Italy’s information quarrels

Italian parties are bracing for a long round of reciprocal accusations of spreading fake news, but they are avoiding tackling the roots of the issue.

Matteo Renzi — (cc) Flickr / DonkeyHotey

[A first version of this article quite clumsily mixed information from the New York Times and the Buzfeed op-eds mentioned. I apologise for this, it was the result of a rather hasty effort to add an intro to the piece, and it did not meet the standards I, as reader, expect from anyone who publishes information online, whether this person is a professional journalist or, like in my case, someone who publishes occasionally.]

In the last weeks, talks of an impending Italian information war based on misinformation have appeared on the news. Two articles especially have been put in the spotlight.

On a Buzzfeed report, Alberto Nardelli and Craig Silverman have written about the apparent “overlap between the fringe underbelly of the Catholic world, Italy’s nationalist movements, and for-profit clickbait” into a network of Facebook-focused hyper-partisan websites. They analyse 175-websites-strong Web365, a network in the hands of entrepreneur Giuseppe Colono and find it that it promotes all sorts of extremist contents, spreads misinformation, and uses viral clickbaiting tactics, as well as gossip pages and the likes. These websites also collectively shared contents from ‘La Luce di Maria’, the page of an ultra-Catholic association connected to the Colono’s family. Some of these pages, among which the gossip-like Direttanews.it and the nationalistic iNews24.it, have been removed by Facebook shortly afterwards.

In a New York Times op-ed, Jason Horowitz has written about how the fear of ‘fake news’ is spreading in Italy — although it referred quite exclusively to the Democratic Party political area. His article explores how Matteo Renzi and his entourage are worried about possible external and internal meddling on the elections via online misinformation tactics, and refers to two networks of websites accused of spreading anti-immigrant and nationalistic propaganda. The first is the one at the centre of the Buzzfeed’s report while the second includes a vast array of websites, some of which are seemingly connected to the Five Star Movement, the Northern League, and other pro-Kremlin websites. The article, and the PD politicians, imply a possible but unproven Russian influence over the network. Fact-checker David Puente later discovered that his network was in the hands of Marco Mignogna, an Italian web entrepreneur.

What real influence?

Cinzia Zandro, director of DirettaNews.it, has published an editorial in which she defended the journalistic work of the website: “If in this 6 years we have done something wrong, then the Association of Journalists should tell me. But this has not happened”.

“In 6 years and 160.000 articles we have used some sensationalist titles, it’s true. Don’t say you have never done it.”

While, in our opinion, Zandro should refrain from comparing DirettaNews journalism to that of most mainstream media, given its lack of original reporting and its frequent use of clickbaiting strategies, there is an important element in what she says; Italy, as most countries, already has legislation in place about what media can and cannot do — and DirettaNews.it is a legally registered medium, so it already responds to those laws. Being part of a dodgy network is not an offence ‘per se’.

For its part, Mignona, the owner of the network at the centre of the NYT article, has denied any direct connection to an information war, being waged by either the Russians, the M5S or the Northern League (NL), in an interview on Il Mattino.

The reality he explains is a different one: he runs a business that takes articles from other websites, changes their titles, and republishes them as a way to get clicks and then, through AdSense, revenue (that is, clickbaiting). He collaborated to some unofficial m5s website in the past, and was finally hired as web designer by the Salvini’s entourage. His political connections are then basically business connections: he runs websites to make a living.

The impression here is that we’re not so much in the middle of a propaganda war, but rather a byproduct of the nowadays AdSense-connected information arena. In the pay-per-click era, clickbaiting is an easy way to get revenue. This is as true for Italy as for everywhere else: we’re in front of a business which has the dangerous side effect of polluting the information ecosystem.

Sometimes the people in this business get hired by political parties or governments. And it is true, extreme political positions perform well on social media. But we shouldn’t overstate the influence that ‘fake news’ may have on citizens’ political decisions, especially when all parties and governments already spend massive amounts of money in other forms of propaganda.

We shouldn’t overstate the influence that ‘fake news’ may have on citizens’ political decisions, especially when all parties and governments already spend massive amounts of money in other forms of propaganda.

