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The dangers of an uncontrolled online veracity market

I was very pleased to speak at the Club of Venice Plenary to discuss a topic that especially in the modern times of post-truth, false news and high polarization of the institutional and political debate in Europe, is of the utmost importance for communicators, analysts and all those involved in making laws that regulate and protect the information market and the veracity of what billions of people see every day by scrolling their thumb on their phones.
It was important to address this in Venice, a historic crossroads of cultural, religious, trading and intellectual exchange that has been recently unfortunately in the news also for some of disastrous effects of global warming and a city mentioned in Ursula Von Der Leyen’s speech before the European Parliament as a real symbol of European unity and as a symbol of the challenges that we need to face all together as Europeans.
Disinformation is not a new issue but it is certainly an issue that has assumed a new amplitude with the advent of social networks that share information at an unprecedented pace. The issue of disinformation is not merely confined to analyzing the way social networks work. It relates to a discussion that affects how we perceive society and the future of democracy.
Disinformation is a cause of public harm, a threat to democratic policy making and a danger for citizens’ health, security and their environment. It erodes trust in institutions, and it hampers the ability of citizens to take informed decisions. It has polarized most political debates, deepened tensions in society, undermined electoral systems, and has a wider impact on European security that we may tend to think. It impairs freedom of opinion and expression, which is a key principle enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Unfortunately, these are indeed times where conspiracy theories ones confined to the fringe, are going mainstream. It is an era where evidential argument seems to be ending and scientific consensus is dismissed. It is an era where nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage,
A recent Oxford University study found at least 70 countries have launched disinformation campaigns and despite increased efforts by internet platforms to combat disinformation, the use of false news dissemination by governments around the world is growing, We must firstly acknowledge that globally the biggest multipliers of disinformation are mostly governments, mostly not democratic or not accountable legally nor politically for pursuing such society-controlling actions. They either spread disinformation to discredit political opponents or to interfere in foreign affairs and this is concerning for all European elections.
Such online disinformation campaigns can no longer be understood to be the work of “lone hackers, or individual activists, or teenagers in the basement doing things for clickbait.” There is a new professionalism to the activity, with formal organizations that use very powerful and well organized networks to carry out these activities. This cannot be underestimated anymore.
On the other hand, we must keep in mind that access to social media is an actual support for modern day democracy. Any move by authorities to restrict access to, censor or block social media sites should be recognized as an infringement on freedom of speech and our right to information.
The protests in Maidan Square, all the protest movements in Iran’s recent history the current manifestations in Hong Kong have used technology to stay ahead of the authorities and circumvent state-controlled media. Freedom of speech and the right to protest are key elements of democracy and must be protected in order to foster an equal and fair society.
Let us look at this sentence: “In a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians who they may or may not vote for are saying so they can judge your character for themselves,” Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is doubling down on his company’s decision to not take down political ads that contain false information. This statement summarizes the core of the whole debate. We cannot have a debate about disinformation without look into this. It is a matter of deontological development of the profession of all political and institutional communicators.
Where do we draw the line? Do we control the media to prevent possible disinformation, ergo somehow allowing government decides what’s true or false or do we let anybody make their decision according to what they see, risking conspiracy theories to take over society? Apart from this existential philosophical debate, what can do done by governments and institutions?

FOSTER COOPERATION BETWEEN TECH COMPANIES AND GOVERNMENTS

As an objective analyst of social platforms and trends around Europe, and as one of the people that almost ten years ago shaped and initiated the way the European Commission monitors social networks, I would like to say that we need to rebalance the narrative on disinformation and tech companies. Contrarily to what is often said, tech companies do not have the interest in spreading misinformation and they do have an interest in cooperating with international organizations and governments.
Fighting disinformation has to be a coordinated effort involving all relevant actors, from institutions to social platforms, from news media to consumers’ associations.
From the side of the institutions, two things can be done:
  1. Increase the technological knowledge of policy makers. There is still an important gap between the institutions’ knowledge of how social media work and the knowledge needed to effectively legislate to regulate the spectrum of action of tech and media companies.
  2. We must not fall into the tempting arms of “fashionable hating” just because it may benefit our image. Many celebrities, including prominent European and American politicians are using Facebook as a scapegoat for their own inability to address the public, labeling it as some sort “disinformation-for-profit machine.” Simply resorting to accusations, that paradoxically are often intended to get likes, views or engagement on the very platforms that are criticized, solves no issues.
What can internet companies do?
If they really want to make a difference, they should hire more monitor and work with anti-disinformation organizations, purge lies and conspiracies from their platforms.
Secondly, they should abide by standards of practice like tv, radio and newspapers do. But this needs to be enforced by institutions and still today more legislative work is needed.
In every industry, a company is liable when their product is defective. In every industry you can be sued for the harm they cause. Government can push to have social networks accountable when this happens, the power is in their hand.

