A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Professor Oscar Espiritusanto about the EU Project Provenance

Oscar Espiritusanto ESMH scientistOscar Espiritusanto is a professor at the University Carlos III of Madrid at the Department of Journalism and Audiovisual Communication, and he teaches classes to master’s students on citizen journalism, participation, user-generated content, verification and human rights. As a researcher at Fundación Cibervoluntarios, he focuses on new audiences, fake news and misinformation to generate tools that empower citizens in the fight against disinformation. His constant experimentation has led him to create PeriodismoCiudadano.com: a landmark of this phenomenon in the Hispanic world and an observatory of participation and user-generated content. He is also the author of books and articles on the importance of citizen participation and education.

What is Fundación Cibervoluntarios and what is its specific role in the consortium?

Oscar Espiritusanto: Fundación Cibervoluntarios is a Spanish non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded in 2001 by social entrepreneurs. It has an international scope and its goals are to bring innovation into the educational process, break down digital barriers and promote citizen participation. We rely on a network of more than 1 900 cybervolunteers, and our actions target groups such as young people, minors and teenagers, educators, teachers, parents, NGO staff and elderly people in rural areas. We also manage digital entrepreneurship projects for women.

The role of Fundación Cibervoluntarios in the Provenance project is to maintain direct contact with citizens and entities. We identify people’s needs and user requirements in terms of sharing and receiving information online. This way, we can implement user suggestions in the next update of the Provenance verification tool and we involve citizens from the very beginning of the process.

As one of the main objectives of PROVENANCE is to improve media and information literacy, Fundación Cibervoluntarios is currently running workshops and evaluations with media and information literacy practitioners. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

Oscar Espiritusanto: Indeed, we created these workshops to investigate user requirements for the Provenance project and to develop the Provenance plug-in and personalised companion.

Our mission is to identify a range of end-user profiles and assess their needs; identify information and digital literacy needs among end-users to translate Provenance users’ needs into technical requirements; adapt the Provenance system architecture on the basis of these requirements; and ensure user-centred design by assessing end-user evaluations of successive tool iterations.

Cibervoluntarios created and developed three use cases for the Provenance framework:

  • Use case 1: Information seekers
  • Use case 2: Fostering citizen prosumers with digital/media literacy instructors
  • Use case 3: Factual content creators – fact checkers

During the workshops, we tried to understand how the Spanish audience deals with information and how a verification tool could be useful to them. We tried to understand the information journey from the audience’s point of view.

We investigated how citizens are informed: time of day, device, sources, time spent consulting information, how citizens verify and distribute information, what verification mechanism they use (whether it used contrasted information, sources specific pages etc.) and possible interaction with the information (through commenting, sharing, likes etc.). We also looked at how this information builds people’s knowledge. Knowledge is based on what a person considers true – and the truth is linked to the emotions it triggers and it is related to our trust in the information source. Trust is key to understanding the sharing mechanism.

On top of this, we carried out an exercise to upskill people who lack confidence with using digital media and those who are vulnerable to disinformation. We all know that, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic has put an increased emphasis on the need to increase citizens’ digital/media literacy to help them combat misinformation and fake news.

Finally, we evaluated whether the Provenance verification tool could make the work of fact checkers easier and thus save time on their debunking activities. We interviewed the four principal fact-checkers in Spain to find out what their needs are and how the Provenance verification tool could help them in their daily work.

We can conclude that citizens, prosumers, digital/media literacy instructors and fact checkers all need tools to fight against misinformation. Thanks to the workshops, we have been able to identify that feelings such as anger or rage are elements that play an important role in the construction of misinformation and that the best way to combat misinformation is by promoting critical thinking and education.

The pandemic has drawn additional attention to the importance of having digital access to technology, with a special focus on the risks related to the digital divide, in particular regarding work and education. Can you share with us some observations on potential changes in citizens’ attitudes towards access to technology?

Oscar Espiritusanto: Here at the Fundación Cibervoluntarios, we have noticed in the last 20 years that technology can help bridge numerous gaps that exist beyond the digital divide, and not just when it comes to lack of access. What we try to counter with all our actions and projects is the lack of digital knowledge and skills that can make citizens vulnerable and lead to social exclusion.

During the COVID-19 outbreak last March, those gaps were even more visible. Everything went online and solutions were needed. Cibervoluntarios is the only technological volunteer network in the world that sets out to transform the lives of people in situations of digital vulnerability. We get citizens to take ownership of technology and be the protagonists of their own futures. We do it in an open, collaborative, inclusive and sustainable way – from local to global, and always meeting the needs of each specific group.

We cannot deny that this pandemic has highlighted the existing digital divide. However, it has driven, accelerated and almost forced citizens to have a certain mastery of technology in their daily lives.

How can you measure the impact of your initiatives/actions – also beyond Provenance? Once the Provenance verification tool is completed and citizens and entities begin using it, we will be able to see the real impact of this type of project on society. We use a qualitative approach, as specified in the methodology of the workshops already carried out with end-users and information seekers.

In addition to its work with Provenance, Fundación Cibervoluntarios develops specific metrics and methodologies tailored for each program and project to measure its effectiveness. We focus our actions on three main areas:

  • Online training courses, talks and workshops, tailored for each target group by geographic location, gender and age, and that meet the needs of those in situations of digital vulnerability.
  • Raising awareness campaigns to engage the general public, other NGOs, grassroots organisations, the educational environment, academia, the private sector and also local, regional, national and European governments.
  • Events to foster positive social and cultural attitudes towards the importance of technology to generate a positive impact on society.

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