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New media, new content, next challenges

    • Rome
    • 19 June 2018

          Kicking off this event was the observation that at the end of 2016, “post-truth” – as conveyed by so-called fake news – was declared word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary. This was held up as an example of the challenges posed both by the rapid evolution of technological and business paradigms, that are shifting the focus of communications, and by the speed of access to digital platforms, where members of the public have become both readers and authors. Users also have the ability to determine how successfully a piece of news is spread, by sharing it en masse or to a narrow audience. It was noted that while the cheapness and immediacy afforded by the internet in producing and distributing content has widened freedom of expression, it has also weakened the authoritativeness and robustness – including in financial terms – of traditional media.

          The new means of learning and acquiring information were viewed by the participants as particularly noteworthy. People inform themselves more extensively and quickly than in the past, but also without delving into detail, using data gathered through content available on their social networks of choice. Some estimates indicate that these networks have become the largest source of news, yet they are not media companies. This is also leading to a change in the way politics is conducted and consensus is generated. The assertion and recognition of leadership increasingly stems from the ability to use the web strategically, in the process disintermediating traditional political party organizations, traditional media, and so-called intermediary bodies.

          Questions were raised as to whether these new forms of communication – and the “echo chambers” brought about by the pervasiveness of social media – might favor the emergence of anti-establishment sentiments. The algorithm has emerged as a new, efficient, and invisible arbiter, that changes the neutral ground of news provision, and, hence, of opinion-shaping. Readers are increasingly shutting themselves within a bubble built around their tastes, preferences, and prejudices.

          It was felt that the new forms of communication and the tones hailing from social media oblige a reflection on the new rights and duties of digital citizens. The question arises as to whether there are new limits to freedom of information and expression (with open access to all sources of information or the need for more stringent regulation, as in the case of hate speech, being topics for debate). Other key issues highlighted as pertaining to the delineation of the rights and duties attaching to digital communications included the new boundaries of the right to privacy and the emergence of a greater focus on internet security. These aspects were viewed as also related to the international nature and pervasiveness of the revolution unfolding, to significant diversity in behaviors and regulatory approach, and to the existence of a handful of major worldwide platforms.

          There was no consensus in the assessment of the effects that these changes will have in the medium and long term. Some pointed to a cross-generational divide between the silver generation and digital natives. Others maintained that the divides are within generations, dependent on the varying propensity to use new applications. One shared concern, however, was over the impact that digital tools have on concentration and learning, which may entail a reduced ability on the part of school-age students to develop a broad and appropriate vocabulary, and to build a cultural grounding and skills set, that are worthy heirs to the Italian tradition and geared towards the needs of the future. Information overload and the consequent homogenization of news were seen as a cause for concern, as was the question of how to determine the comparative quality of different sources, such as between an article in an authoritative online newspaper and an article on the same topic on an unknown blog, when both are given the same degree of prominence on a social media channel.

          The final word, from the optimists, was that new media and the new communications platforms are a significant but instrumental resource. Like so many innovations of the past, they will – once this phase of tumultuous transition is overcome  – make it possible to take advantage of new important opportunities and connections between citizens and users, thereby fostering pluralism, news accuracy and quality, and transparency.

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