INVEST IN REBUTTAL AND FACT-CHECKING

I feel that today the information vs disinformation battle is not about being smarter but being bigger. The European Commission has done a lot over the past few years and colleagues in the communication departments must continue their work to ensure that communication and monitoring are tier-one priorities rather than something that happens just after policy.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS

If we want social networks that grow in line with European values, we need European champions in technology.
There needs to be a European Silicon valley, not necessarily one geographic location, it can be even a digital space, where companies can grow and express their full potential with European brains, instead of let them go to Southern California or China. We are losing innovation attractiveness (the current state of artificial intelligence draws a gloomy picture in this regard) and not nurturing the possibilities we may have in technology altogether to have a real European Facebook, Google, Weibo, Whatsapp or Twitter. The only great exception is Swedish-made Spotify.
As long as we don’t have solid competitors to these information holding giants, built in a European environment, we will always be at the mercy of companies that are not built upon European values and will not be carrier and standard bearers for these values.

INFORMATION LITERACY

Beneath the spread of all “fake news,” misinformation, disinformation, digital falsehoods and foreign influence lies society’s failure to teach its citizens information literacy: how to think critically about the deluge of information that confronts them in our modern digital age. Instead, society has prioritized speed over accuracy, sharing over reading, commenting over understanding.
Children are taught to regurgitate what others tell them and to rely on digital assistants to curate the world rather than learn to navigate the informational landscape on their own. Schools no longer teach source triangulation, conflict arbitration, separating fact from opinion or even the basic concept of verification and validation. We have stopped teaching society how to think about information, leaving citizens adrift in the digital wilderness.
While technical literacy is a powerful and important skill, it is not the same as information literacy and will not help in the war against “fake news.” To truly solve the issue of disinformation we must blend technological assistance with teaching our citizens to be literate consumers of the world around them.
In conclusion, let me quote from Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech at the Antidefamation League. I don’t agree with everything he said, but I do agree with this:
The next 12 months the role of social media could be determinant: British people will go to the polls soon, while online conspiracists promote the theory of great replacements. Americans will vote for president, while trolls and bots perpetuate the lies of a Hispanic invasion. After years of YouTube videos calling climate change a hoax, the US is on track to withdraw from the Paris accords. Disinformation already highly affects policy-making, and let me add, it affects it in the worst possible way. A sewer of bigotry and conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and our planet can’t possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.
Today’s grand challenge of combating “fake news” requires a very human solution. It requires teaching society the basics of information literacy and how to think about the information they consume. It requires navigating the existential contradictions of today’s social media platforms obsessed with velocity and virality against verification and validation.
The only way to truly begin to combat the spread of digital falsehoods is to understand that they represent a societal rather than a technological issue and to return to the early days of the web when institutions, governments and schools taught and encouraged to question what they read online instead of taking it for granted.
This is a serious danger and something that we communicators, government officials, representatives of global organizations have the chance today to reverse. Let us not miss that chance.

The dangers of ineffective statistics sommunication

I was very pleased to be invited at the DIGICOM Final Event – Sharing Landmark Achievements in Communication and Dissemination to discuss a topic that especially in the modern times of post-truth, false news and high polarization of the institutional and political debate in Europe, is of the utmost importance for communicators and all those involved in producing and putting together statistics and official data from public and private organizations.

I myself am not a statistician and certainly I don’t have the level of competence and knowledge most of the people in the room had in this field. I am a communicator and I have helped and coached institutions, politicians and public officials in doing something different than what they did: getting messages across to others.

When I was contacted to give this intervention, the drafted title for this keynote was “Communicating official statistics effectively” and so I started read the relative literature on the topic including for instance the report “Communication of statistics in post-truth society: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Thus looking at the work of Eurostat and other organizations in the field, I realized that a lot is already available in relation to communicating statistics. What is missing though; apart from some very interesting analyses, mostly from journalists, public speakers and sometimes some very dedicated politicians with a passion for truth and democracy, is a set a serious warnings about the dangers of ineffective communication of statistics, which then became the title of the intervention.

Why the reverse language? Why is it different to address good communication vs the dangers of bad communication? It’s the feeling that this triggers. Sentiments related to fear, concern and worry trump positive emotions and get more attention from any kind of audience. As a political communicator, and an open believer in a “United Europe”, I looked at the challenges that democratic institutions have had to face over the past few years. This is why, at the very last moment I have decided that my intervention should focus on this danger.

