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 Antitrust Authority has submitted an opinion to the Italian Parliament and Government, in which it warns that SIAE’s current monopoly of the management of copyright restricts both the ability of other market operators to do business and users’ freedom of choice.
In a communication on the implementation of Directive 2014/26/EU by the European Parliament and the Council on the collective management of copyright in the internal market, the Antitrust Authority emphasised that the core of the Directive is based on freedom of choice and that it specifically provides rightsholders with the right to decide their choice of collective management organisation “(…) irrespective of the Member State of nationality, residence or establishment of the collective management organisation, the other entity or the rightholder (…)”.
The Antitrust Authority has remarked that in an economic climate characterized by significant technological changes, the preservation of a legal monopoly appears to be in contrast with the aim of enabling rightsholders to operate a free choice from a range of operators. According to the Authority, “the merit and the very rationale of the European legal framework are severely compromised by the presence within (Italian) national legislation, of the regulation contained in art. 180, law 22 April 1941, no. 633 (Italian copyright law), which is now a solitary case compared to other Member States’ legislations, in reserving to a single organisation (SIAE) the management activity regarding copyrights”.
The Antitrust Authority stresses that the implementation of the Directive offers the opportunity to open up the market to competitor organisations in the field of copyright management. However, the draft law approved by the Chamber of deputies and currently under discussion before the Senate, which delegates the Government to implement European directives and carry out other acts of the European Union (the 2015 European delegation law), does not expressly provide for any specific action on SIAE’s status as a legal monopoly.
Therefore, the Authority hopes that action aiming at liberalisation should be integrated by an overall reform of the procedures of copyright management listed in the Copyright law, without overlooking a review of the role and the function of the SIAE in today’s changed climate.
* SIAE is the acronym for the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers (Società italiana degli Autori e Editori).
The Italian Antitrust Authority has recently announced the start of an investigation into unfair business practices by the website Italia-programmi.net owned by Estesa Limited, with the possible adoption of an interim injunction.
The proceedings started after a number of reports on the part of members of the public and consumer groups who had inadvertently paid for subscriptions on the site.
The link to www.italia programmi.net seems to have appeared as the first option on Google search results pages related to free downloads of a number of software applications, including the anti-virus software Avira.
Once users had reached the site they were asked to register and provide personal information in order to download the free software. In reality, however, through the registration process and without their knowledge, consumers were subscribing to a two-year contract with Estesa Ltd, a Republic of Seychelles based company, for the provision of software at an annual cost of €96 payable in advance once a year.
According to the Authority, the registration page quoted the terms of the subscription with insufficient graphic evidence for them to be understood at first sight. In point of fact “the consumer was led to believe that it was a free service.”
Once users had submitted their personal data and without providing them with any confirmation whatsoever of the completion of the contract, the company then began to demand payment, threatening to take legal action against users in the case of default, which would naturally lead to heavy additional costs.
Such reminders would even be sent to consumers who had exercised the right of withdrawal under the terms and conditions stipulated in the contract.
The Antitrust investigation into Italia-programmi.net is yet another case of websites which persuade consumers to sign contracts and subscribe to the supply of various services without their knowledge. It is estimated that between 2009 and 2011 alone, the Authority has imposed more than €5 million in fines for misconduct regarding such cases.