Italians can now report fake news to the police. Here's why that's problematic.
In an effort to address fake news ahead of this year’s elections, the Italian government has created an online portal where people can report hoaxes.
The portal, which Interior Minister Marco Minniti announced Thursday, prompts users to supply their email address, a link to the misinformation they’re reporting and any social networks they found it on.
Then the requests are ferried to authorities at the Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cyber crime, who will fact-check them and — if laws were broken — pursue legal action. In cases where no laws were broken, the service will still draw upon official sources to deny false or misleading information.
The example Minniti provided Thursday came from last month, when former United States Vice President Joe Biden said Russia influenced Italy’s constitutional referendum in December 2016 — a claim that would have been denied by pointing to intelligence officials’ testimony to Parliament.
The announcement comes amid something of a national frenzy — especially animated by the ruling Democratic Party — over the potential impact of fake news on the general election in March. It also came as a surprise to fact-checkers like Giovanni Zagni, who read about it in newspapers like la Repubblica.
“This project leaves me with a lot of questions and raises a lot of issues,” the Pagella Politica director told Poynter in an email (International Fact-Checking Network Director Alexios Mantzarlis co-founded the outlet). “The Polizia Postale is promising to act in a very sensitive field, bordering censorship and the laws protecting the freedom of the press.”
While he said the effort is laudable, a key concern to Zagni is the fact that the Postale doesn’t define “fake news” anywhere; the official press release opaquely refers to “false and tendentious news.” Spreading that kind of content could be against the law if it “could disturb the public order,” he said, which grants the police a lot of power in deciding what kind of information is suitable online.
“This is a very thin line to walk: being a crime, the people responsible for it can face up to three months of jail,” he said. “Are they going to look for the ones that spread fake news? And what if they are major newspapers and not only obscure Facebook pages?”
“Are they turning policemen into fact-checkers?”
Fabio Chiusi, a journalist and senior researcher at the Punto Zero Project, echoed Zagni’s concerns. He told Poynter in an email that while fabricated information is a valid concern for any government, crafting hasty solutions isn’t a good answer.
In fact, that makes the problem worse, he said.
“Whenever the police is given the task of dealing with the truth and falsehood of news and political content, yes, those who care about democracy should be worried — not feel protected,” Chiusi said. “Citizens in healthy democracies don’t need to be protected from falsehood of this sort: they should be able to freely exercise their judgment, with no interference from state authorities — especially the police.”
Arianna Ciccone, founder of the International Journalism Festival, agreed. She told Poynter in an email that the initiative — which Chiusi said doesn’t offer a counter-measure for those who might be falsely accused — opens up the possibility of future infringements of free speech by the government, as well as a potential cooling effect on the press.
In short: If journalists are too afraid that making a mistake will result in legal intervention, what will go uncovered?
“Fortunately there is no crime in Italy of ‘fake news,’ and if you take a crime like defamation, it must be the courts to establish it, not the police,” she said. “And the fight against false information through correct information (as provided for by this initiative) should in no way be the prerogative of the police. It opens the way to many other possibilities and initiatives by accepting, with this first step, the idea of a state-determined truth.”
It’s impossible to remove the political backdrop from the Interior Ministry’s latest effort. Several Italian journalists and experts — including Ciccone and Zagni — have told Poynter that it’s still unclear whether or not fake news is having any real effect on voters ahead of the general election. The issue has been particularly politicized by the ruling party, and while hyperpartisan news and online hoaxes can reach large audiences, to what extent the government or civil society organizations need to intervene is less clear.
The Interior Ministry’s effort is clearly half-baked, Chiusi said. If the Italian government really wanted to know what’s going on with fake news, he said they should invest in more research and insight on the issue.
“In a healthy democracy, and according to logic and common sense, one tries to get a diagnosis of the severity of her or his condition before assuming a medication,” he said. “Here it is served beforehand instead, without really knowing the extent of the fake news disease — admitted there is one that needs curing.”
At its core, Ciccone said the problem with having police fact-check potential falsities is ceding journalistic responsibility to the government.
“It is not the job of the state to establish the truth,” she said. “That they do in authoritarian regimes.”