Two events at Più Libri Più Liberi to discuss the new challenges to freedom of expression

The topic of freedom of expression was the focus of two events organised at Più Libri Più Liberi, the national book fair of small and medium-sized publishers organised by the Italian Publishers’ Association (AIE) held in Rome from 7 to 11 December.

The first event, entitled How to Reconcile the Fight Against False News and Hate Speech with Freedom Of Expression on the Web (7 December) compared the visions of two parliamentarians from opposing sides, Federico Mollicone (Fratelli d’Italia, FdI) and Antonio Nicita (Partito Democratico, PD), on how politics must tackle the challenges of the near future; with an introduction from AIE president Ricardo Franco Levi and moderation by La Stampa journalist Fabio Martini.

The second appointment, When Hate Speech Turns into Killing, (9 December) focused on the dialogue between Astrid Hoem, a young survivor of the 2011 Utøya massacre, and Radio RAI journalist Loredana Lipperini. The event followed up on the report of the same name, presented by Hoem at the first WEXFO Freedom of Expression Forum, held in June 2022.

I attended both the events for the Giornale della Libreria, the trade magazine of the Italian Publishers Association, so I can let you know what went on.

How to Reconcile the Fight Against Hate Speech and Fake News with Freedom of Expression on the Web – A Challenge for Politics

Freedom of expression is at the heart of contemporary democracies: a prerequisite for exercising all other fundamental freedoms, social progress and individual development. After all, with the emergence and consolidation of digital platforms, the protection of this right faces momentous new challenges.

How can the fight against fake news and hate speech be reconciled with the protection of freedom of expression on the web? This was the question on which two politicians who are knowledgeable about the subject, one from one of the majority and one from the opposition, confronted each other at Più Libri Più LiberiFederico Mollicone, MP from Fratelli d’Italia and chair of the Chamber’s Culture Commission, and Antonio Nicita, senator from Partito Democratico and author of the book Il mercato delle verità [The Market of Truths].

«Although it doesn’t happen very often, it is possible for false, biased news to also sneak into the book world», emphasised AIE President Ricardo Franco Levi. But it is undoubtedly in the galaxy of digital platforms that the phenomenon reaches its greatest impact. Internet, recalls Fabio Martini of La Stampa, moderating the meeting, is an imposing but also intrusive infrastructure, a great, complex opportunity. But who is responsible for regulating it?

«We mustn’t think that we are in an environment without rules, Nicita recalls. “Digital platforms are regulators of themselves: the question is whether or not they should also be subject to public regulations». The European Union has intervened in this regard with the Digital Services Act, establishing that self-regulation is mandatory and that public entities should not intervene in the actual regulation but in how the platform applies the rules it has given itself. While this approach is quite effective on certain issues such as cyberbullying or child pornography, Nicita continues, it is less so on issues such as disinformation and hate speech, mainly due to the great disparity between different national legislations. There is also the question of whether politics should go a step further when it comes to corporate governance, which comes into play when a private party buys an entire platform.

For Mollicone, the Digital Services Act is not the solution to all problems, leaving the assessment of what is true and what is false to the companies: in fact, “communities of millions of users, ‘digital continents’ whose moderation is entrusted primarily to algorithms and only later, and with rather long timescales, to human checks.” The Media Freedom Act is supposed to protect the sovereignty of digital citizens, the freedom to express their opinions, which in the platform ecosystem is instead at the mercy of corporations, Mollicone continues. “Their regulations, made without consulting anyone, are not enough. What happens if ownership changes? Do the rules change?

Antonio Nicita and Federico Mollicone seem positive when it comes to the idea of a shared working approach between the majority and the opposition. “The protection of freedom of expression and knowledge must guide us,” emphasises Nicita. “Of course, there may be different perceptions that place value on different aspects of this right. For example, we support the right not to be misinformed, which is different from the right to inform and be informed. It means protecting the public so that they are not the target of algorithms that produce fake news, as happened with a certain type of Trump-style propaganda during the US elections, or with the Russian disinformation campaign in the run-up to the conflict in Ukraine. We demand protection for users from the malinformation generated through the many confirmation biases in which the web sometimes seems to squeeze us and which can be used for propaganda purposes (e.g. by systematically proposing negative information about migrants).

Agreeing with Nicita’s analysis, Mollicone again emphasises how important it is that institutions hold sovereignty over regulations, preventing this from being in the hands of the platform-owning companies. “Digital constitutions were written by companies, but the legal sovereignty of freedom of expression must remain with the public: all states and political forces should converge on this goal.”

