A Media Ecology for a Platform Society

Fausto Colombo | Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

A Media Ecology for a Platform Society

0.     Introduction

My paper proposes an ecological perspective[1] on current developments in the media system – dominated by the power of platforms – and communication in general, as it unfolds today, in hybrid[2] environments, mediated by algorithms, and traversed by anti-communicative practices such as misinformation and various forms of verbal violence and dissemination of prejudice.

A perspective of this kind implies, on the one hand, a descriptive dimension, attentive to the ecosystem of the media as it is configured in relation to other aspects of the environment and society in general. The arising questions at this level are: how is the media ecosystem configured today? What are its distinctive features compared to its previous stages? What role do the media play in shaping communicative norms and customs, and what communicative forms tend to prevail through them?

On the other hand, the ecological perspective implies a critical dimension, able to highlight viable solutions to the problems posed by the media and their impact on social life and individuals. At this level the questions are: can we imagine steering the media ecosystem in a more fruitful direction, one that does not merely follow the footprints of technological progress or market laws? And as for human communication: can we save its original function? Do we need to be more conscious about the role of communication?

Both perspectives are valuable in understanding the current moment, which the pandemic has partly shaped, both by accelerating the processes of change taking place in the entire media system (now characterized by a predominance of the platform model), and by increasing what we might call sustainability sensitivities (and policies) in relation to the infosphere.

The recent debate on the green turn – driven by the need for wide-ranging interventions aimed at reducing global warming – has made a new fact evident, at least for public opinion: the planet cannot be saved at zero cost. Environmental policies cost money, and their costs fall on everyone, including those with fewer resources, creating new complexities and requiring comprehensive policies to reduce inequalities and guarantee welfare.

Interventions on the pollution of the infosphere and its consequences may also not be free of cost: they may involve public intervention that limits – at least on the surface – freedom of expression, and in some cases constrains the communicative behavior of citizens, reducing their margins of autonomy.

In this paper, I will try to show how ecological sensitivity is gradually permeating our symbolic universe, with visible consequences also in the universe of media and platforms. My speech will be divided into three parts: first, I will highlight the evolution of the platform-centered media ecosystem before the Pandemic; then I will describe some processes that – although they started before the Pandemic – exploded during the great crisis of COVID-19, leading to a growing conflict between policies to contain the “pollution” of the infosphere and the way we define democratic freedoms. Finally, I will try to describe the ecological processes underway in the field of media and platform governance, and suggest a framework of interpretation useful to define non contradictory policies to reduce conflicts and rethink paradigms of communication quality.

1.         The media ecosystem before the pandemic

My starting point is that the pandemic – rather than being a revolutionary turning point – is an accelerator of social and symbolic processes that have been going on for years.

These processes involve both medium-term and short-term factors. In other words, I think that, in order to understand what is happening during the pandemic, we must place ourselves from an analytical point of view ‘at the right distance’ from the phenomena and not overemphasize the most obvious aspects.

Let us start with the medium-term factors. I am sure we all agree that, from the point of view of communication and media studies, the most significant factor has been the rise of platforms.

The explosion of the Internet speculative bubble (2000) and then the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September (2001) marked an overall turning point that restructured the network as it had been imagined by its pioneers and redefined the whole traditional media system.

On the one hand, the completion of technological convergence[3] took place with the digitization of discography, cinema, radio and television, journalism and book publishing. The web on the one hand, and apps on the other, have enabled the online reception of content that – until a decade ago – was still provided by legacy media. This migration has fostered the definitive welding of media and telecommunications, and network infrastructures have become distribution channels for all kinds of content. On the other hand, digitization has started to use on a mass scale a tool belonging to the history of computer science, which until then had remained in the background of research in its most advanced and elite forms: artificial intelligence. The so-called web 2.0 is in fact based on the functioning of algorithms, and on their ability to read the behaviour of users. As van Dijck, Poell and de Waal write, a platform (like Facebook, Airbnb or Uber) “is a programmable architecture designed to organise interactions between users”.[4] This feature has shown itself very well in social media which, as Graham Meikle points out, are ‘platforms made up of networked databases that combine public and private communication’.[5]

In the first twenty years of the third millennium, there has thus been a transformation of the media ecosystem that has to do not only with technology and its evolution, but more fundamentally with a process involving all dimensions of society. Indeed, the platforms constitute a break with previous media waves, starting with their economic dimension. Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft now occupy the absolute first places in terms of turnover among all companies in the world and, like monopsonies, tend to expand more and more, limiting or absorbing the competition with a force never known before on a global scale. This is an absolute novelty, given that traditional media – even those of significant size, capable of encompassing different elements of the supply chain, from the conception and production of content to its distribution – have always been limited in size compared to the large industrial giants (e.g. the oil industry).

