#ElectionWatch: Murky Metrics in Italian Migration Debate

How a think tank’s questionable studies permeated the Italian political debate

(Source: infodata.ilsole24ore.com)

Gefira, a controversial publication operating out of the Netherlands, recently published a report that Italians will soon be a minority in Italy due to surging migrant populations. The Gefira Foundation claimed to be part of “the Pan-European think-tank” and “focused on current geopolitical and financial instabilities.”

Gefira doesn’t have a large following on social media, with only 494 followers on Facebook and 1,223 on Twitter. However, in the days following its publication, several Italian news outlets and a few social media accounts cited the story in their reporting.

Due to the controversial content and nebulous origins of Gefira reporting, the @DFRLab investigated the organization, as well as the salience of its articles in Italian news, social media, and political debate.

Content and Methods

In Italy, the Gefira report from January was cited in articles from Wall Street Italia, Money.it, AffariItaliani.it. The story also gained traction on Twitter through Kawtar Barghout, an Italian-Moroccan student now voice of the “Stop Radicalization” association. Cesare Sacchetti, a blogger with over 7,000 followers on Twitter also posted about the story, along with Patrizia Rametta, Lega supporter followed by 28,100 accounts on Twitter.

The story was also shared on Facebook by Lorenzo Fontana, member of Lega followed by 12,000 people, and quoted during a press conference by Simone Di Stefano, candidate Prime Minister of the far right party Casa Pound. Further exposure and amplification on the international stage was fostered by American websites infowars.com and nworeport.me, known for spreading conspiracy infowars.com and nworeport.me.

Translated from Italian: "The study from Gefira Foundation: in 2080 Italians will be a minority. Here are the consequences of demographic deficit and immigration…We need to react in order to not disappear #TheTruth. (Source: Facebook / Lorenzo Fontana)

In the report, the Gefira authors mentioned they developed a "software for population simulation” named Cerberus 2.0 without providing detail on how the software works and data analysis methodology. As for the data used, Gefira referred to reports allegedly released by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistic agency, and other national statistic agencies. But the article failed to link any primary sources, nor does it instruct the reader how to find it.

The authors that spread the Gefira story on Italian and international news outlets also credit the statistics to “a Eurostat report” yet similarly failed to specify or link to which report. @DFRLab was unable to trace specific data back to Eurostat that would explicitly validate the argument on how Italian citizens of European descent will be a minority population in Italy by 2080.

Gefira mentioned Cerberus 2.0 for the first time in a June 2017 report, which claimed the software predicted “with scientific precision the disappearance of the Dutch population.” Again, besides mentioning the CBS Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics as their primary source, Gefira failed to make its data or methods available. The absence of transparency made it impossible to verify the study’s reliability.

Although it shows that the portion of Dutch citizens with a “migration background” will increase, the CBS data did not validate the statement made by Gefira that predicted the Dutch population will disappear in the next few decades.

(Source: Statistics Netherlands, CBS)

The two stories mentioned above fall within a broader promotion of anti-immigration propaganda spread by Gefira and its counterparts. Among the most prevalent narratives included posits that national and European authorities are responsible for an intentional replacement of the European population with immigrants from Africa and Asia. Specific and repeated targets of this narrative included Facebook, Twitter, and NGOs linked to George Soros, which were repeatedly accused of facilitating the smuggling of migrants to Europe by Gefira.

One Gefira-associated website named Nworeport.me wrote:

While the general public is unaware of its fate, top policy-makers know the numbers. German, Spanish, Norwegian, Irish and Dutch NGOs as well as the European Navy have ferried a shocking 600 thousand non-Western migrants from Libya to Italy since 2014. This has been done with the full complicity of the current Italian authorities. The grand replacement is no accident nor is it intended to be stopped. It is a well designed, devious program without the European natives having a say.

Another Gefira article reported:

In Europe, social media like Facebook and Twitter are removing posts and blocking authors opposing mass migration from the Third World as hate speech. The hostile attitude to literally hundreds of thousands of Africans from Nigeria, Morocco or Ghana flooding Italy, Sweden or Germany is considered extremist behaviour by them. At the same time Facebook and Twitter are instrumental in the biggest human exodus in modern history.

