First it was the US, then Germany blamed much of what is wrong in society on “fake news”, and not, say, a series of terrible decisions made by politicians. Now it is Italy’s turn to call for an end to “fake news”. In itself this would not be troubling, however, the way Giovanni Pitruzzella, head of the Italian competition body, demands the European Union “cracks down” on what it would dub “fake news” is nothing short of a total crackdown on all free speech, and would give local governments free rein to silence any outlet that did not comply with Establishment propaganda.
In an interview with the FT, Pitruzzella said the regulation of false information on the internet was best done by the state rather than by social media companies such as Facebook, an approach taken previously by Germany, which has demanded that Facebook end “hate speech” and has threatened to find the social network as much as €500K per “fake” post.
Pitruzzella, head of the Italian competition body since 2011, said “EU countries should set up independent bodies — co-ordinated by Brussels and modeled on the system of antitrust agencies — which could quickly label fake news, remove it from circulation and impose fines if necessary.”
In other words, a series of unelected bureaucrats, unaccountable to anyone, would sit down and between themselves decide what is and what isn’t “fake news”, and then, drumroll, “remove it from circulation.” On the other hand, coming one week after Obama gave Europe the green light to engage in any form of censorship and halting of free speech that it desires, when the outgoing US president voted into law the “Countering Disinformation And Propaganda Act“, it should come as no surprise that a suddenly emboldened Europe is resorting to such chilling measures.
So with Europe on the verge of rolling out unbridled censorship, here is the strawman used to justify it.
“Post-truth in politics is one of the drivers of populism and it is one of the threats to our democracies,” Pitruzzella told the FT. “We have reached a fork in the road: we have to choose whether to leave the internet like it is, the wild west, or whether it needs rules that appreciate the way communication has changed. I think we need to set those rules and this is the role of the public sector.”
Translation: it will soon be up to Brussles to decide what content on the Internet is appropriate for broad European consumption, because unless a bureaucrat intervenes “fake news” will lead to even more populism and not, say, years of failed political reform, and central bank decisions.
In short, it’s all the internet’s fault that Europe’s legacy political system is reeling from an unprecedented anti-establishment backlash, which has nothing to do with, well, anything else.
As the FT notes, Pitruzzella’s call comes amid growing concern over the impact of fake news on politics in western democracies, including in this year’s UK Brexit vote and the US election. In Germany, which faces parliamentary elections in 2017, the government is planning a law that would impose fines of up to €500,000 on social media companies for distributing fake news.
Allies of Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, have also complained that fake news contributed to his defeat in the December referendum on constitutional reform, which led to his resignation, even though he lost by a wide 20-percentage point margin. At least they haven’t blamed Russian hackers… yet.
So even assuming limiting free speech is the answer, why not force potential offenders to companies to police themselves?
Well, according to Pitruzzella it would be inappropriate to leave this task to social media self-regulation. “Platforms like Facebook have created great benefits for people and customers: they are doing their part as an economic entity in adopting policies to modify their algorithms to reduce this phenomenon”, he said. “But it is not the job of a private entity to control information. This is historically the job of public powers. They have to guarantee that information is correct. We cannot delegate this completely.”
We know of at least one Italian who would agree.
And just like the person shown above, Pitruzzella dismissed concerns that setting up state agencies to monitor fake news would introduce a form of censorship, saying people could “continue using a free and open internet”… as long as all the members of the “open” internet agreed with what the agencies determined to be true and undisputed. But he said there would be a benefit in that there would be a public “third party” — independent of the government — to “intervene quickly if public interests were harmed”.
At the moment, the only way that fake news can be tackled — at least in Italy — is through the judicial system, which is notoriously clunky. “Speed is a critical element,” Pitruzzella said, so what is the solution? Why a Ministry of Truth of course.
The anti-establishment Five Star Movement is often labelled as the main facilitator of fake news in Italy, through the blog of its founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, and a network of other websites affiliated to the party. But Pitruzzella declined to cite them as the main culprits. “I don’t know if this is true, I would not want to criticise anyone, not even the Five Star Movement. But I believe that if there aren’t any rules then many can take advantage of this.”
Of course, once free speech is censored, Pitruzzella will have no problem with no only criticizing anyone who disagrees with him, but promptly shutting down their freedom of speech on the net.