Even though, communicators and statisticians, at least in my humble experience, don’t often interact, the collaboration between these two types of professionals is today more important than ever. Some say it is a character difference – statisticians are more interested in things while communicators are more interested in people – but there be more behind that.

With the non-stop proliferation of social networks and digital features that spread information and content at a pace that was just unthinkable a few years ago, there is a strong need for the statistics community to modernize by accepting the importance of effective communication strategies and embody them as an integrated part of the statistical production process. The power of statistics is directly proportionate to the way they are communicated.

The ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is unfortunately in decline. A new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over and is challenging democracy as well as the value of statistics. In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They should provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western democracies.

Shortly before the latest American presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government “is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living there”.

According to the Eurobarometer an absolute majority of European citizens do not trust statistics. These results are critical and follow a continuous declining trend, which, if not reverted, will have significant social consequences, as the gap between citizens and citizens’ trust in public administration and international institutions widens.

This trend is amplified by the deficiency of citizens’ knowledge of basic statistics literacy.

  • 25% of respondents could give a correct answer to the unemployment rate
  • Only 6% of European citizens know the GDP growth rate of their own country
  • none of the respondents were able to give a correct answer to the annual inflation rate of their country.

More worryingly recent reports on the perception of migration in Europe shows a very deep divide between reality and sentiment of society.

It is as if the era of evidential argument is ending and now knowledge is increasingly delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed.

The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this new situation, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly polarized.

On one hand, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community. It is just one more way that privileged people in Brussels, Washington DC or London seek to impose their worldview on everybody else.

On the other hand, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?

Over the past few years, especially when it comes to understanding some pretty exceptional events, communication experts have often discussed and raised the issue of the power of emotions and the facts vs feelings dichotomy. Sentiment, perceptions, attitudes, unorthodox claims not based on actual numbers, play a bigger role than statistics in both politics and policy making.

While I accept it for politics, accommodating or appeasing electoral tendencies via the implementation of sentiment-based, rather than evidence-based policy making, is destructive, and as a pro-European, I don’t find myself particularly proud or at ease with recent policy actions undertook by a number of European governments in managing the economy, climate change or migration.

But now let’s talk communication. What seems to be clear from some of the most recent challenges for the European Union, the economic crisis, Brexit, migration, the current state of “evidence-based only” public communication is not working.

This doesn’t mean suggesting the dissemination of lies or half-truths, but it means to consider 4 macro factors:

  1. The power of emotions
  2. The need for statisticians to be empowered
  3. Understand your audience
  4. Invest in rebuttal and fact-checking

THE POWER OF EMOTIONS

Facts don’t speak for themselves. Framing, metaphors and narratives need to be used responsibly if evidence is to be heard and understood.

We can’t separate emotion from reason. Better information about citizens’ emotions and greater emotional literacy could improve policymaking. Values and Identities drive political behaviour but are not properly understood, debated or considered. Before a set of statistics can be used, it must be made understandable to people who are not familiar with statistics.

The key to the persuasive use of statistics is extracting meaning and patterns from raw data in a way that is logical and easy to demonstrate to an audience.

Let me give you a couple of examples of people that took the visualization of relations and meaning to the next level.

Hans Rosling, was a Swedish physician, academic, and public speaker. He was the Professor of International Health and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system. He held presentations around the world, including several TED Talks in which he promoted the use of data to explore development issues. He is the author of international best-seller Factfulness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_QrIapiNOw

Geoff Ainscow, one of the leaders of the Beyond War movement in the 1980s, gave talks trying to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons. He wanted to show that the US and the USSR possessed weapons capable of destroying the earth several times over.

But simply quoting figures of nuclear weapons stockpiles was not a way to make the message stick. So, after setting the scene, Ainscow would take a BB pellet and drop it into a steel bucket where it would make a loud noise. The pellet represented the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Ainscow would then describe the devastation at Hiroshima.

Next, he would take 10 pellets and drop them in the bucket where they made 10 times as much noise. They represented the nuclear firepower on a single nuclear submarine. Finally, he poured 5,000 pellets into the bucket, one for each nuclear warhead in the world. When the noise finally subsided, his audience sat in dead silence.

That is how you put statistics into context and trigger emotions.

FEEL EMPOWERED

Statisticians deserve a lot of credit, but before convincing other people to acknowledge that, they have to do it themselves first.

In my experience in coaching scientists on performing effective communication, I often felt there was a lack of self-acknowledgement. As a statistician you’re not simply putting data together, you are shaping society, and you are making people realize things.

