SOMA speaks to the News Agency of Portugal (LUSA) about its actions on countering disinformation in the EU

The News Agency of Portugal (LUSA) published an article profiling the objectives of the Social Observatory on Media Analysis against Disinformation (SOMA) project and Mr. Nikos Sarris, the project’s coordinator had the chance to discuss the vision of the 40+ organizations from 20+ countries, which have come together to combat misinformation in the European Union (EU).

The idea is to have all these organizations working together to share practices, knowledge and technical resources,” N. Sarris told LUSA. The project aims at detecting disinformation, making sure that collective investigations follow the steps of “identification, organization and verification“, as Nikos Sarris explained.

When we want to start an investigation, we create what we call a collection, to which we assign a theme and a team of researchers that work together. They start by adding relevant content to the collection, which may originate in social networks, web pages, or even local files, which are then organized through annotation, discussions and task assignments“.

Then, in the final step of verification, “people analyze the information gathered” using software tools created by Athens Technology Center (ATC), the company leading the SOMA project, and Deutsche Welle.

These tools, which are based on various metrics and algorithms, “do not immediately assume or reach a conclusion [i.e., do not indicate if one is facing misinformation],” said Mr. Sarris.  This is because “we believe that the decision must be taken by experts, such as fact checkers or journalists,” noting that “the outcome of the investigation is always dependent on human observation.”

The idea is to provide the technological infrastructure and some operational support to help the joint work of these organizations.” he added.

When asked why the Observatory was set up, Nikos Sarris stressed that “the problem is obvious; Channels for spreading fake news are nowadays huge. Lies already existed in our societies, but currently the channels through which they are spread – social networks and the Internet –  speed up information spread tremendously. This affects so many facets of our life, and there is still a great ‘business opportunity’ for the bad side of the information and for the malicious actors, “Nikos Sarris thus argued for the existence of “collaborative approaches” to this problem, since “for an organization, by itself, it becomes impossible to counter the huge resources of malicious actors”.

Furthermore, in his discussion with Mrs. Ana Matos Neves, LUSA’s Correspondent in Brussels, Nikos Sarris called for “quick action” by the European Union against false news, proposing the creation of punishments for those propagate them. “This is a matter of the judicial system – laws, rules and regulations must be adapted to punish those who clearly propagate misinformation, just as someone who commits a crime is punished.”

At a time when disinformation is everywhere and at all levels of society, Mr. Sarris pointed out that, there must be punishment in cases where it has been proven beyond any doubt that a certain actor has acted maliciously.

When asked what punishments could be imposed, Nikos Sarris noted that this would depend on the type of disinformation and malicious act. “I believe there must be a regulatory framework, but we have to be very careful not to undermine freedom of expression and end up having a kind of ‘Ministry of Truth’”, he said.  Thus, for Nikos Sarris, such measures “may be good”, but it must be ensured that these sanctions “do not undermine freedom of expression and thought”. To that end, “member states have to adapt their laws and the EU has to advise them and coordinate this regulatory change,” he said, stressing that EU policy makers should regard this as “a problem [that is already] out of control”.

Among other measures to address this problem, he spoke of the importance of media literacy, so that both children can “understand and learn how to deal with the problem” early on, as well as professionals can have “the training, time and resources to deal with this issue”.

Source (in Portuguese): LUSA (part 1, part 2)