our web portal.

Do you think the issue of disinformation is overtly political? Should it be? Do you think we are even close to solving it or containing it?

Nikos Sarris: I think disinformation has always been an issue. It has now been amplified because of the immense means offered by IT and the very same technologies we have to invest in in order to fight back. It is an issue that has penetrated deep into our societies and is critically threatening our social coherence and democracies. It is therefore critical to fight back and teach professionals and citizens of all ages to recognise and uncover disinformation. It is not a fight that can be won by fact-checkers alone, though. The media, educators of all levels, politicians and even citizens all have to try as hard as they can to contain this. The issue of disinformation will never be solved, but should at least be contained to a level that does not threaten the concept of trust within our societies. I think we are still far from seeing a ray of hope.

Can you talk a bit about your CPN Recommender? You mention on your website that personalisation has its own challengers (filter bubbles, echo chambers). How do you intend to overcome those challenges? Is it an ATC or a SOMA project? Which news organisations are you currently working with and how are you collaborating?

Nikos Sarris: CPN is a different project, also funded by the European Commission, which aims to help news content producers offer their audiences the right content, at the right time, in the right way. Although personalisation is desirable for both content producers and consumers, there is the danger of increasing the risk of filter bubbles. This is an open research issue, for which we have not yet seen convincing proposals, but which the CPN consortium is also investigating. ATC is a technological partner in the CPN consortium, which is led by VRT, a very innovative news organisation based in Belgium. Deutsche Welle and DIAS media group are also partners in the consortium and lead the development of technology that can be taken up by the media.

Are there any results SOMA has produced that you feel particularly proud of?

Nikos Sarris: The technological infrastructure of SOMA is already in place, enhanced by practical functionalities that make it easy for fact-seekers to look for information. The most important impending milestone, however, is the first community of fact-seekers becoming operational. That is what we are mostly looking forward to now.

You mentioned creating national centres for the study of disinformation in Denmarkand Italy. What progress has been made so far? Will their scope be pan-European or will they focus on national disinformation campaigns?

Nikos Sarris: The scope of these centres will be national, but they are only the beginning. We are planning for every Member State to have such a centre, creating a network that will eventually be interconnected, with a pan-European capacity.

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