The very nature of platforms tends to make them move in the direction of an expansion that aspires to a monopoly in the intermediation of consumption (what is precisely defined as a monopsony, which is elusive with respect to traditional antitrust legislation), and pushes them to expand to new frontiers (e.g. Amazon has gradually extended its functions from home delivery to other sectors such as the production and distribution of videos).

The success of platforms has been studied extensively, to the extent that it is possible to observe their constituent elements: they invest little in the assets of traditional companies; the use of user data allows both a continuous improvement in performance and the transformation of that data into economic value through algorithms. Algorithms, whose novelty and opacity with respect to democratic control have been recalled by several authors, have enabled new offers in the field of traditional entertainment and information, responding to logics that are profoundly different from those of analogue media.[6]

However, a pure analysis of technologies – in their current sophistication – is insufficient to grasp the scope of the media ecosystem, which is connected to a wider context, in which certain transformations in the social and political dimension, as well as in the economic one, are evident. If we look at the more general social context, we can see the links, or at least the intersections, between the development of the media system and the development of some economic ideology.

Let us begin with the role played by ‘neo-liberal thinking’ in governmentality since the 1980s. The connotations and complexities of neo-liberalism have been described, for example, by Mudge in his 2008 essay:[7] neo-liberalism welds the academic conceptions of the supporters of the free market and monetarism with economic practices that emphasize the role of financial capital while progressively diminishing the role of labor; the aim of reducing the role of the state in governance in the name of market supremacy with policies of privatization, liberalization, deregulation, depoliticization. There is no doubt that in the decade after the 2008 crisis and before the pandemic, the cultural/political/economic patchwork of neo-liberalism was strengthened. Regarding platforms and their rise, many recent histories of the net show the links between the business philosophies of big companies and an ultra-liberal philosophy.[8] Not only does the business mechanism of the platforms recall the accentuation of the traits of capitalism in its most recent forms; but the very conception of users, the kind of culture that is proposed to them by making sharing technologies available, is largely inspired by liberal individualism:

Web 2.0 is a neoliberal technology of subjectivity that teaches users how to succeed in postmodern American consumer capitalism. Social media not only demonstrates the lessons of white-collar business success by rewarding flexibility, entrepreneurialism, and risk-taking; it also provides a blueprint of how to prosper in a society where status is predicated on the cultural logic of celebrity, according to which the higher value is given to mediation, visibility, and attention. That is, the technical affordances of social media reward with higher social status the uses of behaviors and self-presentation strategies that make people look.[9]

Another fundamental aspect of the context of the rise of the platforms is the growing inequality between nations, social classes and people, which has been exacerbated by neo-liberal policies, and which has found in the platforms business subjectivities capable of taking full advantage of the new market conditions and its governance. It is no coincidence that, for the first time in history, the world’s economic supremacy belongs largely to the large platforms (something that never happened even during the most fortunate phases of the big media majors). A clear demonstration of this is the ranking of the companies with the highest revenues in the world:

We can say that – with their tendency towards concentration and monopsony – platforms give substance to the idea of the absence of regulation.

Another aspect of the growth of platforms is the link with the advance of populism: the phenomenon has grown progressively over the last decade, and has been accompanied by a change of some traditional democracies into illiberal democracies, as shown in the table below:

Source: The Economist, Global Democracy Index 2020.

We are also well aware of how a certain conception of data collection about users has recently been (legally and non-legally) used by populists in several European countries. The cases of the link between the rise of Donald Trump or the successful pro-Brexit campaign and the use (legal and illegal) of social media such as Facebook and Twitter are well known. In Italy, the Lega, a nationally important party that is now in government, uses its own algorithm, called the Beast, to exploit social media databases in order to improve its political and electoral communication.[10]

