Can Europe Make It?

Four invisible enemies in the first pandemic of a “datafied society”

COVID-19 lays bare the nuances of a society undergoing digital data transformation in nearly every field of human activity, from its most beneficial to its most disturbing aspects

Stefania Milan Philip Di Salvo
8 June 2020
“Lockdown easing” contact-tracing smartphone app, "StopCOVID", on a mobile phone in Paris, France, June 6, 2020.
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Gao Jing/PA. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 is the first global pandemic to emerge on such a wide scale and to such grave effect in an advanced phase of so-called “datafied society”. We find ourselves at a turning point in our understanding of what it means to live in an era dominated by digital data transformation in nearly every field of human activity. A situation as extreme as the one we are experiencing in these weeks of variably strict lockdown, inevitably exposes the nuances of this phenomenon, from its most beneficial to its most potentially disturbing aspects.

To find a comparable moment – such an all-encompassing stress-test of the cultural assumptions and foundations of society as a whole – one has to go back to the 9/11 attacks. But 2001 and 2020 have little in common in terms of technological ecosystems and digital infrastructure; consequently the social and political impacts are equally dissimilar.

At the core of a datafied society is the production of data and their use to create added value, from traffic management to the improvement of the state output, from targeted advertising on digital platforms to the contact tracing apps designed to fight COVID-19. Even in normal circumstances, we generate most of this data ourselves, through our smartphones, our interactions on social media, online banking and shopping. The large-scale monetisation of data regarding our preferences and behaviour strengthens the monopoly of corporations like Google and Amazon, their analyses and predictions.

However, as citizens we also produce data by accessing the health system or simply strolling through our cities, which by now host a myriad of CCTV cameras and facial recognition systems. Much of this data ends up in private hands, even if and when data appear to be under the control of state institutions: public offices’ servers are managed by private companies like Accenture, IBM or Microsoft.

This mix of geographically varied data, different infrastructures, and private and public entities is a potentially explosive cocktail, primarily because of the limited transparency vis-à-vis users and the risks to individual and collective privacy. Datafied society is in fact, the cradle of what the US economist Shoshana Zuboff calls, ‘surveillance capitalism’ whose motor is the commodification of personal information at the expense of reducing our capacity to act independently and have freedom of choice. In other words, our very existence as citizens is changing, and not necessarily for the better.

There are at least four areas in which the COVID-19 pandemic is functioning as an accelerator of potentially dangerous dynamics which until now have been barely visible. This article focuses in on the case of Italy, which has been particularly affected by these dynamics, partially thanks to poor digital literacy among its citizens. Similar dynamics, however, are at play in most countries heavily affected by the pandemic, including low-income states, we argue.

Beyond any form of technological or epidemiological cause and effect, four distinct tendencies have emerged. They are “unquestioning positivism”, “information disorder”, “digital vigilantism” and the “normalisation of surveillance”. These four enemies are rendered artificially invisible by the human drama of the pandemic, but they cause almost as much collective harm as the virus itself. And to say the least, they are destined to have long term consequences. Let’s go through these one by one.

Unquestioning positivism

The first invisible enemy is associated with a commonly used verb, “to count”; an action that in these times is correctly presented as a useful ally. “Let the numbers speak” is often heard. Counting, and even more so, counting ourselves, is for every society a key mode of reflection. It suffices to think of the crucial role of censuses in the definition of the nation-state. Moreover, counting is central to the management of the pandemic, with the centrality of numbers to its spread and the fight against it. Typically, there is a tendency to believe statistics more than words, as we associate them with a higher order of truth, a phenomenon termed ‘dataism’ by the researcher José van Dijck.

Faith in numbers has historic roots, dating back to the days of nineteenth century positivism, which promoted belief in science and in scientific and technological progress. In the philosopher August Comte’s, A General view of Positivism(1844), he explained that positivism brings “the real as opposed to the chimerical” to the forefront. Striving to “contrast the precise with the vague”, he presented scientific fact as the “opposite of the negative”, rather projecting a positive attitude of confidence in the future. Certainly, bringing concrete facts to the centre of the narrative of the virus and the search for solutions could be a good thing after the recent bleak period for science, which has seen the emergence of anti-vaccination movements. Unfortunately, however, faith in numbers is often misplaced, as has been made clear in recent weeks: official data tend to illustrate a limited and often misleading portion of the pandemic’s reality.

Nevertheless, numbers and data are at the core of the virus narrative. However, it is a narrative that is not very accurate, often decontextualized, and all the more angst-inducing for it. The result is an unquestioning positivism that tends to ignore context and does not explain why or how it should be dealt with. Decisions which involve entire countries are taken and justified on the basis of figures based on data that is not necessarily accurate.