In December 2017, Gefira published a report that attempted to link Article 8 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed in 2007, which is commonly used as a trope “protect culture” and guard against “forced” assimilation. The conclusion of the report warned, "supporters of multiculturalism and mass migration could find themselves accused of ethnocide and cultural genocide."

Connections

In August 2017, Open Migration published an in-depth analysis of Gefira’s formal ties. However, as Open Migration is often the target of Gefira’s strongest attacks, the @DFRLab conducted independent research.

Gefira is owned by Bart Kruitwagen’s company, L.T.J. Kruitwagen. In 1987 Bart Kruitwagen founded Gefira in collaboration with Franck Biancheri, along with the creation of a wide network of other initiatives aimed at promoting a stronger European integration. Franck Biancheri was also the force behind Newropeans, a European party founded in 2005 that ran in the 2009 European elections. Biancheri’s network included the following organizations, as stated in the website of the Association “Les Amis de Franck Biancheri” (AAFB), created by Biancheri’s partner, his daughter, and his closest friends after his death in 2012.

(Source: Association “Les Amis de Franck Biancheri” (AAFB))

On website.informer.com both Gefira and Newropeans were linked to L.T.J. Kruitwagen, but while the Newropeans initiative was mentioned on the AAFB website, Gefira was not.

(Source: website.informer.com)

However, Biancheri’s name still appears on the contact page of Gefira’s blog.

(Source: Gefira.org)

The visible discrepancy between Biancheri’s original political project and the ideas now promoted by Gefira was not only a source of confusion for informed readers, but also subject of legal action carried out by Biancheri’s family against Bart Kruitwagen and Taco Dankers, Gefira’s editor and board member. In November 2015, Kruitwagen and Dankers were removed from the AAFB after actions taken by Biancheri’s family.

(Source: Association “Les Amis de Franck Biancheri”, AAFB)

The dispute between Gefira team and Biancheri’s family and friends would typically be considered a personal matter, if not for the impact that Gefira anti-immigration propaganda has had on the Italian political dialogue.

In December 2016, Gefira published an article which accused a list of NGOs of smuggling immigrants into Europe and of a “big scam and illegal human traffic operation.” The following week Lorenzo Fontana, who is not only an Italian politician affiliated with Lega — as mentioned above — but he’s now member of the far-right European party called Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, presented Gefira’s report in front of the European Parliament. Fontana also used the Gefira report to conduct a parliamentary interrogation of Dimitis Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship.

The day before the publication of the report on the NGOs, Gefira released a related video on its Youtube channel that received 196,982 views, 1,435 likes, and 282 comments.

(Source: Youtube / Gefira Channel)

The Gefira video channel is that Youtube suggests RT and Alex Jones’ as related channels, respectively a Kremlin-funded broadcaster and an American radio show host and conspiracy theorist, founder of the website infowars.com. The algorithm for related channels is perhaps the most telling indicator for Gefira’s YouTube content.

(Source: Youtube / Gefira Channel)

As a consequence of the NGOs report in December 2016, the European External Action Service included Gefira in its weekly disinformation review, which collects and analyzes distorted or false statements shared in international media.

(Source: European External Action Service)

Conclusion

The simple fact that the political opinions of Bart Kruitwagen and Taco Dankers changed over the years and diverged from Franck Biancheri’s original project for a more integrated European Union wasn’t, taken alone, significant. The significance today remains Gefira’s reporting, which contained salient and emotive political claims without providing primary sources or data analysis methodology.

The Gefira article on the future of the Italian population came only a few days after the Lega candidate for President of Lombardy, the most populated and economically prosperous region in Italy, claimed, “we have to decide whether our ethnic group, if our white race, if our society has to continue to exist, or whether our society has to be eliminated.”

Anti-immigration propaganda is dominating the current political debate in Italy, where far-right parties like Lega and Casa Pound, and to a smaller extent Fratelli D’Italia and the Five Star Movement, have built their election campaigns and programs around evocative slogans such as “Stop Invasion”, “Zero Disembarks”, “Italians First”, and “Immigration. Objective: repatriation”.

Top-right: Casa Pound Italia, top-left: Piernicola Pedicini, M5S, bottom-right: Fratelli d'Italia, bottom-left: Matteo Salvini, Lega. (Source: Twitter)

The @DFRLab will continue to monitor the election campaign in Italy and report on anti-immigration narratives and potential disinformation.


Anna Pellegatta is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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