Also, we should not overestimate the real impact of these pages following only the metrics offered by the article on Buzzfeed. Nardelli and Silverman wrote: “Web365’s news operations include two of Italy’s biggest Facebook news pages: DirettaNews and iNews24.” The two pages, before being removed Facebook, counted 3M and 1.5M followers. But the Buzzfeed article, while showing the data, failed to address the incredible disparity in user interaction between iNews24 (the one page of the pair that has xenophobic and highly politicized contents) compared to every other website analysed. iNews24 might have a million and a half followers, but the combined number of interactions on their articles over a whole year stands below 30K, compared to the 65M of Repubblica and the 32M of Il Fatto Quotidiano. This could make one wonder about the nature of those 1.5M followers, as it is quite common knowledge that it is not hard to falsify certain metrics.

SimilarWeb’s traffic estimations for iNews24.it and Repubblica.it

On the other hand, DirettaNews.it does register millions of interactions on Facebook, but their contents are very rarely political. What kind of interactions do they get, and what is their political potential? A quick search on Alexa, SemRush or SimilarWeb shows that DirettaNews’s traffic is very likely between 30 and 40 times smaller than Repubblica’s, and its traffic is almost entirely dependent on Facebook. As for iNews24, the numbers are much lower. While these are only estimations, it is quite evident that this alternative media network is not much of a competitor for the mainstream in terms of overall traffic.

Capitalising on the ‘fake news’ debate

Politicians in Italy are trying to capitalise politically on the situation. In a public speech, Renzi has declared that the M5S and the NL had been ‘caught’ indulging in fake news spreading, and his party’s spokesman Matteo Richetti has released an interview on La Stampa suggesting a possible Eastern European influence behind the ‘campaign’. For his part, Luigi Di Maio of the M5S has answered, calling on the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) to monitor the Italian elections. Matteo Salvini, leader of the NL, has boasted: “The real fake news is in the government.”

Nobody seemed interested in the contents, dynamics or economy of the information disorder. In the Italian political debate, it’s all about the ‘who’, not the ‘what’, and even less the ‘how’.

The risk of centering the debate on an exaggerated ‘fake news emergency’ is reducing all the debate to little more than finger-pointing. Children’s quarrels that have an additional unpleasant side effect: amplifying the reach of the very hoaxes they pretend to be fighting.

Yet another risk of this situation is that the agenda setting on the information disorder debate is becoming, in Italy as elsewhere, a polarised one (mainstream vs non-mainstream, liberals vs everyone else, Russia vs America) rather than an organic discussion on how to help maintain the online information environment.

What to do?

The information disorder is a real problem for any democracy. In a recent interview on Wikitribune, Snopes’s managing editor Brooke Binkowski went as far as saying that: “When disinformation fills the void, entire countries can collapse in on themselves”. Disinformation, though, is not just the latest generation of online hoaxes, and Binkovski mentioned Cold War propaganda as a recent historical comparison.

In a recent article by Fabio Chiusi on L’Espresso, political scientist Luigi Curini correctly remarks: “Fake news is propaganda, and propaganda has been always used in the course of history by all political forces, from all the ideological spectrum.” Italy knows well the role misinformation and media manipulation has played in the rise to power of Silvio Berlusconi, in an era when Internet penetration was minimal and modems were still noisy little machines in few Italian houses.

But facts should be at the centre of this debate, not reciprocal recriminations capitalising on fake news. We should be discussing how to educate readers to critical thinking, how to improve citizens’ digital media literacy, from schools to, let it be said, the newsrooms of mainstream newspapers.

False or misleading information is not only spread by anti-establishment groups and alternative media outlets, but also, although in a different manners, by mainstream media and parties, elected officials, and by all of us when we don’t take time to think about what we read before sharing it around. [and the fact that this very piece has been fact-checked it’s just another proof of that]

Current research now points to how partisan thinking and echo chambers are the real breeding ground for the spread of manipulated information. We should invest our energies and resources in dialogue and education rather than in useless rounds of accusations that only worsen the situation, or asking for the tech giants to censor this or that publication on ambiguous methodological bases.

We should invest our energies and resources in dialogue and education rather than in useless rounds of accusations that only worsen the situation, or asking for the tech giants to censor this or that publication on ambiguous methodological bases.

Elsewhere, I have proposed a different, participatory approach to fact checking, one based on collaboration, information sharing and professionalisation. But many projects are born from journalists, academics, organisations and civil society over the last months. Politicians and government officials, in Italy as elsewhere, should better focus on fostering them and bringing civil society into the debate, rather than trivialise the issue to fit their own agendas.

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