The impact of ‘fake news’ on the Italian election

There were many factors behind the rise in support for Italy's populist parties in the election on Sunday -- but could fake news have played a part in influencing the result? Filippo Trevisan studies the impact of the internet and social media on politics, and explains how changes in the media landscape affected the vote.

The impact of 'fake news' on the Italian election
Silvio Berlusconi poses on the set of TV show Porta a Porta. Photo: AFP

Although there were no outright winners in Italy’s parliamentary election on March 4th, there were two clear losers – the European Union and immigrants.

No one party or coalition won a majority and negotiations to form a new government are likely to last several weeks. But results have shown a dramatic increase in the number of votes for the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and far-right party the League (La Lega).

Five Star – which one commentator described as a party with a “rightist façade over a leftist basement and anarchic roof” – is poised to be the biggest party with more than 30 percent of the vote. The League, an anti-immigrant party in former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, soared to its best result ever with over 18 percent of the vote.

These results will alarm European observers given the anti-EU positions of both these groups. Nationalist French politician Marine Le Pen tweeted (below) as the votes came in that it was a “bad night” for the EU.

I research how citizens in different countries use online tools, particularly search engines, to access election information. One thing is clear to me: The rise of these populist and far-right parties was supported by dramatic shifts in the information diet of Italian voters.

Cutting out traditional media

A study I co-authored shortly after the Italian election in 2013 showed that even then voters were keen on alternative online information sources. In particular, voters searching the internet for information about the Five Star Movement were more likely to look specifically for the party’s official website and online streaming channel instead of traditional media sites.

These trends, combined with Italians’ low levels of trust in media organizations, have made Italy fertile ground for spreading misinformation and propaganda online.

League leader Matteo Salvini pictured during the closing campaign rally. Photo: AFP

In the last five years, online alternative media platforms and their audience have grown exponentially in Italy. At the end of 2017, BuzzFeed exposed several popular Italian websites and Facebook pages that posed as news organizations but trafficked in misinformation with a focus on anti-immigration content. These outlets had several million social media followers. That is substantially more than Italian newspapers and political leaders who typically attract modest numbers of followers. For example, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has only 410,000 Twitter followers. Compare that to U.S. President Donald Trump with more than 48 million.

The appetite for this type of content increased as immigration became the central theme of the 2018 election campaign. In the lead up to the elections, Five Star’s leader Luigi Di Maio described organizations involved in migrant rescue operations as acting as “sea taxis,” implicitly accusing them of ferrying illegal migrants across the Mediterranean to generate more business for themselves. Meanwhile, the League’s leader Matteo Salvini campaigned on an “Italians First” platform reminiscent of Donald Trump’s “America First” mantra. In February, a neo-Nazi and former local candidate for the League went on a racially motivated shooting spree that wounded six African migrants.

The specter of Russian meddling

International experts and Italian government officials also pointed at Russian attempts to influence the Italian vote.

Last month, the Italian daily La Stampa identified several prolific Twitter accounts suspected as being used for Russian propaganda operations in Italy. In a report published last fall, the Atlantic Council, an American think tank, documented extensive links between Russian figures and both the Five Star Movement and the League.

Both these parties have pro-Russia policies. For example, their leaders have often spoken out against EU-sanctions on Russia. They have also expressed ambiguity towards NATO. Both candidates have received space on Kremlin-backed media such as the television network RT and news agency Sputnik. In addition, popular news websites controlled by the PR agency in charge of Five Star’s election campaign have posted content espousing Kremlin propaganda.

READ ALSO: Italian intelligence denies reports of Russian meddling in Italy

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio speaks during the campaign. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

A broken media system

The problem is not simply that misinformation is readily available online, but also that a large proportion of Italians find this content credible.

In Italy, the line between politics and journalism is often blurred. Many journalists have made the transition to politicians and vice versa. Most recently, a top editor at La Repubblica – Italy’s most read newspaper – resigned to stand in the election as a Democratic Party candidate. The word “lottizzazione” – literally, “the division of land into plots” – is used to describe how control over various public TV and radio channels are divided by powerful political parties.

The commercial broadcasting sector isn’t much better. Ownership is concentrated in just a few hands, most notably those of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi has for years sought to delegitimize the press outside of his media empire. He has called out journalists critical of his tenure as prime minister. Infamously, he mimed shooting a machine gun at a journalist during a press conference with Vladimir Putin in 2008.

Grillo has adopted similar rhetoric. He relentlessly attacks journalists as establishment crooks and encourages Five Star supporters to distrust Italian media.

Restoring trust in journalism

As Italian parties begin negotiations over who will be the next prime minister, these factors have created the conditions for online misinformation to continue to thrive. Both Facebook and the Italian police are experimenting with systems to eradicate bots and report purveyors of fake news. I believe these complex measures can help. However, long-term efforts to restore trust in journalism among Italian audiences are also essential.

The ConversationThis will involve strengthening media literacy skills, boosting the independence of the public broadcasting sector, and possibly reorganizing media ownership so that it is not as tightly concentrated. Without this ambitious set of measures, online misinformation and propaganda are unlikely to go out of fashion in Italy anytime soon.

