The antidote to fake news? Inform by following the rules

The alternative to the propagation of artfully constructed news is having fair and accessible debates and ensuring that the UN encourages this virtuous dynamic by formally recognizing the right of every citizen to know.

On 1 November, during a Senate hearing in which Colin Stretch, Vice-President of Facebook, was heard, US Senator Burr referred to the case of two Facebook groups, ‘Heart of Texas’ “to stop islamisation of Texas” and ‘United Muslims of America’ created “to save the Islamic culture”. Small detail: both are fictitious. Not the dozens of people who found themselves on 21 May 2016 in Houston at the same place at the same time, on opposing sides. The demonstrations had been organized in some office in St. Petersburg, Russia, through Facebook ads. Total cost of the operation: 200 dollars.

On 8 December, former Vice President Joe Biden revealed that Russia had interfered and is interfering in Italy. Interestingly, on 4 December, La Stampa editor, Maurizio Molinari, said that digital giants such as Facebook and Google have a window of opportunity to “review the rules with which they publish the news”. An assertion not entirely dissimilar to the hacking action in the public interest, proposed by Professor Zaccardi, who teaches Legal Informatics at the University of Milan, who, on the occasion of the conference “SOS Rule of Law: towards the right to know” organised by Nonviolent Radical Party, underlined that the phenomenon of fake news can be countered by “making sure that the real data become persistent and viral”.

It is certain that the development of technologies and the advent of social media have promoted this intrusive dynamic and that the answer must also be of a technical nature. But is it enough? The plight of fake news seems to remain an epiphenomenous in relation to a central issue, namely the prolonged degradation of “real democracies” – according to the definition with which Marco Pannella drew a parallelism with the countries governed by “real socialism” – started years ago and accelerated in its severity by fake news.

For decades, the Radical Party, and in particular the leader Marco Pannella, have denounced with political-scientific rigor violations, abuses and complaints perpetrated by the highest authorities of the Italian State, to the detriment of political and civil rights of Italian citizens. Suffice to remember how Mr. Pannella called the Italian Constitutional Court: “the supreme dome of the partitocratic mafia”. At the global level, the culmination of such enduring conduct, whose sediment over the years has become a political and cultural practice, was the preparation and execution of the military attack on Iraq in March 2003.

How can we not describe the reasons provided for the invasion as “fake news” created at the highest levels of the State? An operation entirely based on manipulation and presentation of information produced specifically to justify a policy decided away from Parliament. If authorities responsible for preserving the common good deceive, spread increasingly serious lies, we should not be taken aback by the outbreak of falsehoods and ambiguities flooding every media channel, especially the apparently-free web. We are paying the intellectual and moral debt contracted with the way in which military action in Iraq in 2003 was decided, when the leaders of the liberal-democratic world sacrificed their credibility and that of their age-old democratic countries on the altar of security.

And if a declaration of war, an act involving and marking the present and the future of an entire country, is not enough, then take the omissions that resulted in the 2008 financial collapse, on which the institutions responsible for control visibly failed citizens by providing them with fraudolent assurances. Lies wrapped in lies, imbued with secrecy.

What about the major current issues that are shaking the European Union to its core values, namely Brexit and independence of Catalonia? Were citizens able to make a decision based on a political reflection built on information, studies and researches through public debates, between the camps involved? Or did instinct and emotions prevail? Is it acceptable to leave the destiny of a community of millions of people to speculation?

It is not administratively or criminally possible to sanction lie in politics – take for example the promise, formulated in the United Kingdom during the Brexit referendum, to save 350 million pounds per week. The alternative to the propagation of artfully constructed news is having fair and accessible debates and ensuring that the UN encourages this virtuous dynamic by formally recognizing the right of every citizen to know, the right to receive information from the competent authorities without any obstacles, except for operations of clear national sensitivity. On 7 December David Davis MP, the British Secretary for Brexit, admitted in a hearing that there is no type of impact assessment whatsoever in any sector.

No ad-hoc law, or “truth algorithm”, will eradicate the so-called fake news, for the simple reason that they have always existed and they will always exist. It is a product on whose impact already exist laws and rules on freedom of expression, but the lack of debate and rules that regulate it stifles democracy and takes root falsehoods. The Radical Party is concerned by proposals meant to address the danger fake news, but that could still stifle freedom of expression. Who will establish what is a true or false news? Knowing how large telematic companies act and block certain news as the autocratic regimes wanted, what will be the reliable algorithm? We should focus more on the demand rather than supply by discouraging it.

If citizens are no longer able to tell a true story from a false one; if citizens in the whole of the democratic world have lost confidence not only in government institutions – a loss of confidence clearly expressed in anti-system votes or in abstentionism – but also in information services which have already been subjected to laws, regulations and controls, the problem can not be solved only with censorship. Rather, existing rules must be urgently enforced. It is necessary to underline and to reveal the non-application of the rules themselves, just as the Italian TV-Radio Audit Centre did with the unyielding support of Marco Pannella. In other words, it is time to assert the basic priciples of democracy and to affirm the right to know.

In this sense, it is useful to recall the words of French senator André Gattolin, elected with LREM and member of the Radical Party, who is deeply committed to reform the system of aid to the press in France. Sen. Gattolin believes that “informing and animating the debate is part of the mission of the public service”. If democratic rules are enforced we maty hope to have the antidote to the disinformation, be it foreign or domestic.

In the last years of their lives, prof. Cherif Bassiouni and Marco Pannella agreed on a worrying circumstance: the world is substantially moving in the opposite direction to that of 1948, that direction which pursued universal human rights. “We must begin with the principles, which are at the core of the rule of law of which the right to know is one of the basic pillars”. This is what we are committed to and what we are pursuing under the guidance of the two wisemen.

Matteo Angioli

Translation: Ilaria Saltarelli
Read the original article on the web site of Italian newspaper Il Dubbio

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