The protagonists of the duel are Donald Trump and Twitter, who a couple of days ago branded two tweets of the President of the United States of America on the vote by correspondence with the exclamation mark. As a Twitter spokesman explained to the New York Times, according to Trump’s favorite social network, those tweets “contain potentially misleading information on how to vote and have been labeled to provide additional context.” To the exclamation marks, the president replied harshly: an executive order will make it easier to bring the social network to court if they take on the role of “moderators” of fake news, deleting posts or closing accounts.
To understand the scale of what is happening, and what is at stake, we need to take a few steps back.
Social networks are infested with lies, we all know. It is their own mechanism that rewards the “catchers”: it does not matter if a news is true or false, as long as it attracts traffic. Even the most authoritative Italian newspapers are full of post acchiappaclic (foreign ones much less).
We know (or should know) that truth is not a green badge to be awarded once and for all. That the fakes have run since the day the snake tried Eva, that the first to spread fake news are the powerful, who not by chance control the information channels. That approaching the truth is the result of a complex and infinite negotiation (as the history of science teaches). Totalitarian regimes have solved the problem: they have put the Internet under strict control, fragmenting the World Wide Web into national platforms, such as in China, Russia or Iran.
We also know that the only defense against fakes are news are the philology (since the days when Lorenzo Valla exposed the Donation of Constantine to the Church), the critical spirit and the public debate.
The advent of the internet has transformed all of us into news producers, opening an extraordinary season of creativity and democracy. At least apparently. Until a certain point. For Wikipedia today the primary objective is not to insert new “truths” (ie increase the number of entries), but to erase the follies, the lies, the slanders, the partisan positions from the great online democratic encyclopedia. From an open platform, it has turned into an editorial service.
Social networks have added one more element, the algorithm that filters the news. If one is worth one, the one who grabs the most clicks wins. To check if a news is true or false, it takes time, but at that point the post went viral. It becomes easy to convert to no-vax and get scared by chemtrails. In recent weeks, how many fake news items have we read about anti-Covid-19 therapies? And maybe we shared them, without reading them all the way, stopping at the title? From those ridiculous for us on the garlic of some African dictator to those on the miraculous Japanese Avigan, relaunched by the big media? It being understood that politicians and health authorities are the first to disseminate vague, imprecise, manipulated, if not demented data: this is the case of the Lombard commissioner Gallera, when he explained the mechanisms for spreading viruses.
The problem became explosive when politicians started using social networks. BuzzFeed founder Craig Silverman showed that during the election campaign that led to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, the “fake news”, often produced by “hyper-partisan” sites, generated more involvement than the real ones, disseminated by traditional press, considered prestigious and authoritative because they systematically practice “fact checking”. The 20 most successful fake news had totaled over 8 million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook. Thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the systematic manipulation of millions of voters through the theft of information and the use of big data has also been discovered.
At that point, moral panic broke out. The Oxford Dictionary decreed that “post truth” was the word of the year for 2016 and the redemption crusade took off.
But the countermeasures were not critical education campaigns in schools and universities. And not even a more reliable and credible “official” formation. Least of all politics has been sanitized. Twitter is – or perhaps was – Trump’s favorite channel. Matteo Salvini has built much of his political fortune with nationalpopular provocations on social networks, illustrated by sweatshirts and uniforms, and seasoned with typical foods and bottles with the label clearly visible.
The response has been repressive and censorship. Social networks were asked to certify the falsity of the posts. With some problems. Social media are private companies and they shouldn’t be the ones regulating the public sphere. Secondly, social networks already censor a great deal of content, through complex, almost invisible and highly questionable control systems, which escape any democratic control. Finally, social networks have primarily commercial objectives, namely to offer the ideal environment for the dissemination of advertisements and therefore for purchases: it is not an arena for political debate, at best for propaganda (which is now called electoral marketing) .
We are faced with a paradox. Social media must manage the space of public debate, but they cannot and must not. I am not able. It is not their job. A democratic state cannot entrust this task to them. In fact, someone starts to wonder if social networks are compatible with democracy …
Moreover, on the issue, Mark Zuckerberg, who often dins with Trump, has a different idea from his colleagues on Twitter. Facebook is a communication platform and not a publisher, it basically supports, and therefore it is not its job to check (and censor) the content posted by users. In reality, even Facebook is a hypocritical position, since it deletes huge quantities of obscene or “politically incorrect” content, because they are considered racist or incite hatred.
What is developing is a crucial debate for the future of democracy, which is intertwined with the perplexities expressed by Shoshana Zuboff when he speaks of “surveillance capitalism”. But it must also be followed because it feeds on interesting paradoxes and therefore on comic ideas. Donald Trump has 80 million followers on Twitter, which responds perfectly to his communication methods: simplification, provocation, brevity, aggressive narcissism. What would happen if he closed his account? What if Twitter shut it down? What if Trump shut down Twitter? Would politics get better? Would it still be democracy?
If we continue to keep this space alive it is thanks to you. Even a single euro means a lot to us. Come back soon and read DOPPIOZERO