With elections imminent, Italy pulls out the stops to fight fake news

The issue of fake news – bufale, in Italian – has dominated concerns in Italy ahead of the March 4 parliamentary elections. The government, in partnership with companies like Facebook, has launched several projects to fight back.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini gestures during a news conference at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on Feb. 22.

Italy’s annual security report, released this Monday, warned about online “influence campaigns” that aim to “condition both the sentiment and political orientation of public opinion, especially at election time.”

But for Giovanni Zagni and his team at the Pagella Politica media project, the warning was unnecessary. With parliamentary elections looming on March 4, they’ve been fighting fake news for the past three weeks of the electoral campaign.

Each morning, they decide which fake story they’ll spend the day debunking, choosing from a pool of fake news, misleading titles, and articles that mix real and false elements. “In these first days of the program, when we’re still trying to show people what we do and that they can trust us, we’re focusing on the more blatantly false stories,” says Mr. Zagni, the chief editor of the team of independent fact checkers hired by Facebook Italy ahead of the election.

Facebook is not alone in its battle against fake news in Italy, where pre-election anxiety over the potentially destabilizing effects of fake news has been mounting for months. Efforts are underway across the country, driven by both government and nongovernmental actors, to fight misinformation – through rebuttals like those of Pagella Politica and by teaching Italian students how to spot fake news on their own. But when it comes to preemptive action against fake news by targeting sites online, Italy’s options remain unclear, as the government says it needs internet controls to stop organized propaganda, while critics warn the government’s plans risk stifling online freedoms.

Debunking fake stories

In November, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the leader of the center-left Democracy Party, made an appeal to social media companies. Mr. Renzi has blamed his party’s fall in the polls on fake news. “We ask the social networks, and especially Facebook, to help us have a clean electoral campaign. The quality of the democracy in Italy today depends on a response to these issues,” he said.

Indeed, TVs and newspapers have been actively fact-checking news and statements from politicians every day. Earlier this year, the police introduced an anti-fake news service called Red Button, which allows citizens to report fake news. Italian debunkers like blogger David Puente and websites specializing in debunking, like bufale.net (bufale is Italian for “fake news”), have thousands of followers.

Pagella Politica and Facebook Italy have tried to go a step further. The team has produced 16 articles that Facebook Italy automatically connects to fake items, giving its users the option of sharing the debunked article instead.

For example, if an Italian user of Facebook decides to share an item telling the story of the nuns in Bassano del Grappa who spanked a Moroccan migrant for selling drugs, the social network will let him know the story he’s about to share is false. Instead, it will offer him the option of sharing the debunking article written by Pagella Politica, explaining that different versions of that story have been circulating in the web since 2009.

Zagni says the majority of the fake news circulating on the web, like the spanking nuns story, “is not strictly political,” but many “foster a general mood regarding migration with a xenophobic tone” – a particularly hot-button issue this election season.

Zagni says he’s aware Pagella Politica’s fact-checking efforts reach only a small segment of people and voters on Facebook. But he feels it's worth it. “We’re reaching a small segment of the population that’s exposed and more vulnerable to fake news. If we can prevent them from sharing some of it, we can say we had a positive influence in this election.”

Equipping students to spot misinformation

Arturo Di Corinto, an Italian journalist and expert on the internet, argues that efforts like Pagella Politica’s can’t solve the problem, however.

“We know that fake news relies heavily on confirmation biases, so it’s not enough to expose people to accurate information,” he says. “There are two main problems regarding media in Italy. On one side there’s a mainstream media ecosystem that nourishes propagandistic claims and fears. On the other side, 30 percent of Italy’s population has functional illiteracy, which means they can’t understand what journalists write.”

That sort of concern is what spurred the Italian government’s creation last fall, in cooperation with internet companies including Facebook, of a program to teach students how to detect fake news: Basta Bufale, or “Enough with Fake News.”

Elena Benaglia, an Italian teacher at the Liceo Classico Alessandro Manzoni in Milan, a university preparatory school dedicated to humanistic studies, is one of the teachers in the program. She has been teaching her students how to recognize fake news and conspiracy theories online, including through the use of tools that identify fraudulent articles or photomontages, for example.

But, most importantly, says Ms. Benaglia, they develop an awareness of the need to check the sources, as well as an understanding of the Italian law regarding matters of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

“We teach them that just as classic philologists need to be critical about their sources, modern news producers need to follow a certain path to discover if a source is reliable or not,” she says.

Stopping fake news at its source?

Reliability of sources has been a major concern in Europe since the British referendum to leave the European Union and the United States election. Both of those have raised growing suspicions, albeit unproven, of misinformation campaigns originating in Russia and targeting European voters.

Italian fact checkers like Zagni and Mr. Puente say they haven’t been able to track the fake news they debunk to Russia, but Mr. Di Corinto, the journalist, insists that’s not true.

“That’s just something we know,” he says, pointing to reporting by Buzzfeed as evidence. “There are several websites more favorable to the Italian far-right party Northern League and the Five Star Movement and we can trace fake accounts registered in the Russian Federation. I’m not saying those accounts are financed by high [entities], but they’re based in Russia.”

But regardless of the fake news’s organizers, it’s not clear how to respond to them. Antonio Nicita, commissioner of the Italian Communications Regulatory Authority (AGCom), says that in order for national authorities to investigate possible misinformation campaigns, it would be more effective if social media companies provided access to user data rather than focusing on debunking fake news.

“The problem is not only fake news but the possibility that we’re facing strategies of misinformation and we want to focus on those,” says Mr. Nicita. “We want to know if someone – for advertising or political reasons – is organizing a system with several false accounts or false connections to influence the opinion of voters or consumers. While fact-checking initiatives like the one promoted by Facebook are somehow useful to tackle the problem of hate speech, fact-checking won’t solve the problem of polarization.”

But Di Corinto warns that this sort of effort would end up effectively regulating the internet, and threaten online speech.

“The battle against fake news is a battle against the internet,” he says. “Traditional media, desperately trying to grab readers’ attention, is producing fake news too. Even if the virality of the web facilitates it now, disinformation and propaganda campaigns have always been a means of influence.”

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