During the years immediately preceding the pandemic, there was growing alarm, in particular towards what we might call the symbolic pollution of the public sphere. The phase of enthusiasm for the access of hundreds of millions of people to the net through social media and the growing diffusion of smartphones was gradually succeeded by an atmosphere of growing concern. Contrary to the utopias of the early founders of the net, who envisioned a democracy without territory, in which all citizens would be able to contribute equally to the well-being of all, or to Berners Lee’s dream of a ‘republic of knowledge’ mainly inhabited by scientists and intellectuals, the network based on large platforms has highlighted not only the options for social control allowed by algorithms, but also the visible spread of anti-social behaviours such as spreading fake news, bullying or hate speech. The progressive discovery of these limits has led to two types of critical theories: on the one hand, those that – recalling a famous definition by Umberto Eco – we could call apocalyptic,[11] and which are based on a ‘theory of effects’. It would be the network itself, with its intrinsic mechanisms (power law, the role of influencers, the full exploitation of “mass naivety”) that would generate the spread of aberrant behaviors and the “pollution” of the symbolic sphere. On the other hand, we find theorists who link the specific operating mechanism of platforms, with its links to neo-liberal ideology, to the exacerbation of the phenomena of hate speech and fake truth due to the inevitable creation of echo-chambers and filter bubbles. Among these, as we have seen, some have linked their critical vision to certain classical critical or political theories, from traditional Marxism to the criticism of the mainstream or cargo cult, up to the elitist positions adopted between the 19th and 20th centuries by some critics of mass society. For several years this alarm has been growing among intellectuals and civil society. But only recently, due to some macroscopic phenomena and also to the spread of the pandemic, have states and national and supranational institutions themselves begun to adopt policies inspired by this critical attitude, so much so that it is possible to speak of a new phase in the ecological policy of platforms.

2.         The media ecosystem during the pandemic

We now come to the analysis of the short-term factors which, together with the pandemic outbreak, have generated a decisive shift. There is no doubt that phenomena such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as US president have not only generated a historical change, but also provoked reactions that the pandemic has only accelerated. In order to understand this point, we need to go back to the idea of the ‘pollution of the public sphere’ that various theorists had developed, and which seemed to be confirmed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which confirmed the links between social platforms, their possible infiltration by lobbies, political parties and movements, strategic disinformation linked to populist or otherwise anti-Western powers, and so on. My thesis is that these traumatic events have ‘reacted’ with the slow elaboration by institutions and civil society, especially in the West, of strategies to contain the overwhelming power of the platforms and the behavior considered most negative on the web.

On the other hand, for the social platforms themselves it has been increasingly difficult to define their role. The Facebook group, for instance, after having defended its neutrality with regard to content for more than a decade, categorically refusing to play the role of media company, has gradually admitted at least partially its social responsibility,[12] taking action to contain hate speech and political extremism. This has not prevented the group from being criticized for its role in polluting the public sphere,[13] but it is an important sign of a certain ability to negotiate with the institutions’ requests for more correct communication, less infiltrated by fake news, more polite and less aggressive.

Many a government has begun to design or develop policies to counter both the excesses of liberalism, and the spread of incivility, deregulation and the growth of inequality. We can interpret the course of the European elections and the election of Joe Biden as signs in this direction. As is well known, during the storming of the Capitol in Washington, platforms and mainstream media severely censured outgoing President Donald Trump, accusing him of using his accounts and communication channels in general to spread fake news and incite violence. More generally, the attitude of social platforms has rapidly changed, partly due to increasing interaction with government authorities and state policies. During the Covid 19 pandemic, for example, agreements were made and publicized to contain fake news, which was seen as a challenge within the challenge of the pandemic.

A significant example of these new policies is the WHO document of September 2020, which well defines this new approach:[14]

The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is the first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected. At the same time, the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardizes measures to control the pandemic.

An infodemic is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals. Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic.

Misinformation costs lives. Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive. (…)
At the World Health Assembly in May 2020, WHO Member States passed Resolution WHA73.1 on the COVID-19 response. The Resolution recognizes that managing the infodemic is a critical part of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: it calls on Member States to provide reliable COVID-19 content, take measures to counter mis- and disinformation and leverage digital technologies across the response. The Resolution also calls on international organizations to address mis- and disinformation in the digital sphere, work to prevent harmful cyber activities undermining the health response and support the provision of science-based data to the public. (…)
We call on Member States to develop and implement action plans to manage the infodemic by promoting the timely dissemination of accurate information, based on science and evidence, to all communities, and in particular high-risk groups; and preventing the spread, and combating, mis- and disinformation while respecting freedom of expression. (…)
We further call on all other stakeholders – including the media and social media platforms through which mis- and disinformation are disseminated, researchers and technologists who can design and build effective strategies and tools to respond to the infodemic, civil society leaders and influencers – to collaborate with the UN system, with Member States and with each other, and to further strengthen their actions to disseminate accurate information and prevent the spread of mis- and disinformation.
In this complex document we can find three main elements to point out: the acknowledgement of the ‘environmental’ consequences of the infodemic, which are homologated to the health consequences of the pandemic in the strict sense; the role of co-responsibility of the media and platforms, together with that of institutions and citizens, in combating the negative consequences of the infodemic; and the explicit call to action by the media and platforms.[15]
It should be noted that social platforms have responded to the call for co-responsibility with a fairly effective action of contrast and limitation, which contradicts the traditional prudence of social media to behave as publishers, and therefore to take responsibility for content published by users of different natures in the name of freedom of expression. In my opinion, this gradual subsidence of platforms is due to the convergence of different political/economic and cultural pressures. On the political/economic level, the problems exacerbated by the pandemic have certainly accelerated certain regulatory trends, which aim to limit the tax privileges of platforms (as in the case of the minimum tax agreed upon by the OCSE). On the other hand, regulatory interventions on the working conditions of employees, especially in the field of delivery, also show that certain conditions favorable to platforms and their business models are now being challenged. The same ultra-liberal philosophy that inspired and benefited them has been challenged by the need for massive state intervention in the economy, opening the way to a season of new public intervention in the economy. The at least provisional crisis of neo-liberalism has also been accompanied by a slowdown in the success of populist parties, in the USA and in Europe. The last European elections in fact marked the substantial victory of the pro-European forces, represented today by the highest offices of the Council and the European Parliament. There is no need to add that the victory in the US presidential elections of Joe Biden, representing a policy linked to more traditional values and instances than Donald Trump, is a further sign in this sense.

