Press play to listen to this article
Ahead of this weekend’s election, Italian voters have a problem: separating the truth from the lies they read online.
Despite fears that Russia is trying to meddle in the campaign, Italian politicians and social media influencers have so far played the biggest role in spreading election-related lies online, based on a analysis of Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic technology newsletter.
These stories attack immigrants, make accusations against the European Union and promote support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While it might seem reassuring that the Kremlin isn’t behind such widespread online messaging, the bad news is that Italians are more likely to believe what they read from local sources than foreign sites. and social media accounts.
On Sunday, Italy is expected to support a new right-wing coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy party. The outcome of the vote will be critical for Italy’s economy and political dynamics across the 27-nation bloc, where the experienced Mario Draghi, Italy’s outgoing prime minister, is set to be replaced by an untested far-right leader.
Senior European officials, including those in charge of renewed EU efforts to crack down on foreign disinformation, continue to warn that the Kremlin may seek to tip the balance in its favor in this weekend’s vote.
But Italian Facebook and Twitter accounts peddling false election-related news far outnumbered accounts not from the country for likes, shares and comments combined, according to data from CrowdTangle, the analytics firm. social media belonging to Meta, during the three weeks through September 16.
“Information from national politicians and national media, especially if endorsed by other members of the community, is much more likely to impact people’s attitudes and behaviors than posts from media accounts. unknown social media or state-controlled fringe foreign media that few follow and even fewer trust,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a professor of political communication at the University of Oxford who has followed the role of politicians in the spreading rumors online.
“It is obviously inconvenient for the political class to explicitly acknowledge the fact that misinformation often comes from the top,” he added. “It may be more politically convenient to pretend the problem is caused by nefarious foreign actors. But that doesn’t make it true.”
Politicians try to get elected
Many of the half-truths and falsehoods widely shared in recent days have a clear purpose in mind: to muddy the political waters.
More than 90% of the country’s political party pledges were not grounded in economic reality, according to Italian fact-checking organization Pagella Politica, which scoured the pledges of left-wing and right-wing groups. This included everything from lies related to promises of potentially large subsidies for young voters, to widespread subsidies to combat soaring energy costs.
Many of those pledges have been widely shared by prominent politicians – an effort to woo voters in an election that is unlikely to see a political party garner enough votes to form a government, based on the poll of voters. POLITICO polls.
On thorny domestic topics, including those associated with rising immigration levels and Europe’s support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, Italian social media accounts have also dominated the conversation online. In particular, the role of migrants in Italian society has become a point of contact for increasing support for far-right politicians.
In recent weeks, Facebook pages specifically set up to foster anti-immigrant sentiment have posted videos and images of suspected immigrants beating or abusing people, ahead of Sunday’s vote. These social media posts, collectively, have been shared thousands of times, particularly via far-right influencers and political candidates, based on data from CrowdTangle.
Social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, say they have taken action against disinformation related to Italy’s election and have promoted legitimate mainstream news content about the upcoming vote.
Russia lurking in the tall grass?
Since February, Italian politicians from all political parties have withdrawn their support for Vladimir Putin. But online, some Italian social media users continue to question EU support for Ukraine.
Two European government officials who track Russian disinformation, both in Italy and across the EU, have warned that despite the Kremlin’s perceived lack of role in this weekend’s election, Moscow still remains a key player.
Brussels sanctions prevented Russian state media like RT and Sputnik from operating in the EU in response to the February invasion. But in the years before the war, the Italian-language content of Russian media had already attracted significant audiences.
The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said pro-Russian posts blaming the West for the tensions have become part of daily political discussions in Italy – even though it was now Italians, not a foreign government, who were spreading such misinformation.
“Just because Russia isn’t publicly present doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact,” one such official said. “They’ve already got their message across, no matter who is pushing these narratives now.”
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive and never-before-seen scoops and ideas
Personalized Policy Intelligence Platform
A high-level public affairs network