December 22, 2022 | Arete News

ISD’s Francesca Arcostanzo talks BEAM, disinformation research and monitoring major world events

ISD Digital Analysis Unit Lead, Francesca Arcostanzo, and co-founder of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM), Carl Miller, feature in Arete News speaking about our award-winning tool BEAM, how its been used to monitor major world events and the different aspects behind disinformation research.

BEAM is a partnership between ISD and CASM that began in 2015, designed to provide countries, NGOs, academia and civil society the tools to detect online manipulation and mis- and disinformation, leading to more effective responses. Since, then, it has been used to monitor social media activity during global events and crises. Just this year it was built out to monitor multi-language activity during the Russian invasion, the French general elections, the US midterm elections and the UN Climate Summit. It has also been used to carry out investigations on election disinformation in the US, Australia and France; information operations and disinformation about the Ukraine and Syria conflicts; and climate disinformation in and around COP26 and COP27; and more. 

Looking back at the information environment when the tool was first developed, Francesca remembers: “Text analysis was exploding, and everyone in political science was excited about the free availability of text data, but it was difficult to collect. Back then, we were calling it ‘blog sentiment analysis.’ The focus was not on disinformation, but on the politicisation and polarisation around specific issues.”

These projects do not focus on debunking what is found, but rather map the spread and reach of the information and the interplay it receives online. “We rarely try to understand whether any piece of information is, in itself, correct or incorrect; if it is ‘fake news’ or not,” she said. “The focus is more on the big picture of how the spread of content happens and what its relationship is with opinion formation or political belief rather than to understand what’s true, what’s false, and to what extent.”

BEAM is able to collect an extensive archive of data from social media platforms Reddit, Telegram, Twitter, YouTube, PeerTube, 4Chan, Discord, Mastodon, “mainstream media” news sources and other sites. It is then combined with ethnographic research in order to better understand the context. “We use lots of ethnographic work combined with more computer-assisted work in order to understand the spaces and how they operate,” Francesca explained.