City’s Professor Petros Iosifidis and his co-author Dr Nicholas Nicoli launched their new book about online disinformation with a well-attended launch event featuring some fascinating guest speakers.

By Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer), Published (Updated )

City, University of London has hosted a panel discussion on the rise of disinformation on social media platforms, to mark the launch of a new book co-written by a Department of Sociology academic.

The book, co-authored by Professor Petros Iosifidis, is titled Digital Democracy, Social Media and Disinformation (Routledge).

After introductions from Professor Jo Littler from the Department of Sociology, and Professor Juliet John, Dean of the School of Arts & Social Sciences, Professor Iosfidis and his co-author, Dr Nicholas Nicoli, from the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, gave some introductory thoughts about why they wrote the book – and why it is important at this moment in history.

Professor Iosifidis said: “The past few months have demonstrated that modern technology allows many of us to adapt to extraordinary conditions such as lockdowns.

“Like most academics, my co-author Nicholas and I had to prioritise teaching and student support, but we also found the energy to write a book on a topic that interests us both,” he said, before praising his co-author for his encouragement during the writing process.

Dr Nicoli discussed the inspirations for the book: “Freedom of speech is indispensable for democracy to work,” he said.

“Democracies witness deliberative freedom of speech, and deviant freedom of speech, fuelled by populism and nationalist movements.”

He spoke of the challenges of enforcing regulations across social platforms – which have, to this point, tended to take a light touch to the matter – noting that the “scales seem to have tipped towards harm and threats”.

Distinguished panel

Following the authors’ remarks, each of the panellists spoke in turn, giving their qualified views of the threats posed by disinformation on social media:

The guest speakers at the launch were:

  • Professor Vera Tolz, University of Manchester, with a talk titled ‘Trump, Russia and the US Elections: Information War or Global Misinformation System?’
  • Professor Steven Barnett, University of Westminster, with a talk titled ‘From Arab Spring to the Capitol Insurrection: how a social media democracy vision dissolved’
  • Dr Damian Tambini, LSE, with a talk titled ‘How to reconcile internet media with democracy: a systemic approach’
  • Chi Onwurah, Labour MP, with a talk titled ‘Our Digital Future’.

Each of the speakers gave impressive and informative talks – the entirety of which can be seen in the video below.

Expert opinions

Professor Tolz stressed that there was a big difference between what social scientists are saying ought to be done about online disinformation, in comparison to those in a position to do something about it.

She noted that the highest density of dis/misinformation in the world is not in Russia or China, contrary to what many people believe, but is actually in the US. Some hyper-partisan disinformation spreaders backing Donald Trump had a million YouTube views within an hour of publishing allegations of voter fraud, she noted.

“Brexit should have told us long ago that externalising this disinformation is highly counterproductive,” said Professor Tolz.

Professor Barnett spoke of how ten years previously he’d been in Cairo delivering a paper during the Arab Spring. The “real sense of optimism in the air” he felt that day, turned out to be “a bit of a mirage”.

“Those countries are now besieged by social media problems of their own,” he said.

Noting that there is an emerging pattern of far-right groups attempting to persuade people about a ‘deep state’ conspiracy that ought to be overthrown, Professor Barnett said that such theories tend to be built around a white supremacist world view.

“White supremacists have existed for years, but there’s no question that social media have played a role to radicalise and recruit vulnerable individuals.”

“Fox News played a part too,” he added. “Without them, the poison on social media could not have taken hold so easily.”

Dr Tambini welcomed the introduction of the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) in late 2020, a legislative proposal by the European Commission submitted to the European Parliament and the European Council which will mean new legislation regarding illegal content, transparent advertising and disinformation.

The DSA will mean “a more mature debate”, he said. One that looks at “what needs to be joined together to ensure codes of conduct are enforced”, rather than a “Whac-A-Mole approach” to bad actors and disinformation.

Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, said the speed at which disinformation can travel around the world needs to be closely looked at.

“The pandemic has brought forwards the power of technology to us, but also some of its downsides too,” she said.

“We have little control over the content, [social media companies] curate it. Nearly half of UK adults believe they encounter fake news every day. So, why isn’t there regulation?

“We need to find ways to protect the internet from peddlers of disinformation and lies. This book comes out at a very important period.

