The Free Speech Has Been Hacked. Can We Solve the Problem?

Newseum, Washington D.C.

Since the end of 2016 in the journalistic ecosystem, we started talking about fake news and post-truth age.

I personally found fake news a ridiculous fake label, since we have always had problems of disinformation and misinformation, propaganda and hoaxes and so on. Fake news is a contemporary version of an old issue.

Donation of Constantine was a fake document which gave the Catholic Churc ha huge power in the central part of Italy. It took 500 years to discover and prove that it was a fake document. Now, if a piece of fake news is spreading, we can debunk it in a few minutes. Of course, the engagement of fake news is more effective than the debunk, but we can work on that, since like every ecosystem, the media ecosystem contains both preys and predators, both problems and solutions.

Moreover, there is a huge problem with the use of fake news: the problem is that in a while, everybody will accuse everybody else to lie. Everybody is the fake news of someone else. And that’s exactly what is happening.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we are not struggling in the media landscape. That’s the reason why we need to be very careful about the terms we use.

An omni-comprehensive definition of fake news could sound like this:

«Fake news is false information, delivered with a profit purpose».

The profit purpose could be economical, political, personal, whatever. According to this definition, the so-called fake news could be a hoax or a false statement, a number given in a misleading way, a story told without contest, a lie, a factoid, a mistake, and so on. In this set of fake news, you will find completely invented stories published by websites pretending to be accountable sources or misleading stories published by real newspapers.

Online we can find content delivered through websites and fast engaging a huge amount of people. But the problem is not only online. We know also that in several countries you can find paid content which looks alike op-ed[1] or advertorials bought by companies or think tank to expose not necessarily facts in hardcopy. One of the most famous case studies of this kind of content is the advertorial set of articles paid by Exxon Mobile to be published in The New York Times misleading the petrol company actual knowledge about climate change, minimizing it, almost denying it.

After the digital revolution, the media landscape started suffering a deep crisis due to the lack of a resilient business model.
Moreover, everyone became a content producer, even a content broadcaster. The legacy media have lost their oligopoly on the production and delivery of news. Politician started using social media as a strong amplifier of their message, publishing content to reach a huge audience. Those content are then reported by newspapers, commented, shared, debated, in a neverending cycle with almost no value for the audience of journalism.
The more those content are strong, full of hate, engaging, useful for a sexy headline for a newspaper, click-baiting, the more those content circulate.

Which lead to a couple of other problems.
First: the hate speech coming from influencial, powerful people, from politician with a public role, a government role.
Second: the progressive decadence of meaningful content available

Let’s add some other elements. Nowadays, you can promote on social media or digital platform, using instruments like the Facebook Business Manager or Google Ads, any kind of content, targeting a specific audience, with specific demographic, geographical, social characteristics and with specific interests.

In some case, this vicious circle is enforced in ways like the one I’ve reported looking at the kind of content sponsored by Italian politician on their Facebook pages: a political party ask an institute to make a survey on a certain topic; the survey has a result which is close to that political party ideas; the result is provided to newspapers; newspapers publish an article; the Facebook page of that political party promote newspapers’ article to be legitimate.

The social conversation is soon polarized by true or false fans or opponent.
You can use bots to enforce the engagement and the delivery of this kind of content and conversations.

And this is happening on the surface, so we can in some way be aware of this. But this kind of content and conversations are shifting through private conversations, instant messaging channels, places where they can’t be found or measured or monitored or whatever.

To make matters worse, this is just the beginning since it’s already possible to produce the so-called deep fake videos (in which you can make a person say things he or she never said, for example).

The result is a day-by-day more polluted and frightening media ecosystem, with people losing trust in newspapers and legacy media. And if you lose your audience’s trust, you’ll also lose money and so you’ll have less-paid journalists and — woah — it takes your breath away.

Who should regulate this and how?
Can we simply shut down web pages?
Should Silicon Valley’s big companies (which are not simple companies anymore, due to their transnational function) be requested to remove hate speech content? And what about hate speech content from politicians? Should we be glad if someone will be able to control in a deep way private conversations? Should we forbid hateful protests in public space?

These are neverending questions and there is not a solution. Because we can’t be against Free Speech, but at the same time we can’t be in favor of the situation I have described.

That’s the reason why the Free Speech system seems to have been hacked by people who take advantages from this situation. And that’s the reason why we have to react.

Since it’s very difficult to find a specific solution to the contemporary situation without affecting the Free Speech, we need to think out of the box.
I mean: of course, I hate hate speech. Of course, I don’t want people to be bullied for their behavior or sexual choices or whatever. But who can decide what is hateful and what is not? During a dictatorship (strong or soft, it doesn’t matter) any paper against the dictator is certainly considered hateful by the dictator himself.

On the other side, we have the Popper paradox: can a tolerant society be tolerant with intolerant people?

As we can see, we are turning in a philosophical issue.

The proposal behind the slow journalism concept, given from a journalistic point of view, maybe is a useful starting point.

The main idea is to focus on a complete and radical redesign of the concept of news, of the journalistic product, of the relationship between newsrooms and the audience.

Slow journalism seeks to achieve the highest possible ecology in the media ecosystem.

Which means, for example:

  • a clear shift of journalistic production to the concept of product-as-a-Service. As journalists, we serve the audience with our content
  • a progressive reduction of coverage about declarations. We don’t need more quotes. We need more coverage of facts with context
  • strong choices about the concept of newsworthiness itself. Can a tweet be a piece of news? Can we find a different solution to not ignore politician declarations online or offline, but at the same time without giving them a harmful amplification. Of course we can
  • a progressive and strong reduction of coverage of commodities-news, interviews to politicians, commentaries and talks on breaking news, p.r.-communication stuff
  • a moratorium on the indiscriminate use of emotionally strong titles
  • good journalism, clean and transparent, fair with the audience and the journalists themselves
  • a less-is-more approach to the daily production of content. We are struggling in a clear overproduction context and the answer couldn’t be an increase in content production
  • a constant fact-checked journalism
  • a clear, simple, fair and visible mistake correction with the due apologies
  • a one among equals approach for a journalist with his or her audience
  • a strong focus on media literacy, not to be self-referential or to teach something, but in order to give ordinary people the technical, theoretical and practical instrument to understand the pervasive media landscape since it’s a founding tool to understand contemporary age and to support freedom and democracy

I strongly believe that journalism matters.
And that it can help to fix the problem. This could be, as I told, a starting point from one perspective. Then we need much more, of course. But we need to start from somewhere. And since I don’t see so much interest in politicians to clean the media ecosystem, I think we have to start from here.


[1] Op-ed stands for opposite the editorial page. It’s a written article expressing the opinion of an author not involved with the publication’s editorial staff.

I wrote these thoughts on 2019, June the 28th, during a train journey between Washington D.C. and New York, while I was part of the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). I put together some of my and my partner’s Slow News thought and concepts, some concepts I wrote with Daniele Nalbone in Slow Journalism -Who murdered journalism? (an essay about these topics), considerations I’ve made during super-interesting conversations I had while I’ve had my IVLP’s meeting (with Alessio Caspanello, Alessio Sgherza, Fabio Chiusi, Giovanni Zagni and people we met). Of course, these words reflect my only and personal opinion.

Slow News Editor-in-Chief. My nickname is Malaparte. I resist against state of emergency. Formerly Blogo. Director, SEO, communication strategist.

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