Voted the Oxford Dictionaries’ international word of 2016, so-called “post-truth” refers to an apparently new concept.
The compound word relates to all those circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than news stories based on emotion or personal belief.
After its first appearances in 2015 in a number of articles, in 2016 the term “post-truth” became disconnected from its original definition and became widely used in political comment, especially with regard to the Brexit referendum and the U.S. Presidential election. In Italy the term has often been used in commenting on the outcome of the constitutional referendum.
In simple terms, according to many commentators, the UK’s exit from the European Union, the election of Trump and the failure of Renzi’s referendum proposal are the direct consequence of an era in which voters opt not to believe in objective facts but rather in emotionally charged news stories. Naturally it is not possible to assess how consciously this decision is taken by voters, but it seems obvious that the debate on post-truth also and perhaps mainly refers to those who are unable to distinguish between reliable sources of information and those which are manifestly biased.
As is entirely predictable, at the heart of this alarming situation countless observations can be found on the role of social media as the main vehicle of this uncontrolled spread of fake news and propaganda. Although news is posted and shared by users, the role these platforms play is much more active than might be imagined. On Facebook, for example, the “Trending Topics feed” column actively encourages the reading and sharing of the most popular articles on the social network, many of which come from unreliable websites full of glaringly fake news, the importance of which is exaggerated in this way.
Buzzfeed magazine uncovered the prime case of certain (more than 100) pro-Trump websites, which had been created by numbers of Macedonian teens and which reported sensationalist and totally fictitious news with the single declared aim of making money through Google’s online Ad-sense advertising network. One example is of the baseless smear campaign against Hillary Clinton which helped generate over 140,000 shares (reactions and comments) by U.S.users (on Facebook).
Facebook’s management were faced with a torrent of rage and criticism in the wake of Trump’s victory, being accused of not admitting their responsibility in shaping public opinion. In response to this criticism, on the 15th of December 2016, Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of an article classification system, which will begin flagging news stories reported as fake by users, which will then be sent to (five) third-party outside professional fact-checking organisations for verification.
However, there are many who do not want to leave the power to distinguish real news from fake news to the major Internet platforms, the so-called Over The Top (OTT) players. Both commentators and experts have underlined the danger of leaving private companies in charge of assessing the accuracy of web-based information.
Speaking of which, the Financial Times interview with Giovanni Pitruzzella, head of the Italian Antitrust, published on the 30th December 2016, attracted particular attention. In the interview, Pitruzzella underlines the need to set up “a network of independent national bodies in charge of identifying and removing fake news from circulation (and imposing fines if necessary)”. A sort of Authority tasked with monitoring the truthfulness of information.
The idea has sparked a certain interest among commentators but also a chorus of accusations in relation to the presumed intention on the part of the Institutions to impose censorship. In Italy the former comedian and political leader Beppe Grillo has defined the post-truth alarm as “a new inquisition”. There are also those, such as Riccardo Luna, the former editor of Wired Italia, who asks for a rethink of quality journalism’s commitment as a bastion to combat widespread misinformation, stressing that although post-truth is not a new phenomenon, it is hugely amplified nowadays by the web and social networks.
However, this prompts us to make a further consideration. If it is true that the web has increased chances of running into fake news, it must also be acknowledged that the wide variety of information sources allows us more than ever today, to study news items in depth and to analyse and compare them. It goes without saying that a certain degree of skill to discriminate is necessary, but it is only in the context of a multiplicity of voices that it becomes possible to develop helpful cognitive instruments for distinguishing between relatively realistic news and sensational hoaxes. Therefore, in addition to being difficult to apply, devising solutions to limit and control information (contained in news) might also be counterproductive.
Yet there are still only very few voices which underline the need to help present and future voters in providing themselves with those intellectual instruments which would enable them to recognise the most reliable sources by themselves. So, regardless of any effective practical solutions (there may be), the mere fact of discussing post-truth publicly may represent a first step towards awareness of a global issue each one of us can give our personal contribution to limiting in a very simple way: namely, by avoiding sharing unverified news.
The Italian Supreme Court has found the Zecca dello Stato (The State Institute of Printing and Minting) guilty of monitoring its employees’ web surfing data, emails and phone calls, in violation of a number of provisions of the Statuto dei Lavoratori (Workers’ Statute of Rights, L. 300 of 1970).
With its decision of the 19th September 2016, n. 18302, the Court of Cassation established the illegality of the storage activity on the company server of employees’ emails, phone calls and web surfing data without prior application of the authorization procedure provided for by the Workers’ Statute of Rights and the Code for the protection of personal data.
The facts of the case on which the decision is based are as follows: in 2011 the Italian Data Protection Supervisor had emphasized with a disciplinary provision, that the Internet service provided by the Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato (The State Institute of Printing and Minting) for its own employees not only prevented access to websites not inherent to work activity, but also stored every access, or attempt to access, any website, thus allowing the reconstruction of every single worker’s web browsing activity. In addition, the employees’ web surfing data were stored on the system for a length of time varying anywhere from six months to a year.
The Supervisor had also noticed the illegality of the storage system of employees’ sent and received emails on the company’s server, which allowed full view of them to the system administrators without any specific information on privacy having been provided in regard to the matter.
It had also been pointed out that the State Institute of Printing and Minting implemented a method of telephone traffic monitoring through the VoIP system which also in this case allowed the recording and prolonged storage of traffic data without providing any adequate privacy information for its employees.