Filippo Trevisan, Assistant Professor, American University School of Communication

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

After Russian energy giant Gazprom suspended gas deliveries to Italy on Saturday, many are wondering what consequences the stoppage will have on the country’s energy supplies.

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

What’s going on?

Over the past three days, Italy has received none of the gas supplies it expected from Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

The impasse officially started last Saturday, when Gazprom announced it would not be able to deliver gas to Italy due to “the impossibility of gas transport through Austria” – Russian gas supplies are delivered to Italy through the Trans Austria Gas pipeline (TAG), which reaches into Italian territory near Tarvisio, Friuli Venezia-Giulia. 

READ ALSO: Russia suspends gas to Italy after ‘problem’ in Austria

Though Gazprom originally attributed the problem to Austrian gas grid operators refusing to confirm “transport nominations”, Austria’s energy regulator E-Control said that the Russian energy mammoth had failed to comply with new contractual agreements whose introduction had been “known to all market actors for months”. 

Additional information about the incident only emerged on Monday, when Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s national energy provider ENI, said that supplies had been suspended after Gazprom failed to pay a 20-million-euro guarantee to Austrian gas carrier Gas Connect. 

Descalzi also added that ENI was ready to step in and deposit the guarantee itself in order to unblock deliveries to Italy.

Logo of Italian energy regulator ENI.

Italian energy regulator ENI said it was ready to pay Austrian gas carriers a 20-million-euro guarantee to unblock deliveries. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

READ ALSO: Italy’s ENI ready to pay guarantee to unblock Russian gas

At the time of writing, however, no agreement between ENI, Gas Connect and Gazprom has yet been reached, with the stoppage expected to continue until Wednesday at the very least.

What would an indefinite stoppage mean for Italy’s upcoming winter season?

Though energy giant ENI appears to be confident that a compromise between all the involved parties will be reached shortly, the “indefinite shutdown” of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September is somewhat of a menacing precedent. 

After fears of a long-term supply suspension cropped up over the weekend, outgoing Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani publicly reassured Italians that “barring any catastrophic events, Italy will have the whole of winter covered”.

It isn’t yet clear what exactly Cingolani meant by “catastrophic”, but the latest available data seem to suggest that Italy wouldn’t have to resort to emergency measures, chiefly gas rationing, should Gazprom halt deliveries indefinitely. 

Italian Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani.

Outgoing Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani said that, “barring any catastrophic events”, Italy will have enough gas supplies for the winter. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy received around 20 billion cubic metres of Russian gas per year, which accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s annual gas imports. 

But, thanks to the supply diversification strategy carried out by outgoing PM Mario Draghi and his cabinet over the past few months, Russian gas currently accounts for, in the words of ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi, only “about nine to 10 percent” of Italian gas imports.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Draghi criticises Germany over latest energy plan

Granted, Italy still receives (or, given the current diplomatic deadlock, expects to receive) a non-negligible total of 20 million cubic metres of Russian gas per day. But, should supply lines between Rome and Moscow be shut off until further notice, Italy could fall back on existing gas stocks to meet winter consumption demands. 

Last Wednesday, Cingolani announced that the country had already filled up 90 percent of its national gas stocks – Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas – and the government was now working to bring that number up by an additional two or three percentage points.

These supplies, Cingolani said, are set to give Italy “greater flexibility” with respect to potential “spikes in winter consumption”.

Gas storage station in Loenhout, Belgium.

Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Finally, Italy is expected to receive an additional four billion cubic metres of gas from North Europe over the winter months – deliveries which will be complemented by the first shipments of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) from Egypt.

Both of these developments are expected to further reinforce Italy’s position in the energy market for the cold season.

What about the long-term consequences of an indefinite stoppage?

An indefinite shut-off of Russian gas supplies would effectively anticipate Italy’s independence from Moscow by nearly two years – Draghi’s plan has always been to wean the country off Russian gas by autumn 2024.

However, the Italian government’s strategy is (or, perhaps, was, as a new government is about to be formed) centred around a gradual phasing out of Russian supplies. As such, although not immediately problematic, a ‘cold-turkey’ scenario might create supply issues for Italy at some point during 2023.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How much are energy prices rising in Italy this autumn?

Granted, Algeria, whose supplies currently make up 36 percent of Italy’s national demand, is expected to ramp up gas exports and provide Rome with nine billion cubic metres of gas in 2023.

But, even when combined with LNG supplies from several African partners – these should add up to a total of four billion cubic metres of gas in 2023 – there’s a risk that Algerian gas might not be able to replace Russian gas on its own.

An employee works at the Tunisian Sergaz company, that controls the Tunisian segment of the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) pipeline, through which natural gas flows from Algeria to Italy.

Algerian gas supplies, which reach Italy through the Trans-Med pipeline (pictured above), might not be enough to replace Russian gas in 2023. Photo by Fethi BELAID / AFP

Therefore, should an indefinite shut-off be the ultimate outcome of the current diplomatic incident between ENI, Austria’s Gas Connect and Russia’s Gazprom, Italy, this time in the person of new PM Giorgia Meloni, might have to close deals with other suppliers or ask existing suppliers to ramp up production.