The web, Nicita concludes, can become an incendiary tool that increasingly polarises public opinion, generating small islands of consensus where everyone radicalises their position. “Not so much on rules or their discussion: what political forces should strive to agree on is an ecology of web use”.

When hate speech turns into killing

“Wars do not start with bombs, terrorism does not start with shootings. Violence starts with words.” This is the crystal clear thought expressed by Astrid Hoem yesterday in dialogue with Loredana Lipperini at Più Libri Più Liberi in the get-together entitled When Hate Speech Turns Into Killing. A survivor of the Utøya massacre when she was sixteen, Hoem is now 27 years old and a politician, leader of Arbeidernes ungdomsfylking, the youth movement of the Norwegian Labour Party, since 2020.

It was 22 July 2011 when the far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik targeted Norway. First with the explosion of a car bomb in the centre of Oslo that killed eight people and left 209 injured; then, less than two hours later, with the attack on the island of Utøya, where a campus organised by Arbeidernes ungdomsfylking was in progress. Wearing a uniform similar to that of the police and equipped with false documents, the killer arrived on the island and opened fire on the young participants, killing 69 and wounding 110.

“But I don’t want to use my time with you to talk about what happened that day,” Hoem points out. “What I want to tell you is that the terrorist attacked because he hated the ideas of equality that the Utøya campus expressed. Gender, social, religious and economic equality. He had created a mental image in which the people gathered in Utøya stopped being fifteen, sixteen year-old boys and girls and became political enemies.”

An image that Anders Behring Breivik had built and nurtured for years: at least nine, by his own admission, while he was preparing the massacre. What is more, it was preceded by numerous hate speeches and extremist and violent posts on social media. But it is neither silence nor censorship that Hoem advocates as a solution. “On the contrary, I think silence is more frightening than hate speech.” The responsibility we should all take on, at individual level as well, is precisely that of not remaining silent in the face of hate speech, on pain of becoming its accomplices.

Human beings – Hoem continues – have more things in common than differences, but the political class has the great responsibility to discourage polarisation. It should do so starting with language, choosing the words we use to express ourselves in a way that protects us from the dichotomy of us and them. “And instead in Norway there are a number of politicians talking about things like ‘secret Islamisation’, bringing to parliament – and thus legitimising – conspiracy theories that at most you would expect to read about in the YouTube comments section. It’s very dangerous.”

The fear, Hoem specifies, is that giving political space to the most extremist views will normalise them. Also because extremists tend to use freedom of speech as a shield behind which they entrench themselves in order to continue with their hate speech, refuting any contradictory opinions. Freedom of speech must therefore become part of the discourse, and must be exercised precisely to counter violent positions. Hoem emphasises how crucial this is at public and political level as well as at individual level: “I think we’re all more inclined to listen to the words of people we trust. That’s why it’s important to have dialogue even with those whose positions are very different from ours, in the family, on social networks, with friends. It’s important to counter hate speech, whenever and wherever we may find it.”

The temptation, on the other hand, to brand anything that upsets us as ‘different’, in the belief that distancing ourselves is enough to protect us from horror, is powerful. After the three attacks that have shocked Norway in the last ten years – in addition to the one in Utøya, the armed break-in at the Bærum mosque in 2019 and the shooting at the London Pub in Oslo, a venue frequented by the LGBTQIA+ community, on the eve of Pride 2022 – public opinion has labelled the terrorists as lone wolves, isolated and deviant cases, different from Norwegians.

But Anders grew up in Norway, went to school where we went to school, played football where we played football,” admonishes Astrid Hoem. “Excluding him and other terrorists and extremists from the perimeter of our society precludes us from understanding how these terrible events could have happened.”

When Loredana Lipperini observes that certain digital platforms have characteristics that promote hate speech as a fertile breeding ground, especially from a gender perspective, Astrid Hoem replies that the main problem is that they are huge private conglomerates. “Work should be done on the democratisation of social media, because it is not healthy that one person can decide to regulate so many others with no contradiction or control.”

Hoem goes on to observe that hate speech against women is also sadly common in Norway, and that “if you are non-white, non-Christian, perhaps visibly Muslim, the possibility of you being attacked, even on social media, increases exponentially. And it’s a huge problem, because it discourages those people from telling their stories, from making themselves visible in public spaces, from entering into politics. It’s a huge problem because it deprives us all of those voices, those points of view.”

Therefore, once again, Hoem emphasises how crucial it is to enter into debate with the trolls, even if we do not want to, even if it is tiring and frustrating. “As a survivor, I’m more afraid of the normalisation of hatred than of violence. We have a great collective responsibility to denormalise hate speech and extremism, because they affect our rights, the rights of minorities. Because they condition all our lives.”