At the cultural level, the increasingly justified criticism of scholars, which has come to the attention of governments, is compounded on the one hand by the growing attention of the media to cases of hate speech, bullying and fake news, and on the other by the growing attention of civil society, which is intervening with its own instruments (associations, initiatives, awareness-raising actions) to raise attention to what we might call the pollution of the public sphere. I would like to devote the last part of this article to the mixed strategies of political institutions and civil society.

3.              The ecological focus on communication and its contradictions

We have seen how the pandemic season, in line with other processes taking place especially in Western democracies, has changed the political and cultural scenario, impacting on the attention to platforms, which has become increasingly critical, and more oriented towards processes of regulation and governance.

On a political level, this kind of attitude naturally leads to a rethinking of freedom of expression, and finds – especially in the second half of 2021, when the pandemic seems to be receding under the blows of vaccinations and thanks to the use of systems to verify access to workplaces and entertainment to only the immunized or immune – some discordant voices fearing the establishment of new totalitarianisms or new systems of discrimination. One example of this is the document published by two Italian philosophers, Massimo Cacciari and Giorgio Agamben, which has provoked much discussion and some abjuration in the world of Italian intellectuals.[16]

I do not wish to discuss here, however, the important political issue of the conflict between the duty of care and the right to choose a treatment, which seems to influence the strictly political debate and the political-ideological conflicts in my country, for example. Instead, I would like to focus on the cultural attitudes of civil society that are more attentive to depolluting the public sphere from the negative tensions constituted by fake news and hate speech. These attempts, which have accompanied the birth and development of the web, seem to need a general philosophical foundation, a definition of communication that justifies them and explains their legitimacy.

I will take as an example Parole Ostili, the movement/association that in recent years has set up a major project to promote correct online behavior and is working (with the resources of education in schools, the interest and commitment of many intellectuals, and also with the involvement of institutions) to raise awareness against the misuse of communication on the net and in favor of what I would like to call ‘gentle communication’, that is, sensitive to the humanity of the other and to the principle of mutual recognition in relations with interlocutors. Parole Ostili has published a manifesto,[17] articulated in a decalogue, suggesting ‘rules’ for correct communication behavior:

1.              Virtual is real

On the Internet, I only write or say what I would dare to say in person.

2.              You are what you communicate

The words I choose define who I am. They represent me.

3.              Words shape the way you think

I take all the time I need to express my views in the best possible way.

4.              Listen before you speak

No one is always right, and neither am I. I listen, with an honest and open-minded attitude.

5.              Words are bridges

I choose words to understand, make myself understood and get close to others.

6.              Words have consequences

I am aware that what I say or write can have consequences, small or serious.

7.              Share with care

I share texts and images only after I have read, assessed and understood them.

8.              Ideas can be discussed. People must be respected

Those whose views and opinions differ from mine are not enemies to be destroyed.

9.              An insult is not an argument

I do not accept offensive and aggressive words, even if they support my point of view.

10.           Silence says something too

When it’s better to keep quiet… I do.

The manifesto was then declined in other decalogues, applicable to specific areas of particularly ‘sensitive’ communication, such as politics, sport and corporate communication.

