Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis (SOMA)
In the run-up to the European elections, different departments of the European Union had already been mobilised to assist in the combat against disinformation. In that context, SOMA was set up in November 2018 to play a very crucial, albeit often overlooked, coordination role.
Its mission will last 30 months, extending beyond the European elections. SOMA brings together an interdisciplinary group of experts and is working to establish a network supporting the EU’s long-term efforts to build defences against information manipulation strategies.
The initiative is funded by the European Commission as part of the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme and already counts Eunomia, WeVerify, Provenance and SocialTruth as some of the projects under its umbrella. Its roadmap also includes the establishment of national centres for research into disinformation in Italy and Denmark (see the recently launched website), the organisation and implementation of media literacy programmes aiming to build societal resilience and the development of an impact assessment methodology to measure the effectiveness of its endeavours.
Anja Bechmann, Professor of Media Studies and Director at DATALAB – Center for Digital Social Research : “In the SOMA project, we will research social media and information disorder by mapping and evaluating solutions for data access/exchange, safe space solutions, outlier detection and cascade analysis.”
The SOMA consortium involves five main partners: the Greek Athens Technology Center (ATC), the University of Aarhus in Denmark, the LUISS Data Lab research centre, consultancy firm T6Ecosystems and the Italian fact-checking organisation Pagella Politica. This diversity of partners illustrates SOMA’s intention to operate as a bridge between news organisations, researchers, academics, policymakers and technologists, and to ultimately provide an integrated solution to the issue of disinformation.
Anja Bechmann : “In the NGI Forward project, we will address the fact that the internet currently has many flaws in relation to our needs as individuals, groups and society, in order to establish a human-centred next generation internet. The project will lay out the vision for a new, European alternative to the current flawed internet, and our role is to research the most central issues that such a new internet should address.”
ATC’s Truly Media platform – developed in collaboration with Deutsche Welle, supported by Google’s DNI Fund and used by Amnesty International and the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) – will also integrate the different development projects, which in turn will share data and knowledge, coalescing the group’s capacities into a unified whole.
Nikos Sarris : “Truly Media is a platform that helps teams of users work together on verification investigations.”
For instance, WeVerify is taking a participatory verification approach: it will test micro-targeted debunking and create a public blockchain index of verified and debunked content. The fact that some of WeVerify’s partners are prominent media organisations such as Deutsche Welle and Agence France-Presse is really promising, as they will be able to ground the initiative’s efforts in real-life case studies. Eunomia will also employ blockchain and artificial intelligence technology to determine the trustworthiness of social media posts and allow users to vote on that issue. Provenance will focus on multimedia content and will provide a digital companion to inform end users. SocialTruth will also create a digital companion and will allow access to verification services.
By putting its weight behind a consortium of established technologists, academics, and media outlets, the European Commission is providing a counter-narrative to the main ideas on how disinformation should be tackled. SOMA is an opportunity to indicate that the initial popular claim that the big tech companies should solve the issue they have played a part in exacerbating, backed by the regurgitated assumption that policymakers do not understand the technology, no longer stands.
Nikos Sarris : “Disinformation 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.”
Moreover, SOMA’s decision to launch a series of webinars on the use of Eurostat’s databases indicates that its activities will extend to the public and outside researchers as well, setting the stage for a multipronged, inclusive and innovative initiative.