di Maria Pia Rossignaud e Derrick de Kerckhove, Osservatorio TuttiMedia e Media Duemila
“Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”
(‘To give a purer sense to the words of the tribe’)
Stéphane Mallarmé, Le tombeau d’Egard Poe
French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s purpose that he attributes to Edgard Allen Poe is the same as ours. In this time of “Sturm und drang”, of stress and harrowing emotionality that is ours, there is urgent need to return meaning and value to the words of the people.
There was a time when social cohesion depended entirely on news media. In that time, despite different papers supporting different agendas, everyone agreed to disagree under the same umbrella of news. It was easy to distinguish between straight journalism and deviant forms, sometimes called ‘yellow’ Then social cohesion moved to TV that created what Richard Nixon called the ‘silent majority’. Dominated by advertising, that is by ‘good news’ TV brought prosperity to that majority, keeping it silent.
Today, there is no more majority and no silence, but minorities screaming from their echo chambers, and we know why. No less than Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter who stepped down from the platform’s direction explained why Twitter banned Trump from the platform after the attack on the Capitol: “It was the right decision but I’m not proud of it because, ultimately, it was a failure of ours to promote healthy conversation. They divide us, they limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”.
The platforms have given the chance to anybody, whether genuinely informed or not, to take over the creation and especially the distribution of the news, hence the rapid breakdown of social cohesion.
The NewsMedia4Good project, created by the italian Osservatorio TuttiMedia (AllMedia Observatory Association) wishes to support media that recognize the problem. There are already many news media for good, among which Ted Talks, Good docs, Wikipedia, Public Good, Adbusters, etc. But we need more. And we need social cohesion among the media themselves. NewsMedia4Good wants to start a movement in that direction.
It’s not only a matter of securing peace in a profoundly fragilized world, but also to avoid mainstream media losing their relevance.
With NewsMedia4Good we are launching a strong and innovative idea, but one that has deep roots in the history of the media, to which Giovanni Giovannini, historical founder of the Association, has worked for years with vision and intelligence. We are creating the conditions for bringing together journalists, professors, researchers, politicians, institutional representatives and students in an interdisciplinary and significant group, a pool of collective and interdisciplinary intelligence. This group must work on a new media ethics also implying the use of algorithms. We may suppose that algorithms are a recent invention uniquely related to the digital transformation, but, in fact, the term itself goes back to the 9th-century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, and the concept to Adam and Eve. By standard definition, an algorithm is a sequence of instructions, typically used to solve a class of specific problems or to perform a computation. By extension, it also means information that prompts to action, so words can conceivably qualify as ‘loose algorithms’.
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh.” Words were the first human algorithms. In his New Science, Giambattista Vico still provides the most reliable and simple explanation of how words were born from utterances, shouts, and grunts that accompanied and extended gestures and movements. But before the appearance and development of words, the senses were the main algorithms that guided us and all other animals. Words introduced a separation between experience and interpretation (from signifier to signified), but words remained subordinate to the senses until they were written, as Vico also noted. By formalizing and stabilizing the relationships between words and meaning, writing narrowed the range of possible interpretations. And the words thus took on the algorithmic function of the senses. Today, however digitization threatens to eliminate interpretation altogether, focusing not on the meaning but only on the shapes of the written words as, for example, is the case for automatic translation. One of the most ironic effects of digitization is that it can translate all the languages of the world without knowing one. Therefore, the digital transformation and the artificial intelligence that is driving it, are dethroning meaning, making it unnecessary to make things work. For digital operations, meaning is just an accessory, occasionally useful but generally not necessary. AI may not be infallible, but overall, it seems to work better than the chaotic world of words. On the one hand, fake news and the denial of science are destroying objectivity and common sense. Here cometh “post-truth. We have gone from disintermediation to the mediation of machines. The epistemological crisis in progress affects all cultures of the world: human communication carried in algorithms no longer needs the sense of words, but only orders. This is the bottom of the crisis that everyone underestimates. The first trend is certainly the industrialization of fake news and deep fakes which has been encouraged by the rampant myth of ‘alternative truth’ and post truth.
The second trend, which depends in part on the first, concerns the very concept of objectivity supported by scientific evidence being questioned and has led deniers in general to support all kinds of credible claims: a person with or without authority can assert facts that contradict the simple common sense, and it will be believed.
The problem is compounded by the fact that technology may still need the biological resources of humans to move forward, it needs ideas, inventions, and development, but it doesn’t care much about values. Humanism, on the other hand, is basically a system of values that is told and handed down through information that today more than ever needs responsibility. Introducing ethics into the functioning of algorithms is one of the biggest challenges humans need to face, but it is a long shot, and we cannot wait for that to happen.
It is time to reiterate the fact that the media have always been both products and promoters of democracy, awareness, the diffusion of knowledge and above all critical thinking. Ethics and Media are our primary focus. At the 13th edition of Nostalgia di Futuro we made a call to action addressed to all information actors. The shift to on-line information is weakening the journalist and traditional publishing world, so we need to find a united spirit to remind everyone of the importance of the role of the journalist in a democratic society. Especially today that we find ourselves in a phase of transformation between the old literate and the new digital world: we need to have the ability to bring with us aspects of the past because by understanding our history we will be able to orient ourselves in the present.
Ethics is the milestone to guide change. We do not want to impose bans, but we want to spread good practices that start from the foundations of language, that is the word. The intelligent use of words considers the meaning of every word in every context and not just the ‘sensation’ it can produce. We must look beyond the “likes” that seem to guide online communication and find a common denominator capable of engaging vision in favor of social issues. It is time to go back to an effective return to the function of public information. What’s more, the digitization of everyday life increasingly transforms processes that until a few years ago we believed were very rock solid. “Digital twins” and “Metaverses” are becoming realities that progressively appropriate virtual spaces in our stead.
For this reason, we must not limit our research and study activities in a wild land where there are no borders or where the law of the strongest is in force, which often coincides with the wealthiest. There is a limit between fact and gossip, between truth and fake news, between disclosure and propaganda. Therefore, we must create real borders between what is information and what is not. In this sense, the greatest commitment lies in the fact that information must be supported by the institutions both at a legislative and an economic level to maintain its independence and have the opportunity to always do the work of reporting and assessing in the best possible way.
NewsMedia4Good supports information that is not shouted but is cured in every word. We want to stop the sensationalism that divides, the polarization that encages. We want to contribute to the construction of the new infosphere because it is time to rediscover the meaning of the news and to restore value to the words that interpret reality, with the help of everyone and with particular attention to the vision of women who, as was demonstrated in the pandemic tragedy, take care of others and of the world. We need to find a way of a new social cohesion.
Our aim is to bring a message to the G20: “We need a new ethics including the algorithmic dimension in which the economic sustainability of the entire media system is a priority.”
NewsMedia4Good has the ambition to promote and support a cultural project, a new reference point for the third millennium infosphere on issues related to the world of communication. We are underestimating the epistemological crisis in progress; we must act before the words lose their meaning. The Social goal might be to recover social cohesion via the media; create culture on the need for correct information; interpretation is essential for balance and sustainability. We bring back to the center of the global village the story that wants to participate in the construction of the best possible future.
Maria Pia Rossignaud (vicepresidente Osservatorio TuttiMedia e direttrice Media Duemila)
Derrick de Kerckhove (direttore scientifico Osservaotrio TuttiMedia e Media Duemila)