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OPINION

THURSDAY 22 FEBRUARY 2018,

SAUDI GAZETTE

11

Rising poverty gnaws at Italian

social fabric as election nears

R

OBERTO

BIONDI’S

89-year-old mother has

Alzheimer’s, is house-

bound and no longer

recognizes her son. She is also

the family’s main breadwinner.

Her state pension of 800 eu-

ros ($990) a month covers her

own living expenses and those of

Roberto and her grandson, both

of whom are unemployed and

have little hope of finding jobs in

Italy’s underdeveloped south.

“I have no idea how I will

cope when she dies,” said Rober-

to, 53, as he shopped for food in

the coastal town of Herculaneum

under the shadow of Mount Ve-

suvius. He receives no benefits of

his own.

“I am poor. I am not ashamed

to admit it; there are millions of

others like me in Italy. This coun-

try isn’t working.”

Italy holds national elec-

tions on March 4 and while much

campaigning has focused on the

divisive issue of immigration,

pollsters say voters are most con-

cerned about the economy, which

has still not recovered from the

2008 financial crisis.

The government argues that

the worst is over, pointing to 14

straight quarters of economic

growth, but many Italians have

yet to feel the benefits of the up-

turn, helping to explain why the

ruling center-left Democratic

Party is trailing in the polls.

Italy’s economy is still six

percent smaller than it was at the

start of 2008, hobbled by a slew

of old problems, such as a huge

national debt mountain, a chroni-

cally slow justice system and sti-

fling bureaucracy.

By comparison, output across

the 19-nation eurozone as a whole

has grown five percent over the

same 10-year period.

This anemic performance has

pushed millions of Italians into

poverty, stoking social discontent

and fueling the rise of populist or

anti-establishment parties, such

as the far-right anti-immigrant

League and the maverick 5-Star

Movement.

The 5-Star looks set to emerge

as the largest party next month

and says it will introduce a uni-

versal wage for the poor if it wins

power. Other parties are also

promising to unleash billions of

euros of fresh spending to revive

the economy - money analysts say

the country does not have.

The number of Italians at risk

of poverty has risen by more than

3 million since 2008, according to

the Eurostat statistics agency, the

largest increase seen in any EU

nation. By contrast, 3.3 million

Poles pulled clear of the poverty

threshold.

Crispian

Balmer

How to monitor fake news

T

HE indictment of 13

Russians filed on Fri-

day by Robert Mueller,

the US special counsel

investigating Russian efforts to in-

fluence the 2016 presidential elec-

tion, details the secret workings

of the Internet Research Agency,

an organization in St. Petersburg,

Russia, that disseminates false

information online. According

to American intelligence offi-

cials, the Kremlin oversaw this

shadowy operation, which made

extensive use of social media ac-

counts to foster conflict in the

United States and erode public

faith in its democracy.

But the Kremlin’s operation

relied on more than just its own

secrecy. It also benefited from the

secrecy of social media platforms

like Facebook and Twitter. Their

algorithms for systematically

targeting users to receive cer-

tain content are off limits to the

public, and the output of these

algorithms is almost impossible

to monitor. The algorithms make

millions of what amount to edito-

rial decisions, pumping out con-

tent without anyone fully under-

TomWheeler

standing what is happening.

The editorial decisions of a

newspaper or television news pro-

gramare immediatelyapparent (ar-

ticles published, segments aired)

and so can be readily analyzed for

bias and effect. By contrast, the

editorial decisions of social media

algorithms are opaque and slow

to be discovered — even to those

who run the platforms. It can take

days or weeks before anyone finds

out what has been disseminated by

social media software.

The Mueller investigation is

shining a welcome light on the

Kremlin’s covert activity, but there

is no similar effort to shine a light

on the social media algorithms that

helped the Russians spread their

messages. There needs to be. This

effort should begin by “opening

up” the results of the algorithms.

In computer-speak, this

“opening up” would involve

something called an open appli-

cation programming interface.

This is a common software tech-

nique that allows different pro-

grams to work with one another.

