Why has the high water drama in Venice unleashed legions of haters on social media?

We will also remember the high water that hit Venice between November 12 and 13 for the hate charge on social media that it managed to trigger.

The drama of the high water that hit Venice on the night of November 12-13, with the second highest tide ever (or at least since scientific records exist), is also likely to be remembered for the load of social hatred that, for some reason, it managed to trigger. One casualty has been recorded, there are damages worth hundreds of millions of euros, businesses that have lost almost everything, churches submerged by water, libraries that have seen thousands of volumes go away in the floodwaters, there are fears of permanent repercussions (or, at least, difficult to repair) for monuments and cultural heritage, since the seawater attacks the structures.

Piazza San Marco dopo l'acqua alta del 13 novembre. Foto: Comune di Venezia
Piazza San Marco after the high water on November 13. Photo: Municipality of Venice

Yet, little matter of all this to the serial haters who populate the web, who have raged against Venice and its inhabitants with a livor that, from memory, I cannot recall on the occasion of natural disasters, events in the aftermath of which Italy, for as long as I can remember, has always shown solidarity, mutual understanding, and a willingness to overcome parochialism and territorial divisions. On this occasion, it was not only the waters of the lagoon that exceeded the guard level, but probably alsohate speech: the haters and the so-called “webheads,” of course, are certainly a clear minority compared to those who are genuinely concerned about the emergency in Venice. But it is a very noisy minority, among those who enjoy the suffering of Venetians simply because the region is led by a leghist junta and the municipality by a center-right majority, those who feel obliged to dispense advice on engineering, logistics or management of the emergency spiccia, those of the “well it serves you well because once in a bar I paid ten euros for a coffee, so get by on your own,” those who blame the whole city for the unfortunate affair of bribes and delays in the Mose, those who, because of some demented Venetian (or more generically northern: for the haters it makes little difference) who in the past indulged in insults against southerners, then believe that anti-meridionalism is characteristic of the Veneto population as a whole and consequently rejoice, those who a week later continue to endure it with the refrain “so what about Matera?”, when estimates speak of a billion in damages for Venice and eight million for Matera, when even local newspapers are calling for an end to the improper juxtapositions, and when the Matera people themselves are calling for an end to the suggestion that Matera has the same problems as Venice, because the risk is really damaging the city of stones(apparently there are cancellations of tourists convinced that Matera is in disarray).

Of course, there are many things in Venice that are wrong, don’t work properly, need to be improved. It is more than understandable the concern of those who, wanting to donate two euros through their cell phones, mindful of uncomfortable precedents, wonder what will happen to their offerings. And the inefficiencies and scandals of politics are there for all to see. However, this does not mean that the faults of a few individuals should be extended to the entire city, that one is entitled to unleash waves of resentment via social media, that one is not allowed to exult over the misfortune that has befallen a city, and that if there have been delays and ineptitude in the past in handling popular subscriptions does not mean that this is the norm. These are such basic little rules of common sense and civic living that it is frustrating to have to put them in writing. Perhaps, however, they are not so obvious, if even a journalist like Enrico Mentana felt compelled to ask to avoid “the usual comments steeped in hatred and rancor” and to point out that he “had to delete hundreds of comments and block their authors” under a Facebook post about the subscription for Venice launched by La7 news.

So much has been written about the roots of the hatred that runs via the web: why, however, does one have the feeling that the deluge of hatred that hit Venice is something new, given the fact that, in the history of Italy, dramas caused by natural disasters have more often been brought to unite than to divide? Meanwhile, it is necessary to specify that discriminatory conduct in Italy experienced a marked increase between 2016 and 2018, as recorded by a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), so much so that, the document states, the OHCHR “is seriously concerned that Italy is experiencing an increase in intolerance, racial and religious hatred and xenophobia, which in some cases is permitted or even encouraged by political leaders and members of the government.” Hate crimes are also growing at the same rate: the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which is responsible for censusing these crimes year by year, notes a steady growth for Italy since 2013. Consequently, an increase in hate speech on social networks can be expected: a growth well photographed by the Map of Intolerance elaborated every year by Vox Italian Observatory on Rights, in collaboration with the State University of Milan, the University of Bari, La Sapienza of Rome and the Department of Sociology of the Catholic University of Milan. Then add to the general picture the peculiar one of Venice, a city that, unfortunately, is guilty of attracting avalanches of prejudices and clich├ęs about the character and temperament of its inhabitants, the city’s standard of living, the prices charged there, and the politicians who administer the municipality and region. And to add to the burden, creating an even more fertile climate for virtual mud-slinging, has been the behavior of those who, even at the political or even institutional level, have not spared themselves jokes or inappropriate comments.

We are certainly convinced that the majority of the country cares about the fate of Venice and is close to its inhabitants. And precisely for this reason there is a need to square off against the haters: keeping social media clean is the first step, and Mentana did well to reiterate his way of dealing with the problem, which is to delete the comments of the haters and block them by preventing them from writing again. The issue now concerns everyone: except for a few forums and invitation-only or controlled-entry groups, the discussion has poisoned everywhere and there are no longer, among the public pages, happy islands that can claim to be exempt from the problem. Not even the social channels of an art magazine are immune to it; on the contrary, it has become a daily struggle. The approaches are different (it will be worth pointing out the proposal of Professor Ziccardi, professor of legal informatics at the State University of Milan, who focuses on direct actions against haters and indirect actions in the context of good digital education), but elaborating a model of hate management on the web has become a need for anyone who produces content for the network. The case of Venice, given its substantial novelty, is interesting for trying to understand howhate speech will evolve in areas that seemed not to be affected by it (solidarity, tragedies affecting entire communities, cultural heritage) and what its further consequences might be.

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