The overall goal of the Provenance project is to create a service – in the form of a plug-in/personalised virtual companion – that will evaluate online content and provide contextual information to citizens on its quality as they browse the web or social media.
Eileen Culloty, post-doctoral researcher at the Dublin City University Institute for Future Media, Democracy and Society and head of research on countering disinformation at Provenance: “If you think about the dynamics of social media, they prioritise instant reactions and that’s one reason why hoaxes and rumours spread so quickly. Our idea is to insert some friction into that response – a moment of pause to think about the credibility of content. Research on disinformation is new and there is much we don’t know, but evidence from current research supports the Provenance approach. For example, people seem to be bad at spotting disinformation in ordinary circumstances, but when they are asked to stop and think, they are actually quite good at it. This is the basic idea of Provenance.” – Read the full interview
To develop the plug-in and personalised companion, Provenance organises workshops and interviews. The aim of each workshop is to understand ‘the information journey’ – how the audience deals with information and for which aspects of this behaviour a verification tool could be useful. Provenance has been co-created with diverse representatives of civil society across three distinct use cases: citizen information seekers, media literacy practitioners and content creators.
Oscar Espiritusanto, professor at the University Carlos III of Madrid in the Department of Journalism and Audiovisual Communication and researcher at Fundación Cibervoluntarios: “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.” – Read the full interview
The personalised digital companion
People’s judgement can be improved by asking them to think about content accuracy and by warning them about manipulation tactics. To this end, Provenance’s research team is developing a secure system – the Social Network Monitor. This system will verify multimedia content by applying advanced tools for multimedia analytics to the pieces of content registered in this system. A personalised digital companion caters to the information needs of end-users to help them navigate content and develop digital literacy competencies. This is achieved in part through an iconographic verification indicator, which can be accessed as a browser plug-in.
Owen Conlan, professor at Trinity College Dublin and lead of Provenance’s technical development: “So, concretely, the personalised digital companion and plugin offer users information about the online news information they are interacting with and offer guidance tailored to their level of expertise in that material, on how to understand the content they are presented with.” – Read the full interview
The plug-in contextualises individual pieces of content with relevant information, including the date and origin of the visual or textual content, its similarity to other content, the quality of the writing (including the use of loaded or highly emotional language), and the degree of visual manipulation.
Owen Conlan: “Where personalised support kicks in is in offering media literacy skills development support that is tailored to the current context, (i.e. the kinds of content they are exploring), to ensure they are establishing transferrable skills in how they examine content. This is important as users are an exceptionally adaptable and intelligent element of this ‘socio-technical’ system.”
The success of the project in improving people’s ability to evaluate content by using the digital personalised companion is measured by using three indicators: endorsement by verification practitioners, endorsement by content creators and improved ability to evaluate content credibility. The findings will be applicable to any area in which social media and verification are important.
Beyond media literacy: network building
The project’s next steps are to integrate the individual components and test their effectiveness with citizens. Disinformation is challenging, as it is a young research area and there are many gaps in knowledge when it comes to labelling content. For example, the warning labels might be very effective for one group of people, but have a negative impact on another.
Eileen Culloty: “We began the project with five target groups in mind: civil society, content creators, policymakers, researchers, and potential investors or collaborators. Building a network like that is crucial because no one project is going to solve the disinformation problem. It requires ongoing cooperation among different stakeholders and a good understanding of the needs and perspectives of those stakeholders. Building a diverse network is also really important to understand what the steps are beyond the end of Provenance and what collaborations might take shape.”
While moving forward with testing and piloting, it is of primary importance to engage diverse groups of people and to work closely with citizens and groups that represent citizens to understand potential issues.
Jane Suiter, professor at Dublin City University and principal investigator of Provenance: “Media literacy and solutions such as ours are one part of the solution to disinformation, not a panacea on its own. One problem with a focus on media literacy is that it tends to focus on the young, yet older generations are often more inclined to share disinformation. In addition, it does little to halt the creation of manipulated content and puts a heavy burden on the individual to be responsible rather than the platforms.” – Read the full interview