There is Donald Trump who, arrived at the 16th thousandth bale, more or less serious, shot on Twitter (the reporters of the Washington Post who made it a book coming out in recent days have kept the bill), on May 27 he shoots it a not so evident claiming that the postal vote that some American states – where Democrats are leading – are considering in consideration of the pandemic, favors fraud. There is Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and a few years ago administrator of the social network on which Trump has built much of his success and where the good and bad weather is, who suddenly decides that the time has come to fight the bales, not only those on the coronavirus, but also those of the politicians, even if the president of your country says so; and so under the two incriminated tweets, a blue stripe appears, not too obvious, indeed polite, minimalist, which invites you to “get the facts” on the postal vote, referring to a page where it explains why it does not involve fraud.
There is Mark Zuckerberg, founder and administrator of Facebook, who in the midst of the clash between Trump and Dorsey, decides to give an interview to Fox News, the trumpism TV, to say that Twitter was wrong and that social media should not become “arbiters of truth”, flying over the fact that its fact checkers and sometimes directly its algorithms have been censoring, removing and posting posts considered false as long as they are not Trump’s … (while in Italy they have deleted the CasaPound pages, that is, of a political party that may not like it but is not outlawed: it is no coincidence that the Rome court, on April 29, in the midst of a lockdown, gave Facebook the wrong in the capacity of “arbiter of truth”).
And then there are the Democrats, Trump’s political opponents, scandalized because the President in retaliation announced a tightening on social networks “that censor the conservatives” and leaked an executive order that calls into question the legislative pillar that allows the Internet to function as it works, forgetting or pretending not to know that the Democratic candidate in the White House, the mild Joe Biden, in an interview with the New York Times in January, since Facebook did not want to know about removing the garbage that the team of Trump placed in his account, he promised that if he becomes president one of the first things he will do is to revoke Section 230 of the CDA. What Trump is now targeting. Absurd, isn’t it?
In fact, putting aside chronic inconsistencies, conversions on the way to the net and brazen paraculaggini, it’s all quite logical. To understand it, and to understand why this story affects us all, because it concerns the future of the network and more generally of freedom of expression, we must start from Section 230 of the CDA, the Communication Decency Act of 1996. It was the dawn of the web, in network there were only a few enthusiastic pioneers. Amazon was just born, Google was not yet there, Altavista was used to search for something. And it was full of forums where you could write what you wanted. It was the apotheosis of freedom. To put a stop to abuse, Congress passed the “Decent” Law as intense as it was decent: it wanted to be a barrier but thanks to the battles of many network activists, in particular of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fundamental principle passed. This: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. It means that no platform can be held responsible, like a publisher, for content posted by users. As Professor Jeff Kosseff wrote in a book last year, those are “the twenty-six words that created the Internet”. Without it there would be no YouTube videos, comments to blogs, and social networks. Section 230 allowed the creation of a few trillion dollar industry, made freedom of expression a flag and was a formidable tool for innovation.
But something went wrong. It is so evident that there is almost no need to explain it. The social algorithms, built to encourage user participation (necessary to monetize their data), have rewarded the controversial content, the shots, the quarrels. Fake news and hate speech. Instead of remaining neutral, or rather, pretending to be neutral, social networks favored the worst not because they were convinced of it, but to earn more. And the reverse started: the attempt to promptly check and remove dangerous information, trying to remain neutral. For example by entrusting the task of verifying controversial posts to external fact checker organizations. Because losing neutrality, non-publisher status, would mean being responsible for every single post, every photo, every video. It would mean approving everything first. You first close the social networks. That’s why Section 230 is so important.
And let’s get to the coronavirus. Because it is with the pandemic that things really change. The world is on the ropes for a new virus, and there is a risk that wrong information will kill thousands of people. Someone thinks it is the right occasion to destabilize western democracies. And social networks suddenly come onto the field: if until then, to use a metaphor, it was the owners and managers of the stadium who followed the game from the stands, put on the referee’s jacket and start to warn and expel the players . Which? Those who contravene the indications of the World Health Organization which thus becomes the new Ministry of global truth. The problem is that it is a new virus, which even science has struggled to take the exact measures of what it was and how to counter it. But tens of thousands of posts have been removed from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the name of public health. And nobody said anything. Not even when the tweets of heads of state and government disappeared, no, not Trump, he has so far been untouchable, even when he said that everything was fine and that hydroxychloroquine prevented covid-19. But Trump aside, in the name of the pandemic, in recent months there has been a sensational compression of freedom of expression. Sensational and in fact useless. Was the virus manufactured in the laboratory since that of AIDS? No, but a Nobel Prize in Medicine says so. Is contagion favored by 5G telecommunication antennas? No, but the respected founder of the Blue Economy claims it. Is there a Bill Gates maneuver behind the pandemic? No, but the documentary that tells this absurd thesis collects 8 million views before being removed, but in the meantime the book from which it is drawn is among Amazon’s best sellers. Should it also be removed from there?
Now from Twitter they say that it was the pandemic, the action to combat fake news during the pandemic, that made Jack Dorsey’s social network change course. The blue line, the discreet, polite, almost timid one, which infuriated Trump, “get the facts”, is not born now, it was born for the fake news of the covid-19: “To give users a context”. Right, but is it a platform or publisher action? Because if he is a publisher, we have seen it, everything comes down, the Internet as we know it. If, on the other hand, it is a platform, an advanced platform that takes its responsibilities, now it must always be done, it must be done on everyone. The fact checking I say. On all politicians, from all countries. Is it realistic? No. But even if it were realistic, does it make sense? Who determines the truth? On many things it exists, of course: the earth is not flat, for example. But do we want to outlaw, or off the web, terrapiattist circles? Do we want to regulate freedom of expression to the point of prohibiting the right to say nonsense? Can we still allow them, nonsense, or the risk that social money-making algorithms make them go viral, does it make them too dangerous?
This story, however it ends, shows that some – and some things – have lost anyway. I think of the debate, the comparison of ideas, which does not serve to make one prevail, but to test it, to refine it, correct it, enrich it. Thinking that in the end the best will win. Is there still someone who believes that in the comparison that takes place every day on social networks, the best ideas win? And then I think of journalists, those who, by mission and passion, should have fact checking in their blood: the search for the truth of the facts, which sometimes escapes, sometimes deceives, but if you look carefully, the facts are there, with their hardness, to indicate how things are. Journalists are expected to respond to Trump’s bales on Twitter, bringing facts, not horror or preconceived ideas online. Many do it, they do it every day. But that’s not enough. It is evident that it is not enough. We count little, less than we should: will it be our fault too?
And so we find ourselves with this mutation of social media, which no one knows how it will end, which will also be driven by noble intentions, but in the meantime it is already compressing everyone’s freedom of expression, making us forget that on these issues we should move trying to keep together a right and duty: the right to express ourselves, saying even if nonsense occurs; and the duty to inform us.