It is worth giving some thought to an initiative like this. It is based on two prerequisites: the first is that online behavior must be firmly anchored in the rules of good manners valid in the offline world. The second prerequisite is the idea that the rules of online communication must be based on the defense of the quality of communication itself, and that every ‘incorrect’ behavior risks not only affecting or damaging the people to whom insults are addressed or who are victims of deception, but more generally destroying the very context of any possible interaction.

For this second prerequisite, Parole Ostili owes much to the netiquette practices that have always accompanied online conversations, and which – after a long learning practice that accompanied the development of interactions on the first newsgroups – were codified in 1995 in a document of the Network Working Group22, entitled Netiquette – Reference Guide, from which we can draw some very interesting indications. In the Introduction we read:

In the past, the population of people using the Internet had “grown up” with the Internet, were technically minded, and understood the nature of the transport and the protocols. Today, the community of Internet users includes people who are new to the environment. These “Newbies” are unfamiliar with the culture and don’t need to know about transport and protocols. In order to bring these new users into the Internet culture quickly, this Guide offers a minimum set of behaviors which organizations and individuals may take and adapt for their own use.

The recommendations of the netiquette guide can be divided into three main lines. The first line concerns the explanation of the technological or conversational possibilities that the network offers, for example the distinction between a two-way conversation (as in the exchange of emails) and a group conversation. The second line illustrates some elementary rules of network literacy such as: “do not use the ‘reply to all’ function to send a message intended only for the sender”; “do not use capital letters because capital letters in network messages mean a shout”, and so on. The third line of suggestions is in a different perspective, which promotes ‘socially acceptable’ behavior that refers to a certain general idea of fairness in communication. Here are two very clear examples of instructions belonging to this line:

A good rule of thumb: Be conservative in what you send and liberal in what you receive. You should not send heated messages (we call these “flames”) even if you are provoked. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get flamed and it’s prudent not to respond to flames.

Remember that the recipient is a human being whose culture, language, and humor have different points of reference from your own. Remember that date formats, measurements, and idioms may not travel well. Be especially careful with sarcasm.

Both these examples refer to an implicit idea of interaction in general terms, which netiquette tends to defend as ‘good communication’. Even if the source of legitimacy changes (in the first two lines the ‘alphabetic’ awareness of online language, in the third the appropriateness to general principles of communication between people), the reason why the rules are promoted does not change. It consists in the idea of ‘saving the conversation’, because just as it is difficult to converse with someone who does not use language and rhetorical forms correctly, so it is impossible to continue an interaction polluted, for instance, by one or more trolls who attack users, multiply their nicknames, and respond obsessively to all replies.

To summarize, we can say that netiquette shows very clearly how – since the birth of online conversations (be they one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many) – the problem of the correct use of words, expressions and communicative attitudes has been posed. All the rules are presented as communitarian (i.e. self-formulated by online communities and in particular by their most experienced and credible representatives), progressive (in the sense that they develop and grow with the complexification of online activities) and aimed at the optimal functioning of the conversations themselves (i.e. their rationale consists in the survival of the communities and the communicative acts to which they give rise).

If users do not follow certain rules, in short, the conversation tends to die and die out. A sort of Kantian imperative could be applied to netiquette: make your communicative actions protect the interaction you are participating in.

This logic (still active even in some recent texts on the ‘imperatives’ of communication),[18] closely resembles some theories of communication norms based on the need to keep the conversation itself alive.

For instance, Robin Lakoff, in a 1973 contribution,[19] analyzed and systematized the so-called ‘rules of politeness’ in interaction between individuals. Later, she summarized her findings on the topic by defining politeness as a system of interpersonal relations that facilitate interaction by minimizing conflicts and arguments potentially present in every human exchange. The implicit rules of politeness identified by Lakoff aim at minimizing friction between speakers, and thus the pleasantness of the communicative exchange.

The search for the foundation of conversation is instead the step attempted by Paul Grice, an English analytical philosopher, according to whom the good functioning of the communicative exchange does not depend only on courtesy, but deeper on the honesty of the speakers in contributing to the positive outcome. Grice[20] identifies four fundamental ‘maxims’ (quantity, quality, relationship and modality) which, in his view, enable fruitful exchange and cognitive enrichment, and which are implicit in our ability to communicate.

Grice’s maxims, unlike Lakoff’s rules, seem to go beyond mere formal courtesy between interlocutors to achieve the goal of sharing information and experience. The success of the relationship depends not only on the renunciation of violence or prevarication, but also on the sharing of valid content and knowledge, on mutual enrichment.