For instance, Uber uses the open

application programming inter-

face of Google Maps to get in-

formation about a rider’s pickup

point and destination. It is not

Uber’s own mapping algorithm,

but rather Google’s open appli-

cation programming interface,

that makes it possible for Uber

to build its own algorithms for its

distinctive functions.

The government should re-

quire social media platforms like

Facebook and Twitter to use a

similar open application pro-

gramming interface. This would

make it possible for third parties

to build software to monitor and

report on the effects of social

media algorithms.

To be clear, the proposal is

not to force companies to open up

their algorithms — just the results

of the algorithms. The goal is to

make it possible to understand

what content is fed into the algo-

rithms and how the algorithms

distribute that content. Who cre-

ated the information or adver-

tisement? And to what groups of

users was it directed? An open ap-

plication programming interface

would therefore threaten neither

a social media platform’s intellec-

tual property nor the privacy of

its individual users.

Media watchdog groups have

long been able to assess the re-

sults of the editorial decisions

of newspapers and television.

Whether those stories express

the left, right or center of the po-

litical spectrum, they are openly

available to independent organi-

zations that want to understand

what is being communicated.

Extending this practice to

social media would mean that

a watchdog group could create

software to analyze and make

public whatever information

from the platforms it might con-

sider important: the demograph-

ics of the readership of a certain

article, for instance, or whether a

fake story continued to be widely

disseminated even after being

debunked.

After the Mueller indict-

ment, Twitter issued a statement

noting that technology compa-

nies “cannot defeat this novel,

shared threat alone” — referring

to efforts like the Russian disin-

formation campaign. “The best

approach,” the statement contin-

ued, “is to share information and

ideas to increase our collective

knowledge, with the full weight

of government and law enforce-

ment leading the charge against

threats to our democracy.”

This is true. And one effec-

tive form of information-sharing

would be legally mandated open

application programming inter-

faces for social media platforms.

They would help the public iden-

tify what is being delivered by

social media algorithms, and thus

help protect our democracy.

The New York Times

Tom Wheeler, the chairman of

the Federal Communications

Commission from 2013 to 2017, is

a visiting fellow at the Brookings

Institution and a fellow at Harvard

Kennedy School.

The number of Italians living

in absolute poverty, defined as

not having enough money to buy

a basket of basic goods and ser-

vices, rose to 4.7 million in 2016,

according to the latest data from

statistics office Istat, a three-fold

increase in a decade.

“The rise in absolute poverty

is a very Italian problem and the

numbers are still growing de-

spite the fact the economy has

picked up,” said Roberto Perotti,

an economist with Bocconi uni-

versity and a former government

adviser.

“It is the most serious prob-

lem facing Italy today.”

Biondi’s problems started in

2006 when he had to close down

the small clothing store he had

opened as a teenager in 1983.

Like many Italians, he believes

the arrival of the euro currency

in 2002 marked the start of the

country’s decline.

Unemployment

in

Italy

stands at 10.8 percent, four per-

centage points higher than in

2008, while in the south it stands

at almost 18.3 percent, up 7.2

points in a decade.

The rising tide of poverty

and lack of economic opportu-

nities has led to a surge in emi-

gration. Between 2006 and 2017,

the number of Italians officially

registered as living abroad rose

60 percent, from three to almost

five million.

The lack of faith in the future

is reflected in Italy’s plummeting

birthrate. According to latest sta-

tistics, Italian couples had 373,075

babies in 2016, down 22 percent

on 2008.

Italy offers little welfare help

to young people. Only 4 percent

of all social spending goes to the

under-40s, while 77.2 percent

goes to those aged over 65, which

is why pensioners often play such

a vital role in family finances.

Istat says having just one pen-

sioner in a vulnerable household

halves the risk of that family de-

scending into outright poverty -

but it is not a guaranteed safety net.

In another sign of growing

poverty, the Federcasa hous-

ing association estimates some

49,000 public buildings are occu-

pied by illegal squatters, up from

38,000 in 2006, driven in part by

the influx of some 600,000 mi-

grants in the past four years.