Safeguarding the facts and figures and facilitate the use of good quality statistics for evidence-based policy making contributes to sound and sustainable policies for the collective benefits of citizens.

Self-reward and empowerment must start from you. Acknowledge your role and be proud of what you bring to society.

UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE

One of the biggest challenges faced by any collaborative statistician is communicating statistical information to those with less knowledge of statistics. As statistics is a core ingredient of transparency and accountability of institutions, it needs to be proactively rendered to citizens with quality and understandability.

When it comes to communication to different audiences, sometimes we are too fast at agreeing and patting each other on the back in a closed room full of experts but we tend to focus on communicating to the very few rather than the vast majority. I have certainly been a culprit of that.

We are so used to resorting to statistics that we tend to bombard our audiences with too many mind-numbing numbers. Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.

Audiences are not a monolith but mostly a conglomerate of infinite sub-audiences. Look at how they behave, where they are and consume content.

INVEST IN REBUTTAL AND FACT-CHECKING

Your work doesn’t end with the publication of your data-sets. Keep monitoring what people say about the data you publish, make sure, if you can, that no misinformation is spread and if not, rebut.

Many ask me in my intervention to provide solution against disinformation. It doesn’t get any easier than that and it’s up to institutions to decide how much budget and resources to dedicate to that.

I feel that today the information vs disinformation battle is not about being smarter but being bigger. We (Europeans and euro bubblers) often self-flagellate for our alleged inability to communicate. I think it’s time to stop this narrative.

THINK ON THE LONG TERM

Contrarily to the current perception of things, the construction of visibility, relations, brand is a long-term game and the underestimation of this (thinking that is a short-term game) is in 99% of cases the reason for public communication failure.

Do not overestimate what you can do in six months and don’t underestimate what you can do in three years.

A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of democracy.

I still believe that democracy needs evidence-based policy making. I still believe that independent statistics are at the heart of evidence-based policy making and I still believe that Europe is and will always be the cradle of democracy no matter that challenges that lie ahead. And the implementation of democracy requires independent statistics.

The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of government. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.

This is a serious danger and something that you have the chance today to reverse. Don’t miss that chance.

Social media and politics – A chat with Michael Bosetta

Michael Bosetta is one of the most vibrant experts in innovative communication in Europe. Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at Lund University, he specializes in the impact of social media on politics.

After the horrific Strasbourg shooting, where a gunman opened fire near a crowded Christmas market in the eastern French city, in an attack that killed five people, we had a little chat about the “behind the scenes” of managing social media for prominent politicians in circumstances of crises.

See the chat in the video below and do not hesitate to comment and send feedback.

Noi e l’immigrazione «Dobbiamo riappropriarci della nostra umanità»

Giorni fa a Fidenza, vicino al centro commerciale, fui colpito da una vista insolita. Un uomo, vestito pesantemente benché fosse una giornata calda, con un berretto di lana e un cappottone, tipico degli africani subsahariani che arrivano in Europa. Una cosa comunissima di prim’acchito, ma nel suo viso notai qualcosa di inusuale: si trattava di un africano albino.

Essere albini in Africa non vuol dire semplicemente avere una pigmentazione diversa e difetti di vista. Vuol dire essere discriminati, mutilati o uccisi a causa di miti secondo cui gli albini sono dotati di poteri magici e le parti del loro corpo portano fortuna o, in altre parti del continente considerati portatori di sventura e chiamati zeru zeru, che in swahili significa «fantasma», «invisibile».

Mi fermo e vado a parlargli. È nigeriano. Cerca lavoro e qualche aiuto, una moneta, del riso, un frutto, fuori dal supermercato. Parliamo e gli chiedo in inglese: «Lei è albino?» I suoi occhi si aprono come in un misto di stupore e forse terrore. Chissà cosa ha visto. Chissà cosa lo ha spinto a partire dalla Nigeria, arrivare sulle orribili coste libiche e tentare il viaggio della vita. Cose che noi non possiamo neanche immaginare.

Perché anche per noi lui è «invisibile» . Quando girando per il paese sento frasi del tipo «Io li tirerei sotto», «Questi negri», «Non li vogliamo» mi rendo conto che nel nostro progresso, siamo arrivati a un punto quasi insormontabile di egoismo fintamente comunitario dove non analizziamo i fatti come società fatta di uomini e donne ma di «noi italiani» o «parmigiani o salsesi» in competizione, piuttosto che cooperazione, con altre società. Questa dicotomia è la causa della nostra perdita d’umanità.

