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Five Stars and the League are disinformation factories, EP study revealed

Let the people get confused, then rule! Mystify the reality to manipulate the elections! Thus, get power! Italy is a more than a threat, Italy is a real problem and the European Parliament knows it. At the upcoming European elections the League and the Five Stars Movement (M5S) will come up as the big winners of the ballot. Such an outcome is the result of their activity on the internet and strategy of spinning the fake-news that these political forces have been able to fabric so far.

What is about to happen in Italy cannot be considered as a surprise. First of all because signals coming from the country were clear for quite a long time. Anti-European sentiment, anti-establishment forces, arrogance, intolerance: all this is the product of something that started well before this electoral campaign. Second, but not least, because already in February the European Parliament was informed about disinformation in Italy and its impact on the public opinion.

The European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, on request of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE Committee), produced a 200-pages report on disinformation and propaganda, with the aim of assessing the impact of disinformation and strategic political propaganda disseminated through on-line social media sites. The document, covering the EU member states, entered the headquarters of the European Parliament already last February, and explicit reference to Italy is prominent. The assessment is not the best possible.

Fake-news and pro-Russian propaganda in ruling parties’ agenda

There is a specific paragraph dedicated to Italy, in the last pages of the report. Here is what the services of the European Parliament wrote about the situation in the country:

“In 2016, BuzzFeed News linked the Five Stars Movement (M5S) to a network of websites and  social media accounts that spread disinformation. Some of these sites that pose as independent news sites were allegedly found to be under the direct control of M5S party leadership; the site TzeTze, for instance, is reportedly owned by Casaleggio Associati, a firm founded by late M5S co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio. M5S co-founder Beppe Grillo’s personal blog, M5S party websites and some of these news sites were also exposed as sharing IP addresses, Google Analytics and AdSense Ids”.

Critical findings don’t stop here. Unfair activity was detected also for the other currently ruling party, Matteo Salvini’s the League.

“The League was also reported to share Google codes with websites that were not officially associated with the party and that spread pro-Putin propaganda and conspiracy theories. Another BuzzFeed report exposed a large network of news sites and social media accounts that spread hyper-partisan, anti-immigration and Islamophobic content; some of the most popular non-legacy news sites were found to belong to this network”.

Lies, lies and more lies. With the complicity of social media.

In Pinocchio’s land, lies are normal practice. What must scare the EU and its Parliament is the behavior of certain Italians during the electoral campaign. “False information in Italy was allegedly rampant in the 2018 elections campaign”, the report says. What can prevent the same activity in this electoral campaign? “Disinformation actions mostly concerned Facebook, which has 30 million users in the country. Facebook introduced fact-checking measures to counter the sharing of fake news. When fabricated content was shared by politicians, Facebook opted not to remove these but to alert local politicians instead if false information was shared widely.  Most of the disinformation shared concerned migrants”.

False stories were found to be shared by leading politicians on social media, presenting Facebook with the problem of how to interfere without being accused of meddling with the elections. “In the run-up to the elections, most of the disinformation shared concerned migrants”, the report denounced. Nothing changed. Migration is still a hot topic in the Italian domestic debate.

Beyond disinformation, journalistic research reportedly found that the League leader Matteo Salvini and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio used “inflammatory and visually arresting” content as well as viral videos and live broadcasting to dominate the election campaign on Facebook.

Not only Mark Zuckerberg’s creature was mentioned. “In the last few elections, the League allegedly also made use of ‘selfbots’ on Twitter”, the authors of the report wrote. Selfbots are human users who volunteered to become ‘spokespeople’ of the League by authorising an app to automatically like and retweet content from the Legue leader Matteo Salvini’s account.

More in general, according to a MIT research on the spread of false content on Twitter, “robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it”.

Putin’s hand on Italian manipulation

“Some signs” of Russian election meddling in the campaign have also been reported. It has been explained that some of the trolls identified in the US investigation as belonging to the IRA tweeted about the Italian elections. Additionally, an analysis by big data firm Alto Data Analytics revealed that Russian bots largely amplified Sputnik’s anti-immigration messages on Twitter in 2017.

“The situation in Italy might be seen by some as comparable to that in Hungary: both have allegedly pro-Russian politicians in power, as well as Russian-friendly media outlets”.

Italy: a problem for democracy

So, Italy is the Trojan horse for anti-democracy. “Manipulations of people’s access to information may come and stay within a member state, may come from one member state to another”, is written in the conclusions of the report. No doubt that Italy has been producing disinformation, and it generates the risks of spillover effects. The first of these consequences will become visible in Brussels on 26 May.

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The project was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this project. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the project.