Therefore, the Supervisor had considered that the activity of the State Institute of Printing and Minting violated L. n. 300 of 1970, arts. 4 and 8 of the Workers’ Statute of Rights as it made possible the disclosure of employees’ sensitive data without having acquired their prior consent (and consequently also in violation of arts. 11, 113 and 114 of the Code for the Protection of Personal Data). Therefore the provision prohibited the State Institute of Printing and Minting from storing and categorizing employees web surfing data in addition to their emails and phone calls, obliging the Institute to inform those involved about the ways in which their personal data were processed. The Supervisor had also required that the identities of the system administrators with authorization to access the company’s databases should be made public (and therefore known to the company’s employees) and that there should be the guarantee of all accesses made by the administrators being revealed in full.
In 2011 the Court of Rome rejected the appeal by the State Institute of Printing and Minting against the Supervisor’s provision, clarifying that, as provided for by art. 4 of the Workers’ Statute of Rights, employers are only allowed to use monitoring systems for requirements of organisation and production in agreement with the trade unions or in compliance with legal obligations, whereas the use of such systems is prohibited if it is carried out for monitoring the activity of employees. With reference to other previous decisions, the Court pointed out that the necessity to protect the company (and its activity) cannot legitimise suppressing fundamental employee rights such as the right to privacy.
Consequently, the State Institute of Printing and Minting appealed against the decision to the Supreme Court, maintaining that those controls not directed at work activities but rather at other employee conduct in the workplace, which might expose the business assets of the company to serious danger and which might be potentially harmful for third parties, with consequent liability on the part of the employer, fall entirely outside the scope of application of the provisions of the Workers’ Statute of Rights. This risk is all the more significant in that the Institute carries out public interest activities such as the printing of the Gazzetta Ufficiale (Italian Official Journal) and of the Raccolta ufficiale degli atti normativi della Repubblica italiana (the Official Compendium of Legislative Acts of the Italian Republic), the production of personal identification documents, security and anti-counterfeiting systems, legal tender and so on.
However the Court of Cassation considered that the significance of the public role entrusted to the State Institute of Printing and Minting does not justify violation of the current legislation, which aims to protect guarantees for constitutionally recognised workers’ rights. To this effect, the Judge emphasised the second paragraph of art. 4, which provides that monitoring systems required for organizational reasons or for safety in the workplace, but which also allow the distance monitoring of employee activity, may only be installed with the prior agreement of company trade union representatives or, in their absence, of the shop stewards’ committee. In the absence of an agreement and at the request of the employer, the Ispettorato del lavoro (the Labour Inspectorate) mediates, setting out where necessary the procedure for the use of such systems.
Therefore, rejecting the appeal and confirming the observations of the Court of Rome’s decision, the Court of Cassation underlined the necessity to strike a balance between the employer’s rights, in particular the right to conduct business and to protect the company’s business assets, and the protection of worker rights, first and foremost the right to privacy.
The German giant Beiersdorf, proprietor of the “Nivea” brand, won its case against the small Piedmont company Neve Cosmetics, which had been accused of violation of exclusive rights concerning the name “Neve”, which was considered to be too similar to “Nivea”. However consumer reaction to the verdict gives cause for thought with regard to the advisability of taking legal action.
The news dates back to the end of July when the Court of Milan declared in favour of the well-known German brand name, rendering the two brands “Neve” and “Neve Make Up” null and void and stated that the word “Neve” could not be used as a brand name for new companies in the cosmetic sector since it could be mistaken for “Nivea”.
Neve Cosmetics is a small Italian company with 10 employees committed to the production of natural cosmetics, which are sold exclusively on the Internet. As was also mentioned in court, its products presented as “vegetarian and vegan cosmetics”, contain no “silicones that clog up pores, no petroleum jelly that prevents the skin from breathing, no substantial preservatives and no by-products from the slaughter of milk feeding animals”. In short, Neve Cosmetics offer a range of cosmetics that are not merely a competitor but also an antagonist to mass produced beauty products.
According to the Court, despite the difference in product advertising, the name “Neve” is too similar to “Nivea” since it derives etymologically from the Latin niveus/nivea/nivum which means “as white as snow”. Therefore the Court declared the Neve brand null and void and banned its use.
The victory of the German multinational corporation stirred a wave of indignation from Neve consumers, who launched a web campaign in support of the Piedmont SME by creating protest banners and using the hashtag #StoConNeve (#I’mwithNeve) and the slogan “If I buy Neve it’s because I know it’s not Nivea!”.
Even if it is reasonable to assume that the campaign was created with the involvement of communication professionals, it effectively went viral in the space of just a few days. The hundreds of messages of severe criticism which appeared on the different Nivea social pages have attracted the attention of the traditional media which rather exaggerated the scale of the case in their reporting of the news. With an interesting avalanche effect, the Neve consumer protest has been joined by other web users, who have been struck by the economic inequality between accuser and accused, which is interpreted as an abuse of power by the strong against the weak.
The users’ messages would also seem to be partly directed at the Court of Milan as they argue it would be impossible to mix up the two brands despite the common etymology of the two names and they underline the total difference between the two cosmetic companies, whose philosophies, formulations and commercial offers are poles apart. A difference that would obviously benefit Neve and its product range which is natural, beneficial and respectful of nature, in stark contrast to the alleged harmfulness of Nivea and its artificial, chemical products.
The response of Nivea’s communication team was to choose to stay silent and they have spent weeks carefully removing the messages of criticism. As was entirely predictable, this act of censorship has caused an outrage and has provoked further cause for irritation on the part of the demonstrators, who have gone as far as starting a petition on Change.org demanding that Nivea withdraw its case.
Apart from a legal analysis of the case, these implications in the field of communication offer interesting food for thought. In the event of disputes that might expose the parties to intense media exposure, there is the necessity to provide a plan of action for post-judgment communication, which would also take into account possible negative consequences even in the case of victory. Playing a proactive role might well be a decisive factor in avoiding any damage to a company’s reputation.
Nonetheless, accurate prior analysis of possible communication scenarios on the web might make companies think twice about the expediency of taking legal action.