Una società che si adagia sul deprecabile «conforto» del razzismo, ossia il bollare il diverso come «male», non è ambasciatrice di progresso ma di regresso. Stiamo dimenticando le basi dell’umanità trattando chi fugge dalla fame, dalla guerra e dalla discriminazione come dei «non uomini». Questo è preoccupante e non è un auspicio che porto verso la mia comunità locale.

Quanto conta la nostra cultura e tradizione senza le basi dell’aiuto e della comprensione verso il prossimo, d’ovunque esso venga. Niente. Non conta nulla. Dati recenti confermano che il livello di populismo attuale in Europa è pari a quello del 1940. Se i miei nonni, nati a inizio secolo, fossero in vita farebbero di tutto per istruirci a evitare quegli errori disumani che fanno del 20º secolo, il può sanguinoso della storia. Non permettiamo al 21º di essere peggio. Cominciamo dalla nostra realtà locale.

Push FOMO back

FOMO can be your worst enemy when you manage different social media and you’re running around events and caring of somebody’s branding (and of course your own…). How do you decide what’s worth let go? Personally, one thing I can’t let go is to workout. Even on long days, long hours online with my neck bent on my iPhone or iPad, hitting the gym, or whatever kind of hotel gym you bump into, is the only thing that keeps me going and helps me refresh my mind.

And you? How do you let go on long travelling working days? 🙏

In fitness and communication don’t pay peanuts to get monkeys

EXPENSIVE OR CHEAP CONSULTING? Let’s talk about it…
Lately I’m getting a lot of requests via Instagram to provide some advice and consultation on fitness. How can I lose weight? What should I eat? What supplements should I take? And so on…

This is pretty flattering but no matter how many of such requests I get, I prefer to recommend people to “real” professionals in this field and to people who can dedicate an appropriate amount of time to clients who really want to improve their physical skills. Why do I do that?
1. I am aware I don’t have the expertise, nor the knowledge, nor the time to help a person through this very encompassing path. I acknowledge it and I would be a fraud if I did.
2. I would damage the market at expenses of “actual” PTs, nutritionists and trainers.

The same thing happens often in communication and digital marketing but getting cheap consultation is more expensive than getting proper plans of action.

If you are faced with the choice of spending your budget, for whatever purpose, between a lot of cheap service or a few good services, my advice is to always focus on quality, not quantity!

La lezione di Bilbao: investire in cultura

Recentemente mi trovavo a Bilbao per condurre un seminario sulla comunicazione politica. Nell’occasione potei scoprire la città, la sua società e la sua antica storia, orgogliosamente radicata sia nella sua gente che nelle sue istituzioni. Una storia moderna però tristemente intrisa di divisioni, terrorismo dell’ETA e un desiderio innato di indipendenza dalla monarchia Spagnola. Benché ora Bilbao sia prospera, a inizio anni ‘90 l’economia era a pezzi per una grave crisi industriale.

Cosa fece dunque il governo locale? Una “pazzia”: Investirono €20milioni per fondare Il Guggenheim, un museo rivoluzionario per architettura e concetto. L’idea ebbe numerose critiche ma i baschi avevano una visione: riattivare il proprio circolo culturale e reinventarne l’economia. Non si focalizzarono inutilmente sul passato ma guardarono al futuro.

Una visione che va al di là dei numeri e si concentra sulle risorse più importanti della società: capitale umano e coinvolgimento civico. Le critiche vennero rapidamente interrotte da un indotto di €635 milioni nel biennio 1998-2000 e numerosi premi internazionali.

Noi abbiamo già il nostro Guggenheim, si chiama Terme Berzieri. una “pazzia” che portò l’arte siamese nel mezzo dell’Emilia. All’epoca, fu la consapevolezza che lo sforzo del singolo ridà linfa alla città a trasformare ogni cittadino in ambasciatore della stessa. Siamo noi che dobbiamo proporre idee e cooperare alla valorizzazione dell’edificio senza aspettare la provvidenza istituzionale. Giriamo pagina sui tempi che furono e scriviamo, insieme come ambasciatori, il nostro futuro.

Pubblicato il 24 febbraio 2018 su La Gazzetta di Parma

How populists trigger “visceral” reactions – A lesson a the IHECS Academy

Whenever your marketing arguments are finished, wheneveryour strategy is perfect but still something doesn’t work, it’s time to go back to the basis. Understanding how nationalists and populists movements communicate in order to trigger “visceral” reactions into people, should be the basis for centrist parties to counterattack. Understanding the psycology and evolution of the human brain is the foundation of this approach. It was great to lecture passionate students at IHECS Academy and exchange with these talented communication enthusiasts good practices, challenges and hopes for Europe.