Disinformation in Italy: Fact or Fiction?
This essay was written by Stefano Gardiman, intern at Political Capital and student of the University of Toronto.
Every day, misleading narratives, conspiracies, fabricated images and videos travel via our information streams online. Disinformation has spread to all parts of the world including Europe, and the European Union (EU). Traditional disinformation campaigns, which serve to achieve political success, have often originated from the governing body of a specific country, however with the evolution of social media, many politicians have begun to utilize such platforms to spread their messages. This has become the case in Italy, where the coalition government lead by Matteo Salvini’s Lega Party and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S) have created certain disinformation campaigns, targeted against specific “state enemies,” predominantly migrants and the EU bureaucrats. Although both parties and their leadership share the same stance with regards to certain issues, their utilization of different tools to achieve their desired goals distinguishes them. On the one hand the Lega uses social media to misconstrue current events to benefit the party’s narrative and generate support for there policies, and on the other hand the M5S utilizes a tech firm called Casaleggio Associati, (headed by one of the party’s founders), to run a number of fake networks, blogs, and social media accounts to publish its fake news propaganda. Both parties have exploited the politicization of the media in Italy and as a result have polarized Italian politics once again to the point where Italy has now become an outlier in the European and international realms. These tactics were utilized by both parties leading up to last month’s European Parliamentary Elections, which evidently paid off as we saw the Lega party win 28 seats out of the 73 assigned to Italy and the M5S won 14. The common general narrative from both populist parties (although the specific policies differ slightly) was that the corrupt Brussels leaders had taken sovereignty away from the member states and that it was time it was returned. Specifically, they campaigned for closed borders, and an end to austerity measures respectively all of which have been used as ammunition in their disinformation campaigns against the EU. Therefore, this paper will provide an overview of the disinformation campaigns occurring in Italy beginning with its unofficial origins in the Silvio Berlusconi government, followed by a characterization of what disinformation looks like under the current Lega-M5S government, along with where this fake news is originating from, and lastly conclude with an analysis focusing on the types of disinformation campaigns actually being put forth in the Italian society.
- Berlusconi’s Media Empire: The Origins of Disinformation in Italy?
The discussion of disinformation and fake news in Italy originates from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s time in office as PM, where he possessed direct control of the three private channels Mediaset, of the publishing house Mondadori, of the advertising company Publitalia, and of the cinema distribution house Medusa Film, on top of indirect control of state television channels through political appointments. This placed the leader of Italy in a position where he controlled over 90% of Italy’s television market.
Berlusconi used his own media outlets to broadcast and promote his political party, Forza Italia. Due to the extent of his ownership, this often created problems since other politicians could not gain equal media access. The media filtered, framed, and primed stories so that the public views are shaped to conform to the views of Berlusconi and his party. For examples there were certain instances where substantially different polling projections were advertised to the general population. This stifled the flow of information, and created a block to the marketplace of ideas.
Furthermore, a study conducted on the former PM Silvio Berlusconi’s influence on the media identified a positive relationship between TV consumption and voting for Berlusconi. It was determined that the perception of fear about crime in the media increased when Berlusconi was in the opposition party, thus undermining the legitimacy of the standing prime minister and decreased when Berlusconi became prime minister, to demonstrate his success in addressing crime.
- Have the Lega and M5S Parties Followed in Berlusconi’s Footsteps?
Currently, a coalition government encompassing the Lega Party and the M5S Party is governing Italy, and their relationship with mass media is quite unique. Lega specifically, has not explicitly taken over the media, as was the case when former PM Silvio Berlusconi was in power, however the current system created by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has allowed the leader of the Lega Party to transform the press into his own megaphone. His phrases are designed to be picked up by newspapers and create headlines for the entire population to see. Every time Salvini makes a statement he inserts a resounding phrase, which allows the press to attract clicks by simply repeating it in a headline. For example, when discussing migration and its threats, Salvini was quoted as saying, “We are under attack. Our culture, society, traditions, and way of life are at risk.” Or, “Enough of Sicily being the refugee camp of Europe. I will not stand by and do nothing while there are landings after landings of migrants.” The effect of this repetition on thousands of pages and in Facebook groups allows Salvini to spread his message on the web with such a pervasiveness that no online campaign could ever achieve, and without any kind of effort on his part.