A further step forward seems to me to be that taken by Jürgen Habermas in his Theory of Communicative Action, first published in 1981.[21] For the German philosopher there are four types of acting: the teleological one, aimed at obtaining a result in the context of the physical world (Habermas speaks of a “world of existing states of affairs”); the norm-regulated one, in which the actor orientates himself according to the common values of the community to which he belongs; the dramaturgical one, in which the participating subjects “mutually represent something” (essentially acting together as actors and as an audience); and the properly communicative one, in which two or more subjects interact through language or other types of signs establishing an interpersonal relationship. It is clear that, for Habermas, communicative acting is a sort of high synthesis of the other forms of acting, because the establishment of a correct communicative relationship makes it possible to act profitably in the world, to share norms of behavior, and to represent each other in a balanced way. And yet the most interesting point is the assertion that not all communication between subjects authentically responds to the logic of communicative action. This logic, in fact, requires consideration of the other’s point of view and a common orientation towards agreement, particularly of a rational kind. But, if one of the subjects communicates with his own exclusive aims, which do not coincide at all with those of the interlocutor and are not shared by him, the action of the first subject is defined by Habermas as strategic, that is, aimed instrumentally at obtaining consent, with indifference to the (possibly negative) consequences for the second subject.

This point constitutes, in my opinion, Habermas’s main acquisition: when he talks about the risks of a communication transformed into strategic acting, the German philosopher is suggesting that a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ communication is possible. More: without this distinction it is almost impossible to formulate a critique of propaganda, mass falsehood and – coming to the present day – even of a public sphere pollution. In the same decade in which Lakoff, Grice and Habermas were conducting their search for universal norms of communication, the German philosopher Josef Pieper was carrying out an accurate analysis of propaganda itself, resorting to the roots that link it to the history of ancient philosophy.[22] Plato, Pieper observes, called the Sophists (known to be his and his teacher Socrates’ bitter enemies) ‘corrupters of the word’.

But what does corruption of the word mean? [...] The conquest of human speech and language – so Plato would undoubtedly answer [...] – is always twofold, which is why it must be assumed from the outset that speech can equally corrupt or be corrupted in two different ways. The first concerns the fact that, in speech, reality emerges in its clarity. One speaks in order to make something real knowable through its designation. Knowable for someone, obviously; and this represents the second aspect, the communicative character of language. [...] Thus, the corruption of the reference to reality and the corruption of the communicative character are clearly the two possible forms of corruption of the word. And indeed, they are precisely those that Socrates imputes to the Sophist rhetoric as the art of discourse.

Following the Socratic-Platonic thread, Pieper asserts that anyone who speaks to another by consciously manipulating the word and not caring about the truth ceases to consider the other as an interlocutor, and indeed ‘no longer considers him as a human being’. Corruption and abuse of language thus enter the service of tyranny, under the familiar banner of propaganda. In commercial propaganda (advertising) as in political propaganda – Pieper continues – the recipients ‘are not taken into account as human beings’, but only as potential consumers or supporters/electors:

Propaganda is by no means just an administrative act of an authoritarian state. It is present wherever a power group, an ideological clan, a collective of interested parties, a pressure group uses the word as a ‘weapon’. And of course the threat can mean much more than political persecution. In particular, it can mean all forms and degrees of defamation, public derision, social exclusion, since all this happens in linguistic ways, including through the unspoken word.

Pieper, therefore, once again defines the axis around which every hypothesis of the foundation of communication cannot but revolve: the idea of a sharing between people oriented to the good of both, and therefore to the effort of correct representation of facts and the world. Aggression and lies are, in short, two faces of the same betrayal: that of the profoundly human nature of communicative exchange. And this is, after all, the basis of any attempt to identify rules that distinguish and enable good communication to be produced.

As we can see, any attempt to defend good communication – be it linked to an agency or a theorisation – refers on the one hand to a self-defence mechanism of communication itself (any action that risks interrupting the communicative relationship therefore has a negative value); on the other hand to an intrinsic value of communication as a human activity (whereby using communication to harm, hurt or offend the other does not respond to the human root of communication itself). It is particularly on this last aspect that I would like to conclude, showing how an ecology of the media is only possible within a more general ecology of human communication.

4.         Conclusions

Let us summarize the path taken so far and propose a re-reading in terms of the ecology of communication today.

We have detected a progressive tendency – which has recently exploded, due to both medium-term geopolitical factors and the advent of the Covid 19 Pandemic – towards an ecological sensitivity in relation to the public sphere. This trend has matured within a media ecosystem dominated by platforms, first in the total absence of opposition from public opinion and governments, then in an increasingly close dialectic with regulatory systems and criticism from civil society. In particular, we focused on the issue of symbolic pollution through the spread of fake news and aggressive behavior such as trolling, hate speech, bullying and discrimination.