“I am looking forward to making the internet a place of truth and freedom,” she said.

Speaker biographies

Professor Petros Iosifidis is professor in Sociology and Media Policy at City, University of London, UK. He has acknowledged expertise in the realms of communications policy, public service media and regulation of social media. He is author of 9 books including Public Sphere and Mediated Social Networks (2016, with M. Wheeler), Global Media & National Policies (2016, with T. Flew and J. Steemers), Global Media and Communication Policy (2013), Public Television in the Digital Era (2012), and Reinventing Public Service Communication (2010).

He has contributed numerous book chapters and has published extensively in peer-review journals. He has served as an ESRC Peer Review College reviewer, as Principal Editor of the Journal of Digital Media & Policy and Co-Editor of the Palgrave Global Media Policy and Business. He is Vice-Chair of IAMCR Global Media Policy group, has given evidence to parliamentary committees, provided policy advice to government, and has acted as national expert on European projects.

Dr Nicholas Nicoli is associate professor of Communication at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus. His research focuses on communications policy and creative industry institutions. His initial research sought to deconstruct creativity management policies within public service broadcasters such as the BBC. Thereafter he focused his attention on the impact of communications policy upon strategic communication.

His current research explores the intersection of communications policy, digital disinformation and the public interest. He has contributed book chapters and has published extensively in peer-review journals. He is on the editorial boards of The Institute for Mass Media, Journal of Digital Media & Policy and Journal of Media Business Studies and has acted as a national expert and science communications manager on European projects.

Professor Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester, UK. She has published widely on various aspects of Russian nationalism and the relationship between intellectuals and the state in the imperial, Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Her latest projects have focused on the role of the media in Russia's domestic politics and foreign policy.

Her most recent books are Nation, Ethnicity and Race on Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference (with Stephen Hutchings) and Russia’s Own Orient’: The Politics of Identity and Oriental Studies in the Late Imperial and Early Soviet Periods. She is currently involved in a collaborative research project on broadcasting and audience engagement strategies of RT (formerly Russia Today).

Professor Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster and an established writer, author and commentator, who specialises in media policy, regulation, political communication, and the theory and practice of journalism. Over the last 30 years, he has advised ministers and shadow ministers across the political spectrum and has given evidence to several parliamentary committees as well as the European Parliament. In 2019 he was specialist advisor to the House of Lords Communications and Digital select committee for its inquiry into PSB.

He has directed numerous research projects on the structure, funding, and regulation of communications in the UK and other countries. He is on the editorial and management boards of British Journalism Review and was for many years an Observer columnist. Books include The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Media Power and Plurality (with Judith Townend, eds, Palgrave, 2015).

Dr Damian Tambini is Distinguished Policy Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, where he also serves as Programme Director for the MSc Media and Communications (Governance). Dr Tambini is an expert in media and communications regulation and policy, and active in policymaking as well as academic research. He is frequently called to give evidence to parliamentary committees and provide formal and informal policy advice to government. Dr Tambini was inaugural Director of the Media Policy Project.

From June 2002 to August 2006 Dr Tambini was Head of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at Oxford University. Before that he was director of the IPPR Media Policy Project (1999-2002), Postdoctoral Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford (1998). Lecturer, Humboldt University, Berlin (1997-8), and researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy (PhD 1996). Dr Tambini has published widely, and his next book Media Freedom will be published by Polity in spring 2021. He co-edited Digital Dominance: The Power of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. (Oxford University Press 2018), and the next volume in this series will be published by OUP in spring 2021.

Chi Onwurah is a British Member of Parliament representing Newcastle upon Tyne Central and is also Shadow Minister Digital, Science & Technology.

From October 2016 to April 2020 Chi was Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy Science & Innovation (and Shadow Digital Minister Feb-April 2020). From September 2015 to October 2016 she was Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy. And from January 2013 to September 2015 she was Shadow Cabinet Office Minister leading on cyber security, social entrepreneurship, civil contingency, open government and transparency.

From October 2010 to January 2013 Chi was Shadow Minister for Innovation, Science & Digital Infrastructure working closely with the Science and business community, with industry on Broadband issues, and on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. Chi continues to encourage women in STEM.