Salvini’s social media pages rarely publish information that is false however, will often utilize a story published by a reputable news outlet such as Il Correire, or La Republicca, and manipulate the story to fit the narrative he is attempting to demonstrate. For example, in March of this year Salvini announced on Facebook that a flight that left Rome for Bucharest transported 13 convicted felons back to their home country to serve their sentences at the expense of the Romanian government. The 13 criminals, sentenced for rape, murder, slavery, kidnapping, forced prostitution, were sent home to Romania and Salvini praised the deportation citing that this was only the beginning. Technically he is not articulating fake news, but portraying such a story in a light that plays on citizen’s fear of migration.
The M5S on the other hand differs significantly when it comes to its relationship with mass media. This populist party has built a sprawling network of websites and social media accounts that are spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and pro-Kremlin stories to millions of people. This fake news published is not limited to just the party’s own blogs and social accounts, which have millions of followers, but also a collection of profitable sites that describe themselves as “independent news” outlets but are actually influenced by the party leadership. At the center of this network of interlinked blogs and sites is Casaleggio Associati, the tech firm set up by the party’s co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio, who died in 2016 and was succeeded by his son Davide. These sites regurgitate M5S campaign slogans, misinformation, and attacks on political rivals. The company owns and runs fake news sites such as TzeTze and La Cosa, as well as a health site, La Fucina, that often carries posts on miracle cures and has fuelled anti-vaccine conspiracies. What is striking is that the majority of these fake media sites have been removed from the Internet and or social media, as the crackdown on disinformation continue.
Similarly to Berlusconi, the current government began appointing political allies to important posts of civil society such as the state owned media broadcaster Rai. Specifically, in September of 2018, long time Eurosceptic, anti-gay, anti-immigration, anti-vaccine and pro-Russia journalist Marcelo Foa was appointed president of Rai, a move that had raised fears over the autonomy of Italy’s state broadcaster. On May 12, Rai unexpectedly cancelled the 3 remaining shows of the political talk show “Che Tempo Che Fa,” which is hosted by esteemed television presenter Fabio Fazio. The cancellation came after M5S and Lega leaders criticized Fazio’s high salary, but also the shows stance towards the current government. Rai announced that it preferred to show coverage of the EP elections but many claim this to be false, and just another attack on the Italian free press. Although the reach of the current government was not as large as Berlusconi’s, they have managed to control a good portion of Italian media and influence the political narrative within the country.
- Who are the Unaffiliated Publishers of Disinformation?
In addition to the official disinformation sources mentioned above, there also exist unaffiliated news outlets and social media pages that promote the government and its propaganda. These news outlets often have many followers and readers so the fake news they publish often carries significant weight. The spreading of this disinformation from non-affiliated sites and outlets by official members of M5S is rare, however is has occurred before. For example, according to Il Fatto, more than 500.000 ballot sheets had been discovered on the day of the elections. The article published explains the story of the voting sheets but doubles the number of sheets involved, also stating that the Democratic Party’s logo was well displayed on them, insinuating that the Democratic Party might be trying to influence the Sicilian vote. The first tweets were published on March 4th, mainly from M5S supporters. The article was shared by the M5S spokesperson, Matteo Dall’Osso, who tagged several M5S leaders in his tweet, hence contributing to multiplying the reach to more than 140 thousand total interactions on all social media platforms.
M5S has also received even more attention from Russian media outlets like Ria Novosti, Russia Beyond (formerly Russia Beyond The Headlines) and Sputnik. Their content is reposted on Twitter, Facebook, TzeTze and sites like L’Antidiplomatico, which delivers the party’s foreign-policy analysis, often based on news tweeted by Sputnik and RT. Majority of the stories published in L’Antidiplomatico for example, use information produced by such Russian sources.
In addition to fake news outlets, there are also a number of unaffiliated Facebook pages, which post disinformation with the goal of increasing support for the current government. For example, Rassegne Italia is a fake news website who’s Facebook page was one of 23 removed yesterday. The articles are not pro-government but they only report on stories that prove the anti-immigration stance, not criticism of the government, just posting stories that have to do with migration. Another fake news Facebook page named Adesso Basta, was also one of the pages censored by the social media company on Monday. The cite posts fake stories that suggest Salvini is furthering Italexit, which refers to Italy’s exit from the EU, and that Salvini has called for immigration controls for all those practicing the Islam religion. The majority of these pages mention Salvini and his party because they have been outspoken about such issues, so these social media pages will utilize his presence to further their beliefs.