However, the new approaches of an ecological nature, both in political and cultural terms, present some theoretically interesting issues. On the political level, the difficulty of mediating between the new tendency to govern and regulate freedom of expression is likely to be a decisive field of investigation and democratic practice in the coming years. On the level of practices of self-government of communication and its spaces by civil society, the big question seems to be: how to define good communication? Why pursue it? Why should each of us avoid being a hater or insulting a participant in our online discussion if we think differently? Why, in short, is it essential to fight to preserve communication as a precious commodity?

The answer I would like to sketch out here is as follows: human communication defines our species, which is completely different from other animal species in the way it communicates. Even as children, even before we are born, we feel the presence of the other. In our mother’s womb we receive signals of her moods. We can say that the first communication we receive from the ‘other than ourselves’ – from the world that welcomes us and awaits us – is a gift, which we receive without merit and without expectations. This original openness to an other (the mother), and to a world into which we come, is then substantiated in life by a profound awareness: that of a species that does not think of itself only in the present, but also in a temporality that transcends its current existence. We are the only species capable of thinking beyond the contingency of the present of individuals, and the transmission from each generation to the following generations, as well as the awareness of the inheritance (in terms of acquired knowledge) received from previous generations, is its defining and constituent element.

Our growing scientific and technical achievements cannot be explained without this basic fact, nor can our curiosity for history, our passion for classics written centuries ago, or our desire to interpret and imagine a future that will not see us as one of its inhabitants. Communication is not only an instrument of this species instinct, it is also, so to speak, its embodiment, and in this sense it is true that we cannot fail to communicate.

It is fair to say, then, that communication is our first experience as individuals, and also our mandate as members of the species: this gives it a precious value, and its quality is clearly a crucial issue today as in the past.

To defend the environment, we can give up something to save us all. Recovering the original function of communication as a bond means discovering that every misbehavior creates several victims, starting with the one who adopts it.

Losing the root of communication means losing the awareness that is originally given to us: the possibility (at least the possibility) of a personal encounter, of a mutual look of recognition, of a name pronounced with respect and love.

If it all began in the embrace of our mother’s body, even before birth, it is nice to imagine that protecting the ecosystem of communication means saving that embrace, that sense of warmth that we can feel in others we meet in their fundamental diversity.

This could mean rediscovering the gentleness of communication: the term refers not only to courteous manners, but more deeply to belonging to a gens, a family, and thus to the lineage of all, to that community of destiny that is the whole of humanity. To recall the need for this kindness, I will use the words, not mine, but those of a great Israeli writer, David Grossman. In one of his very short, excruciating stories, a mother pays compliments to her child and at a certain point tells him that she thinks he is unique, different from all the others. The child becomes worried and sad. If I am unique, he argues, I am alone. The woman tries to console him by telling him that this is not the case, that there are always his parents, his father and her, his mother. But the child does not console himself. His mother is also unique and therefore alone. What comfort can she give him? The ending of this story speaks to us of what we can be to each other, if communication is thought of as a bond of openness and not as the narcissistic expression of many lonely individuals, entrusted to the self-generated logic of algorithms and their values.

“Here, take yourself for example. You are unique”, explained the mother, “and I am also unique, but if I embrace you, you are no longer alone and I am not alone anymore”.

“Then hug me”, Ben said, hugging his mother.

She held him close. He felt Ben’s heart beat. Ben also felt Mom’s heart and hugged her tightly. “Now I’m not alone”, he thought as he hugged her, “now I’m not alone. Now I’m not alone”.

“See”, Mom whispered to him, “that’s exactly why they invented the hug”.[23]