The pandemic’s information disorder

The international context of the pandemic has been classed as an ‘infodemic’, an expression applied above all by the WHO to circumstances where there is an overabundance of information – accurate or not – that makes it very difficult for people to distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones. The pandemic is particularly conducive to the diffusion of ‘information disorder’, in various forms of disinformation and misinformation.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at the University of Oxford has published one of the first studies on the information disorder’s characteristics in this pandemic. It concentrated on a sample of English language news evaluated by fact-checking initiatives like First Draft. The research revealed that sources of disinformation on the pandemic can be ‘top-down’ (when they are promoted by politicians or by other public personalities) as well as ‘bottom-up’ when they derive from normal users.

Although the first type represents only 20 percent of the sample analysed by the RISJ, it is also revealed that top-down disinformation tends to generate more of a social media buzz compared to that which emerges from below. The RISJ further asserts that the largest portion of misinformation that has emerged in these weeks is comprised of ‘reconfigured’ content, modified only in parts. Only a minority (around 38 percent) consisted of completely invented content. Thomas Rid, one of the world’s leading experts on misinformation campaigns in the area of national security (the subject of his eagerly anticipated book, Active Measures), has argued in the New York Times that the pandemic could provide a particularly fertile terrain for ‘information warfare’, with the objective of creating confusion and tensions in the public opinion of the countries involved, similar to those seen in the USA during the 2016 Presidential election campaigns. Misinformation of a racist bent with xenophobic motives, cannot be forgotten, such as the false news circulated in various places claiming that Africans were immune to the virus. In Italy, television and mainstream media have been especially important channels for diffusing unverified information and conspiratorial takes on COVID-19. For instance, false claims about the virus being artificially created in a Chinese laboratory have been frequently reported on screen and by newspapers, contributing to the circulation of misleading information about the pandemic.

Digital vigilantism

Since the early days of the pandemic, people out running in various countries have reportedly been harassed, and in some cases physically assaulted by other citizens irritated by the potential risk to public health posed by those outside. People on their way to work have reported being subject to various types of abuse for not “staying at home”. A sizable number of videos has been uploaded to social media with the aim of denouncing people supposedly out and about with no regard for the lockdown. Criminology research has categorised this phenomenon as “vigilantism”.

Vigilantism occurs when private citizens voluntarily take up roles that are not their responsibility, such as controlling the behaviour of others and complaining about their supposed misdeeds. Through their actions in defence of social norms, vigilantes try to offer a sense of security to themselves and others. The advent of social media and mobile technology has enabled the diffusion of digital vigilantism which has the objective of attacking and shaming those who infringe the rules by exposing them to public scorn. This type of punishment often has a lasting and invasive impact on the privacy of the accused, as well as inciting aggression and a desire for revenge.

This phenomenon is typical of historical moments in which the constituted order is at risk or perceived as such, so the appearance and diffusion of vigilantism in the Coronavirus emergency seems inevitable. The digital vigilantism of Covid-19 is however, particularly dangerous. First and foremost, this need to hate whoever leave the house is exclusionary and contributes to creating social stigma. It targets individuals on the basis of exclusively observable criteria which are insufficient to distinguish between those who are breaking the rules and those who have legitimate reason to do so (for example, those who are on their way to or from work). This creation of “public enemies” leads to psychological damage, from feelings of alienation to a desire for reprisals, which could last well beyond the duration of the Corona crisis. It can justify similarly transgressive behaviour, based on the logic that “if everybody else is doing it, I can do it too”. Secondly, digital vigilantism contributes to dividing the community, with serious and enduring consequences in terms of societal division between supposed good and bad guys, between the deserving and the undeserving. It undermines the message of a strongly united community, capable of confronting the emergency in a rational way, precisely in the moment it is most vital to accept that individual sacrifices are crucial for the collective effort.

Privacy and the normalisation of surveillance

The pandemic has also reignited the debate on the role of privacy in a datafied society. Taking inspiration from the examples – or presumed models – provided by a few more or less democratic countries like China, Singapore and South Korea, governments are requesting that various kinds of technological solutions entailing surveillance and digital monitoring of citizens be undertaken, in order to slow the diffusion of the virus. In Europe, several governments have started work on technical solutions. In general, the debate has been oriented towards the development of “contact tracing” mobile apps which could make use of various smartphone functions as a basis for tracking the spread of the virus. These will monitor the social contacts of infected persons or those potentially exposed to sites of contagion.

