Horizon 2020, the current research and innovation programme, has mobilised significant resources in addressing information veracity for social media and media. The Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis (SOMA) along with other EU-funded projects (PROVENANCE, SocialTruth, EUNOMIA, WeVerify) provide a springboard for the social media sector to steer an understanding of its dynamics and the relationship between social media and other sectors.
The observatory has already gathered a significant number of resources and analysis around coronavirus “infodemic” and disinformation-related knowledge. These proposed solutions take the form of various types of projects including: a platform for content verification; fact-checking tools; a methodology for the socio-economic impact assessment of disinformation; strategies and actions to increase media literacy, analyse legal roadblocks and community-based self-regulation aspects; a repository of disinformation-related knowledge.
The HERoS project, for example, improves the efficiency of the response to the virus outbreak. It aims to help responders to public health emergencies make informed decisions. To this end, the project is developing a new method for categorising and filtering information from social media to better counter coronavirus rumours and misinformation.
Several other ongoing projects under Horizon 2020 (Societal Challenge 6 and the Science with and for society sections) have adjusted their activities and included coronavirus-related disinformation in scope. For instance, the project Co-Inform, working on tools to foster critical thinking and digital literacy for a better-informed society, has already published on Misinformation and COVID-19. The QUEST project, working on quality and effectiveness in science and technology communication, has naturally paid attention to different aspects of quality science communication around the coronavirus crisis. The TRESCA project, working on developing trust in science and innovation through innovating communication practices between scientific researchers, journalists and policy makers, has also analysed basic digital sanitary practices to stop misinformation.
The aim of the Horizon2020 funded FANDANGO project is to aggregate and verify different typologies of news data, media sources, social media, open data, so as to detect fake news and provide a more efficient and verified communication for all European citizens. As such, the FANDANGO project aims to break data interoperability barriers providing unified techniques and an integrated big data platform to support traditional media industries to face the new “data” news economy with increased transparency under the Responsible, Research and Innovation prism.
The European Research Council (ERC) supports theoretical investigations, like the one developed by Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute and recipient of an ERC Consolidator Grant for project COMPROP on “Computational Propaganda: Investigating the Impact of Algorithms and Bots on Political Discourse in Europe”. It applies the best available methods in social and computer science to work on possible solutions. The ERC website and the ERCTalks series had already presented his research. Together with his team, he has been running Coronavirus Misinformation Weekly Briefings and was recently interviewed about disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic. The work developed by Jason Reifler, professor at Exeter University and recipient of a Consolidator Grant for DEBUNKER, a project on “Misperceptions in Politics, Health, and Science: Causes, Consequences, and the Search for Solutions”, is presented in this recent article.
The FARE project addresses the spread of fake news by providing a theoretical framework for making testable predictions. The project will develop multidisciplinary research that advances our understanding of the decision-making process and the mistakes we have made on fake news, using experimental and computing techniques (big data and complexity systems).
The European Research Council also supports proof of concept projects like GoodNews, which applies deep learning technology for the detection of fake news. It aims to build a technological capability for algorithmic fake news detection in social media using a novel paradigm. Instead of following the traditional approach of analysing the news content, it will analyse the news spreading patterns in social networks. The algorithmic core of this project is based on a novel class of geometric deep learning algorithms developed in the LEMAN (Learning on Manifolds and Graphs) project.
The European Innovation Council steered the #EUvsVirus Hackathon, organised in close collaboration with EU member states with the purpose of connecting civil society, innovators, partners and investors across Europe in order to develop innovative solutions for coronavirus related challenges. Solutions under the challenges on “Mitigating fake news spreading” were invited to the “Matchathon” organised by the European Innovation Council on 22-25 May 2020 in order to mobilise financing. Previously, the European Innovation Council had also supported companies in developing semi-automated fake-news detection systems through actions like Truthcheck and Newtral.
The second call for expression of interest launched in response to the coronavirus pandemic under Horizon 2020 addressed the “Behavioural, social and economic impacts of the outbreak response”. Among the 5 selected projects, COVINFORM addresses COVID-19 related dis/misinformation. The project will identify and assess measures to prevent misinformation, disinformation, malinformation, ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories, as well as formulate recommendations to tackle them. It will also analyse and help understand the impact of misinformation and digital communication on the mental health and well-being of different groups.
Under the last calls of Horizon 2020, 3 projects on the transformations of the European media landscape started activities early in 2021. The scope of the proposed challenge, defined before the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic, required to examine, amongst other aspects, the role of the media, including social media, language, news generation and new phenomena, such as ‘fake news’. Therefore, though not directly pandemic-related, the projects will contribute to the combat against disinformation, through the analysis of the crucial socio-cultural and political role of media and its impact in the evolution of a European political and cultural space.
Other existing tools
The Epidemics Intelligence from Open Sources (EIOS) platform, a collaboration between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC), was designed to rapidly identify potential public health threats, using information from media reports. It helped WHO to detect the first signs of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan at the end of December last year, and has since been used to trace the spread of the disease globally. It is based on the JRC’s Europe Media Monitor Medical Information System (MEDISYS) tool, collating up to 120,000 articles per day related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Most fake news is written using words and a language chosen to deliberately arouse and heighten emotions of fear and anxiety. The Joint Research Centre developed a machine-learning program, called Misinfo Classifier, to identify patterns in the language, notably the “shrillness” of language, and identify whether something might be fake news or not. The tool is currently being used by the Commission and European Parliament and will be made available to reputable fact-checking organisations.
Social Rumour is another software used by the European Parliament and the European Commission. It identifies accounts on Twitter that are posting links to known dodgy sources. It then monitors other links posted by these accounts in order to pinpoint new narratives emerging on social media. It will also be made available to reputable fact-checking organisations.
The European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) is a project that supports the independent community working to combat disinformation. It will allow for the creation of a cross-border and multidisciplinary community of independent fact-checkers and academic researchers, which will collaborate with relevant stakeholders to detect, analyse and expose potential disinformation threats. EDMO will establish, in cooperation with online platforms, a privacy-compliant and secure framework allowing academic researchers to access online platforms’ data. Moreover, EDMO will provide technical support and advice to ERGA for the monitoring of online platforms’ policies under the Code of Practice on disinformation and/or future regulatory frameworks. EDMO (is operational since 1 June 2020. The contracted consortium is lead by the European University Institute (EUI).
The Commission recently announced the result of a call for proposal to provide grants for a total amount of €11 million to establish 8 EDMO regional hubs in different Member States, and ensure their interconnection to the central infrastructure. The hubs will start to be operational by the summer of 2021 and will cover Ireland, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, as well as Norway part of the EEA.
Upcoming calls and projects
In Horizon Europe, the next research and innovation framework programme, the first work-programmes will mobilise around €60 million for research on the fight against disinformation in general, with some specific angles on pandemic-related disinformation. Cluster 2 “Culture, creativity and inclusive society” will include relevant topics for research on disinformation, rising importance of a strong and independent media landscape and of the fight against fake news in the post-coronavirus context. In particular, topics envisaged for 2021-2022 may include research on:
- the political role of both legacy and new media, exploring how to uphold journalistic standards and support democracy through quality media
- the impact of online social networks and new media on individual and collective behaviour, beliefs and values
- pandemic-related disinformation and mechanisms to cope with, in the context of politics and governance in the post-covid world
Clusters 3, “Civil security for society”, and 4, “Digital, industry and space”, will also fund research on combatting disinformation and fake news and raising trust in the digital world and on Artificial Intelligence to fight disinformation.