Regulation, the Inquisition, and popular tribunals: Italy's fake news debate just got real

Italy's fake news debate has been so bitter that its U.S. equivalent feels like a schoolyard tiff by comparison.

Sure, those upset with Donald Trump's victory have accused Facebook of tilting the election by enabling an unmitigated spread of misinformation, while the president-elect and his team repurposed the fake news epithet to attack mainstream media. The extent to which the phenomenon has been ill-defined has made it harder to solve — and led some to suggest abandoning the term altogether.

But compare this to eight fraught days Italy endured at the turn of 2017.

On Dec. 27, the justice minister Andrea Orlando hinted vaguely at legislative action, saying in an interview that politicians should do "their part" to "disincentivize the affirmation of post-truth." Giovanni Pitruzzella, the the chairman of the Italian Competition Authority, told the Financial Times three days later that EU countries should deal with "post-truth" politics by setting up antitrust-like agencies devoted to spotting and removing fake news.

Internet and media experts were quick to express concern. Pitruzzella's proposals are "illiberal and impractical," wrote Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffé, a Professor at Bocconi University's School of Management.

Fabio Chiusi, a fellow at the Nexa Center for Internet & Society at the Polytechnic of Turin, fears the proposed regulation could result in censorship. "The best safeguard for the 'truth' in a democracy," he told Poynter, "is a well-informed debate."

The reaction from Beppe Grillo, the comedian founder of the opposition party Five Star Movement, was less measured.

In an article titled "The post-bullshit of the new Inquisition," Grillo accused Pitruzzella of being completely ignorant of the ways of the web. Grillo returned to the topic on Jan. 3rd, accusing the press and nightly newscasts of being the "principal fabricators of fake news." Straddling a Trump-like line between hyperbole and reality, he proposed the institution of popular tribunals to judge the accuracy of work published by journalists.

The Italian discussion over regulating fake news fits into a European trend.

"There is clear political will in favor of action, both at the EU level and in some member states," said Chiusi. One risk he envisages is that social networks end up adopting ill-advised "preemptive filters" to avoid regulation, a preoccupation shared by Arianna Ciccone, founder of the International Journalism Festival and the site ValigiaBlu.

If the U.S. debate over fake news has been mixed up with concerns about Russian interference, the Italian one has at times thrown in preoccupation with online hate speech, a particular bug bear of Laura Boldrini, the president of the chamber of deputies.

"Orlando considers social networks partly responsible for the proliferation of fake news," says Ciccone. But he hasn't made clear what his proposed solution would be. Boldrini, on the other hand, "seems more explicitly intent on regulation aimed at filtering out certain content."

"I imagine nothing may come out of this," said Ciccone, though she thinks it is possible that regulators seek inspiration from the (controversial) EU Code of Conduct on illegal online hate speech.

Regulation or not, the political brouhaha has drowned out any hope of a serious discussion on the importance of accuracy in the media, wrote a disheartened Luca Sofri, managing editor of the online publication Il Post and author of a book on false stories published by print publications.

Italian media are ill-equipped to tackle fake news, Sofri told Poynter. The underlying and unaddressed problem, according to Sofri, is "an established (media) culture that has never prioritized accuracy, verification or guarantees that what is published is reliable."

Hoping that the fake news phenomenon will lead to more fact-checking within traditional newsrooms is therefore unrealistic.

"It would be like expecting an opera singer to perform Death Metal," Sofri said.

While there is no continuous pulse-taking of trust in Italian media akin to the Gallup polls in the U.S., 2014 data from the polling company Demos showed a significant decline in viewers' trust of the major TV newscasts.

"In general, I believe trust in mainstream media is at historic lows," said Chiusi. This is "especially because they are posing as the sole guardians of a truth they seem to care more about in the context of combating hoaxes than in their everyday journalism."

With no systemic change in sight, the Italian fake news debate comes with the same risks as its U.S. counterpart: Lower trust in journalists, who are already regarded with suspicion.

"The risk exists," Sofri acknowledges. "But it is also unacceptable that this be used as an alibi ... to tolerate and conserve existing abuses and failures by the news media."

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    Alexios Mantzarlis

    Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He also trains and convenes fact-checkers around the world.

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