Some 89 percent of the squats

were in southern and central Ita-

ly, which have been worst hit by

the economic crisis.

The widespread discontent

within Italy over the economy

means almost all parties have

drawn up long lists of costly

pledges that could upend Italy’s

finances if they are enacted.

Former prime minister Sil-

vio Berlusconi’s center-right

party is promising to double the

minimum pension to some 1,000

euros a month and allow earlier

retirement. The ruling PD says it

will boost the minimum pension

to 750 euros and give families

400 euros a month per child for

three years.

Most parties are also offering

various welfare schemes, includ-

ing the 5-Star’s flagship proposal

of a monthly universal wage of

up to 780 euros for the poor.

One university researcher

said that ßsuch schemes risked

entrenching poverty, by dissuad-

ing people from seeking work.

“The most simplistic way

to deal with poverty is to give

money to everyone and hope the

problem goes away. In reality,

not only is this measure hugely

expensive, but it creates other

problems, for example it creates

a poverty trap,” he said.

Biondi sees the prospect of

a universal wage as a potential

godsend and he plans to vote

5-Star on March 4.

“At the moment the govern-

ment offers no help to people like

me,” he said. “I mean, it can’t get

any worse can it?”

Reuters

Expat dependents levy

will not boost the economy

With regard to the article “Cancel expat levy, JCCI tells

ministry” (Feb. 18), I believe that the tax on the dependents

of expats should definitely be reviewed. A single expat

will not buy lots of groceries, will not go to amusement

parks, shop in malls, etc. Basically he will not contribute to

boosting the local economy in any way.

However, if he has family living with him here, he will

certainly spend money willingly. If the expat dependents tax

was levied on one dependent (wife) or children above 18, it

would be acceptable and expats could manage to pay it.

Sameer, Online response

Nothing is going to happen; this tax shall remain and expats

will be leaving as soon as March. The Kingdom will lose

billions and skilled expats will move to countries like Canada

where they are welcomed.

Ahmed, Online response

According to my modest understanding of economics, cheap

labor is a key ingredient for GDP growth. The government

should encourage its citizens to start and manage

businesses instead of encouraging them to work in low-level

jobs. Moreover, it should help its citizens financially when

they face difficulties in their business.

Zuber Ahmed, Online response

Stop issuing visas to expats

With regard to the article “Stop hiring expats in private jobs”

(Feb. 20), please stop issuing new visas to expats. Politely

ask the 12 million non-Saudis to leave and let only Saudis

remain in the country. All jobs will then be there for Saudis

only. Achieve 100 percent Saudiazation in all public and

private sectors. Expats will only come for Haj and Umrah and

nothing else. Good luck!

Iloveksa, Online response

Well, the article shows once again that the problem lies in

the mindset: “Blame everything on expatriates.” I agree with

stopping the issuing of visas for expatriates, but I also want

to call attention to the need to develop a proper learning

curve in the minds of young Saudis. They need to realize that

they must learn to work from scratch and work hard and

practically. May Allah give right guidance to all and open

their eyes for the better future of the Muslim Ummah.

MBK, Online response

First of all, there is no point in comparing the US with Saudi

Arabia. There is no comparison. Secondly, the US, as we all

know, was and still is being made by immigrants. They are

all immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world.

Only policies serve to make a nation great. My uncle is a

plumber in the US. He is a respected citizen. He doesn’t have

a scientific degree. I hope you get the point.

Hamza Mehmood, Online response

Please do not renew the iqamas of expat employees and

stop issuing new visas. There is already too much hatred

against expats. Please send us all back home.

Sam Samee, Online response

Chairman

Abdullah S. Kamel

akamel@okaz.com.sa

Director General

Waleed J. Kattan

wjkattan@okaz.com.sa

Editor-in-Chief

Somayya Jabarti

sjabarti@saudigazette.com.sa

Executive Editor

L. Ramnarayan Iyer

riyer@saudigazette.com.sa

Managing Editor (National)

Mahmoud Ahmad

mahmad@saudigazette.com.sa

Managing Editor (International)

Shams Ahsan

sahsan@saudigazette.com.sa