End notes

[1] F. Colombo, Ecologia dei media. Manifesto per una comunicazione gentile, Milano, Vita e Pensiero 2020.
[2] See for instance A. Chadwick, The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power, II Edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2017.
[3] H. Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, NYU Press 2008.
[4] J., van Dijck, T. Poell, M. de Waal, The Platform Society. Public Values in a Connective World, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2018.
[5] G. Meikle, Social Media. Communication, Sharing and Visibility, London, Routledge 2016.
[6] The literature on the subject is now very extensive. By way of example, I would like to mention the following: C. Fuchs, Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media, London, Routledge 2015; R.H., McChesney, Digital Disconnect. How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, New York: New Press, 2013; S. Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, New York, Public Affairs 2019.
[7] S.L. Mudge, “What is Neoliberalism?”, Socio-Economic Review, Vol. 6, Issue 4, 2008, 703-731.
[8] See for instance B. McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone, London, Norton 2018.
[9] A. Marwick, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity & Branding in the Social Media Age, New Haven (CT), Yale University Press 2013, 14.
[10] For an analysis of this phenomenon, I refer to my Ecologia dei media, cit.
[11] A good example of these interpretative positions is N. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, New York, W.W. Norton & Co. 2010.
[12] F. Colombo, M.F. Murru, S. Tosoni, “The Post-Intermediation of Truth. Newsmaking from Media Companies to Platforms”, Comunicazioni Sociali. Journal of Media, Performing Arts and Cultural Studies, 3, 2017, 448-461.
[13] See for instance S. Rathjea, J.J. Van Bavelb, S. van der Lindena, “Out-group animosity drives engagement on social media”, PNAS, Vol. 118.
[14] WHO, https://www.who.int/news/item/23-09-2020-managing-the-covid-19-infodemic-promoting-healthy-behaviours-and-mitigating-the-harm-from-misinformation-and-disinformation
[15] For an analysis of WHO documents in relation to infodemics, see my paper “Infodemic, pandemic, and Covid-19: an ecological approach”, forthcoming.
[16] Qui la traduzione del documento, disponibile in italiano sul sito https://www.iisf.it/index.php/progetti/diario-della-crisi/massimo-cacciari-giorgio-agamben-a-proposito-del-decreto-sul-green-pass.html:
About the green pass decree: Discrimination against a category of people, who automatically become second-class citizens, is in itself a very serious matter, the consequences of which can be dramatic for democratic life. It is being dealt with, with the so-called green pass, with unconscious levity. Every despotic regime has always operated through practices of discrimination, which may have been contained at first but then spread. It is no coincidence that in China they say they want to continue with tracking and monitoring even after the pandemic is over. And it is worth remembering the ‘internal passport’ that citizens of the Soviet Union had to show to the authorities for every trip. A politician who goes so far as to address those who do not vaccinate using a fascist jargon as “we will purge them with the green pass” is really to be feared to be already beyond any constitutional guarantee. Woe betide if the vaccine turns into a kind of religious-political symbol. This would not only represent an intolerable anti-democratic drift, but would also run counter to scientific evidence itself. Nobody is inviting people not to get vaccinated! It is one thing to argue that the vaccine is useful, but it is quite another to ignore the fact that we are still in a phase of ‘mass experimentation’ and that the scientific debate on many fundamental aspects of the problem is completely open. The Official Journal of the European Parliament of 15 June clearly states that ‘direct or indirect discrimination against people who are not vaccinated, including those who have chosen not to be vaccinated, must be avoided’. And how could it be otherwise? The vaccinated not only can infect, but can still get sick: in England, out of 117 new deaths, 50 had received the double dose. In Israel, it is estimated that the vaccine covers 64% of those who have received it. The pharmaceutical companies themselves have officially stated that it is not possible to predict the long-term damage of the vaccine, as they have not had time to carry out all the genotoxicity and carcinogenicity tests. Nature has calculated that it will still be physiological that 15% of the population will not take the vaccine. So how long are we going to have to stick with the pass? Everyone is threatened by discriminatory practices. Paradoxically, those ‘enabled’ by the green pass are more so than the non-vaccinated (whom regime propaganda would like to pass off as ‘enemies of science’ and perhaps proponents of magical practices), since all their movements would be controlled and it would never be possible to find out how and by whom. The need to discriminate is as old as society, and was certainly already present in ours, but to make it law today is something that the democratic conscience cannot accept and against which it must immediately react.
[17] https://paroleostili.it/en/
[18] See for instance S. Nossel, Dare to speak. Defending free speech for all, New York, HarperCollins 2020.
[19] R. Lakoff, The Logic of Politeness; or, Minding your P’s and Q’s, in C. Corum – T. Cedric Smith-Stark – A. Weiser (eds.), Papers from the 9th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, Chicago, Chicago Linguistic Society, 1973, 292-305.
[20] P. Grice, “Logic and Conversation”, in Syntax and semantics 3: Speech arts, Cole et al. “Logic and conversation”, pp. 41-58, (1975), reprinted in: https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/52084711/Grice-Logic-with-cover-page-v2.pdf
[21] English Translation, J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (2 vol), Boston, Beacon Press 1981.
[22] J. Pieper, Ostfildern, Missbraucht der Sprache – Missbraucht der Macht, Schwabenverlag 2000. The English translation, from Italian version, is mine.
[23] D. Grossman (artwork by M. Rovner), The Hug, New York, Overlook Press 2013