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.


‘The only escape route’: Why Italian same-sex parents are fleeing to Spain

As Italy's government clamps down on the rights of same-sex parents and stops registering their children's births, one expectant couple says moving abroad is their best option.

'The only escape route': Why Italian same-sex parents are fleeing to Spain

The risk she could lose her children is driving Chiara and her family into self-imposed exile, away from Italy and a hard-right government hostile to same-sex parents.

The 46-year-old is fleeing to Spain after realising her legal rights as one of two mothers of three-year-old Arturo are no longer safe under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“It’s a nightmare,” she told AFP, saying she and Christine, 42, are braced to leave friends, family and her job in Rome “because it’s the only escape route”.

Civil unions became legal in Italy in 2016, but the law on parental rights for same-sex couples is unclear.

Encouraged by several court rulings, local mayors have in recent years been registering both biological and non-biological parents on birth certificates.

But in January, Meloni’s interior minister ordered town halls to stop transcribing certificates of children born abroad through surrogacy, citing a recent court ruling.

READ ALSO: Milan stops recognising children born to same-sex couples

In response, prosecutors across Italy began contesting birth certificates of children born to same-sex parents – whether through surrogacy or not.

Chiara is registered as Arturo’s mother but is not his biological parent – meaning his birth certificate, and her rights, could be contested at any time.

So could her rights regarding his baby brother, due to be born early next year.

“The idea that this baby would be put up for adoption if Christine died, instead of being given to me, is absolute madness,” she said.

“It would be an absurd brutality.”

She asked AFP not to print her surname for fear someone would read about her case, and contest Arturo’s birth certificate.

Chiara (L) and Christine (R) are due to have a baby early next year. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

‘Christian mother’

Italy’s highest court has called on successive parliaments to clarify the parental rights of gay couples – so far in vain.

Same-sex couples or single women cannot access medically assisted reproduction in Italy and there is no law governing the registration of children conceived abroad by mothers in same-sex relationships, who then give birth in Italy.

In 2016, Italy’s highest court supported the transcription of a foreign birth certificate which named two mothers.

And local courts ruled in 2018 that lesbian women who assume parental responsibility for the child their partner carries should have the same rights as heterosexual men whose partners use donor sperm.

Mayors from Milan to Turin, Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna and Bari have appealed to parliament to legislate as soon as possible.

But following years of inaction among governments of different stripes in the largely Catholic country, campaigners have little hope of change under Meloni.

A self-declared “Christian mother”, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party rails against “gender ideology” and the “LGBT lobby” and says children should only be raised by heterosexual parents.

Musician Christine says Meloni has “clearly and explicitly” set out to make same-sex families feel “lesser”.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni wants same-sex couples to feel ‘lesser’, says Chiara. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

‘Like an aunt’

In cases earlier this year, judges in Milan and Bergamo ruled birth certificates of children born to same-sex parents must be altered.

A prosecutor in Padua, northeast Italy, has even instructed the city to retroactively remove non-biological mothers from birth certificates dating back to 2017.

READ ALSO: Italian prosecutor demands cancellation of birth certificates for 33 children

Judges there are currently deliberating whether to amend the certificates of 37 children, the oldest of which is six.

Among those targeted are project manager Alice Bruni and her Irish partner Brona Kelly, mothers to a seven-month-old boy.

Removing Kelly from his birth certificate would make her “like an aunt, a friend — when we wanted our son together,” Bruni told AFP.

“She was in the delivery room with me, she cut the umbilical cord.”

The 40-year-old railed against how the case was being heard, with the couple given just 15 minutes in court and no chance to plead their case.

READ ALSO: Protesters gather in Milan as Italy limits same-sex parents’ rights

And she said the official letter informing them the certificate would be changed was riddled with errors, including referring to their son as a girl.

Aside from the possibility of losing access to their children if their partner dies or the relationship breaks down, the non-biological mothers risk day-to-day stresses such as not being able to take their child to a doctor without the other parent’s permission.

Lawyer Michele Giarratano, who represents 15 of the children in the Padua case, notes those stripped of one parent also “lose the entire family branch of that parent”, as well as inheritance rights.

Chiara (R), is afraid of losing her rights as a non-biological same-sex parent under Italy’s far-right government. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

‘Category B’ child

The Padua judges are set to rule in January and could send the case to Italy’s constitutional court, where a ruling would have nationwide implications.

Until then, Padua mayor Sergio Giordani, who has been registering same-sex mothers since 2017, said he will keep doing it.

“I believed I was doing the right thing… and I still do”, he told AFP.

“How can I say that this is a category A child, and this a category B one? This one has rights, and this one doesn’t?”

READ ALSO: EU parliament slams Italy’s clampdown on same-sex couples’ rights

Some mothers ensure rights by adopting their child as a stepchild, but the process is costly, takes years and involves invasive interviews by social services.

In Rome, Chiara says she will not consider adoption, both out of principle and the fear her sons would be at risk for too long.

She and Christine are instead readying for their move abroad, tackling bureaucratic hurdles to ensure both will be put on the baby’s birth certificate.

“There are a series of highly stressful things that have to be done in a certain time — because if not, your son won’t be your son,” Chiara said.