A common feature of these solutions are their complex and dangerous repercussions in terms of rights, privacy and security – issues far too easily pushed to one side if technology is viewed in an excessively deterministic or outcome-focused way, or via the unquestioning positivism outlined above. While France was the first country to officially ask Google and Amazon to loosen privacy policies to facilitate the development of a contact-tracing app, in Italy, a governmental taskforce selected the app “Immuni”, which takes a decentralized approach based on Bluetooth. The “Immuni” setup is far less invasive and more privacy-respecting than other apps; and its adoption will not be compulsory. However, there are many doubts with regards to the effectiveness of contact tracing apps. First of all, it has been calculated that in order to function in a meaningful way, “Immuni” would have to be downloaded by at least 60 percent of the Italian population, a penetration rate that even popular apps such as Facebook or WhatsApp struggle to achieve. Thus, an overly deterministic outlook on the capacity of these technical solutions can lead us to overestimate their effectiveness.

Various social science and journalistic studies on surveillance show that is becoming normalized as a frequent subject of public debate. Something similar has been observed across Europe during the pandemic: expert concerns (technical or legal ones) are often prematurely dismissed in public debate as problems of lesser importance, with the promotion of a false dichotomy between privacy and the defence of public health, as if the former is an insurmountable challenge to the latter. In reality, as Yuval Noah Hariri in the Financial Times has written, posing the two criteria as antithetical is incorrect, since citizens should not have to choose between two incompatible fundamental rights. The question to be asked is how many and which rights are we willing to forego – even if only in part – and for which objectives? Too often the debate around privacy tends to become undermined in a dishonest fashion, by comparing the more frivolous behaviours of users with a policy of state monitoring of public health. Privacy is not dead, and although it is in part eroded by problematic commercial exploitation of data, this debate cannot be reduced to considering privacy as an individual right left only to citizens’ decision-making. Privacy always functions in a collective dimension.

The other open question is what to do upon the eventual return to normality. When the emergency is over, should citizens be guaranteed that the technologies of “contact tracing” and infrastructure of control developed for the period of crisis are effectively dismantled (and their data cancelled)? On this point, the European Commission has taken a clear stance, publishing several recommendations and a toolbox and arguing for a pan-European approach in defence of privacy and data protection, as well as the use of shared and de-centralised techniques and standards.

The big issue in many cases, including the Italian one, is the absence of a parliamentary debate on topics as delicate as this one. At the time of writing, the Netherlands is hosting a parliamentary debate which is of paramount importance to ensure that democratic control, accountability and the respect of norms and basic democratic values are central in the making of these decisions.

The antibodies

How can these four invisible enemies be combatted? Unfortunately, the solution is neither simple not immediate. A vaccine capable of magically immunising the citizenry against unquestioning positivism, information disorder, digital vigilantism and the normalisation of surveillance, does not exist (nor will it ever exist).

We can however work on some antibodies and spread them as widely as possible in our communities. Datafied society needs critical and informed users that know how to use and contextualise digital and statistical instruments, that can understand the inevitably associated risks but at the same time take advantage of its benefits. And that can also help the less technologically competent parts of the population navigate their digital worlds.

Data literacy is central to this process. This kind of literacy needs to take into consideration the question of citizenship in the era of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. It has to develop the citizens’ capacity to make informed choices regarding the limits of individual and collective online activities, including the complex considerations related to the protection of personal data. It has to help us to distinguish between sources of information and to disentangle the personalised content algorithms that invalidate our capacity to freely make use of the internet. The challenge is open but particularly urgent, considering that Italy is a straggler in terms of digital literacy at the lower end of the of the 34 OEDC countries (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) rankings. Recent ODEC research revealed that only 36 percent of Italians are able to “make a complex and diversified use of the internet”, which creates a fertile terrain for the four enemies that we have identified above.

The world of education has certainly a critical role to play, combining a revitalized citizen education about the internet with neglected civic education. This requires a serious teacher training programme, along with sufficient public funding.

This is however a medium to long-term project, that would be difficult to carry out during the emergency. But the “Post-Coronavirus” world is being built right now, in the whirlwind of the pandemic. The choices undertaken today will have an inevitable impact on the future outcomes of datafied societies. More than ever, an inclusive, transparent and honest approach is needed to guide these choices, in order to avoid finding ourselves in a future dominated by obscure, discriminatory and potentially anti-democratic technological “black boxes”.

An early version of this article appeared in Italian on the daily Il Manifesto on April 24, 2020.

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