#ElectionWatch: Italy on High Alert Ahead of March Elections

Instances of disinformation spread by partisans permeates public debate

(Source: Linkiesta)

As the specter of “fake news” looms over democracy with disinformation campaigns deployed in German, French, and American elections during the past year, Italy is among the next targets. Italian elections will be held in March 2018, and Italian press and some political parties have already been on guard.

Articles spotting fake stories are published every day in both national and international news outlets. One report from online outlet Buzzfeed identified networks of fake accounts and “news” websites linked to political parties, while an increasing number of fact-checking and digital awareness programs have been launched by private citizens, newspapers, and politicians.

The fear of disinformation in the Italian context remains well-founded. Two “fake” stories garnered particular attention and agitated the political debate.

The first false story began to circulate on Tuesday, November 21. Several major news outlets reported a nine-year-old Muslim girl was sexually assaulted by her thirty-five-year-old “husband” in Padua, a city in the country’s northeast. According to unidentified sources, the man was arrested. However the Carabinieri — the Italian military corps in charge of police duties — immediately denied the truthfulness of the news and said no inquiry was, in fact, launched.

Google search using terms “Sposa Bambina Padova”, which translates loosely to “Child Bride Padova”. (Source: Google)

Nevertheless, before the story was officially denied and some of the newspapers that originally published it retreated and apologized, the news was shared by several affiliates of the right-wing populist party Lega and by its leader, Matteo Salvini.

Screen capture of tweet from @MatteoSalviniMi. The tweet was taken down, but not before outlet Il Post verified the material. (Source: Il Post)

Salvini commented:

Padua, nine-year-old girl given in marriage to a 35 year-old man was hospitalized for the bleeding caused by the sexual violence.
ALL THIS IS HORRIFIC.
We don’t have room in Italy for all this “multiculturalism”!

The post was later removed from Salvini’s Twitter and Facebook profiles.

The second story gained a lot of attention after Maria Elena Boschi, a prominent member of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party and current Undersecretary of State to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, exposed a fake picture that targeted her and the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Mrs. Laura Boldrini.

In fact, on November 22, Boschi shared on her Facebook profile two versions of the same picture that portrayed her and Mrs. Boldrini at a funeral. The false meme included the following caption:

Look who was there to say one last goodbye to Totó Riina?
Response from Maria Elena Boschi. (Source: Facebook / Maria Elena Boschi)

The meme suggested Boschi was one of several politicians affiliated with the Democratic Party to attend the funeral of Totó Riina, who was known as “the boss of bosses” and the former head of the Sicilian Mafia until his arrest in 1993.

Given the seriousness of the insinuation, Boschi replied:

Take a look at this profile, which I hope is fake. Look at this abomination.
People that use the symbol of the Five Star Movement as a profile picture went so far as to write such an absurd and egregious outrage.
I believe we have to say stop to fake news, to hatred, to lies. I’ve been and we’ve been victims of any form of attack for months, but this goes too far beyond the limit. They even use the head of the Mafia against us. It’s time to say enough, enough, enough with lies and squalor.
There are people who believe this nonsense. We must defend the truth.
#nofakenews
(Source: Il Resto del Carlino)

The original picture was taken in July 2016 at the funeral of Emmanuel Chidi Namdi, a Nigerian refugee, who died in a fight after a 40-year-old Italian yelled racist insults at him and his wife. No verifiable information was available to confirm whether the account responsible for sharing this fake picture, Mario De Luise, was linked to a real person or not, but, as Boschi described in her post, its profile picture showed the symbol of the Five Star Movement.

After Boschi’s post, De Luise’s profile was removed from Facebook.

Additionally, as mentioned before, at the end of last November Buzzfeed published a report, which revealed how one only company, Web365, controls the domain of an extended network of online news outlets and Facebook pages. Buzzfeed also showed how such websites and pages have often been responsible for promoting disinformation by publishing inaccurate news that would instigate nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-immigration sentiments in their readers.

It’s relevant to highlight how, after the release of the Buzzfeed report, Facebook deleted the pages of DirettaNews and iNews24, which were believed to be part of the Web365 network, and counted three million and 1.5 million followers, respectively.

DirettaNews, created a new Facebook page on November 22, which boasted over 75,000 followers at the time of this report.

Three days later, the New York Times published another article that was widely quoted in the Italian press. The NYT piece recalled analysis conducted by Andrea Stroppa, a young cyber-security expert who tried to demonstrate the link among a multitude of politically-oriented social media pages and websites that share the same Google Analytics ID. In particular, Stroppa identified several web pages and social network profiles that somehow support Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini, the Five Star Movement, pro-Russian, or anti-Renzi content — whether officially or unofficially.

Before Stroppa’s report, Lorenzo Romani, a web researcher and anti-“fake news” activist, shared a picture on his Twitter last August, which showed how several blogs and websites were linked to the same ID, including pages supporting the Five Star Movement, Matteo Salvini, and Vladimir Putin.

Screen capture of tweet from Lorenzo Romani. (Source: Next Quotidiano)

A spokesperson for the Five Star Movement explained that the websites and profiles in question are not official, and, therefore, the Movement cannot be held accountable for them. Luca Morisi, Salvini's digital campaign advisor, claimed that a former supporter of the Five Star Movement helped create the page “Noi con Salvini” (which can be translated with “We support Salvini”). This loose connection would explain the use of the same Google codes on the webpages.

As a consequence of all these episodes, Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister and current leader of the Democratic Party in the running at the next elections, started to emphasize the importance of fighting fake news as one of the pillars of his political campaign and appealed to Facebook to intensify the controls of its profiles and to ban fake accounts.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party has already urged the introduction of a real effective law against fake news and released their second report on disinformation, which collects the fake news, untrue or inaccurate articles, posts, and pictures that circulate online. Whether the Democratic Party’s efforts have built credibility on the issue with Italians voters remains to be determined.

Regardless, a broader debate about disinformation will bring more awareness to the challenge across the Italian public before the elections.

@DFRLab will continue to compare and contrast election related social media content, as its substance and audience remain a good barometer for the threat of disinformation in Italy.


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