- State-Sponsored Disinformation Campaign in Italy: Migration, the EU, and Anti-Vaccination
The three main disinformation campaigns present in Italy are (1) migration is detrimental to the country and its citizens, (2) the EU and its bureaucrats are to blame for the troubles experienced by Italians and sovereignty must be restored to the nation state, and (3) vaccinating ones child causes more harm than good.
With regards to migration, Salvini has created his own narrative often articulating that migrants are criminals, rapists and carry diseases. This in turn has assisted the populist leader in generating support for his anti-immigration stance. Specifically, Salvini has used certain crimes allegedly involving migrants to fuel his anti-immigration rhetoric for example, in October of 2018, 16-year-old girl, Desirée Mariottini, had been repeatedly raped, while unconscious, and left for dead by African migrants. Mr. Salvini helped it along, by proposing the “chemical castration” of the people responsible. He further suggested that, “A 16-year-old girl can’t die, raped like this, in a receptacle of crime and drug dealers.” But each time a crime occurs in an immigrant neighborhood or when non-Italian citizens stand accused, Salvini exploits it and frames it to fit is disinformation campaign pertaining to migration.
Another disinformation campaign presently dominating Italian politics is that advocated by the M5S party with regards to anti-vaccination. The M5S utilizes anti-establishment populist rhetoric by suggesting that that no one should force its citizens to do anything they do not want to, as support for anti-vaccination is a vote against the establishment and a vote for free will. The government has also been quoted as saying that vaccinations are dangerous and are detrimental to the health of Italian citizens, even though health officials argue the opposite.
Lega and M5S: Anti-EU
In addition, the EU has become the scapegoat for any crisis plaguing Europe and Italy. Specifically, both the M5S and Salvini’s Lega blame the EU for Brexit, the migrant crisis and even the long-term economic crisis. According to Salvini, Italy has no intention of leaving the EU, however has articulated multiple times that he wishes to change it and improve it by returning sovereignty back to the member states. At a rally a few months ago in Rome, Salvini told supporters that he would to stand up to the “crooks” in Brussels and put Italy first and warned that further austerity imposed on Italy from Brussels would result in riots like those seen in recent weeks in France. With regards to the recently completed EP elections, the Lega party campaigned for fiscal flexibility, a prohibition to the redistribution of migrants, an end to austerity, and an end to EU funds being provided to Turkey, which according to the Lega should no longer be considered for membership. Similarly, on the economic front the narrative practiced by the M5S is one of animosity towards the EU and its economic policies, which according to the leader have burdened Italy and its citizens. Italian officials have often articulated that Italy’s economic turmoil is a direct result of the EU’s monetary union and policies, which put Italy at a disadvantage. M5S had also attempted to stand up to the EU by proposing a budget deficit that well exceeded the limits imposed by the EU. The leaders of the party articulated that they would do what was in the best interest of Italy, but in the end agreed to meet the standards set by the EU. Furthermore, during the 2019 EP election campaign, the M5S outlined its program for the upcoming parliamentary session, which included changing the EU in certain respects. Specifically, the party advocated for the introduction of a European minimum wage, environmental measures in favor of the green economy, the mandatory redistribution of migrants, “Made in Italy”, the fight against corruption, the end of austerity policies, and EU investments to help stimulate development in Southern Italy.
That being said, apart from the disinformation regarding migration, the EU, and vaccinations, completely fabricated news is very rare in Italy. Most of the disinformation and misinformation is published on small media outlets such as blogs, and a large part of the disinformation content is mostly shared through social media platforms, which reaches less than 5% of the population. However, more than 50% of Italians continue to seek out honest reporting through outlets such as La Repubblica and Il Corriere, so fake news is not as influential as it is in other countries. Italian citizens in addition to mainstream media must continue to hold the government accountable for the fake news that they publish for its citizens to read. This joint effort if practiced across Europe and the world will assist in curbing disinformation and provide the media with some legitimacy once again.