By Maria Giovanna Sessa, Research Coordinator at EU DisinfoLab
- The research focuses on the targets of COVID-19 disinformation during the pandemic in Italy between the start of 2020 and mid-2021. Being among the first hit by the novel coronavirus, Italy is a good stress test for the evolution of blaming discourses around the pandemic.
- Our qualitative analysis is drawn from 1,627 pieces of false or misleading information verified by Italian fact-checkers, from which we compiled an original dataset.
- Findings reveal that targets are generally repeated over time, with the exception of China, an outlier in the first half of 2020 (when the novel coronavirus became widely known), and vaccines in the first half of 2021 (when the vaccination campaign started). On this front, disinformation proves its adaptiveness to salient topics in the public debate.
- This is an exploratory analysis that does not intend to take sides over an extremely complex event whose implications are still unfolding. In particular, we wish to emphasise that being a target of disinformation in some occasions does not exclude the possibility of being also a transmitter of disinformation in others.
Since the identification of the first two cases of COVID-19 in Italy on 30 January 2020, the country has been among the earliest and most affected EU members. As the pandemic unfolded worldwide, the ‘infodemic’ set forth a vicious cycle that compromised the management of the health emergency, diminishing already low levels of trust in the government and other institutions, as recent OECD data shows. Regarding the risks of virus-related disinformation, Vice-President of the European Commission Vera Jourova mentioned Italian society as one of its main victims in her remarks about the Commission’s Joint Communication on tackling COVID-19 disinformation released in June 2020.
This unfortunate primacy makes Italy a unique case study to understand how false information around the new coronavirus evolved. In particular, the present research focuses on the targets of virus-related disinformation over eighteen months. For this purpose, an original dataset of fact-checked disinformation on COVID-19 from 1 January 2020 to 30 June 2021 was analysed, for a total of 1,627 debunks.
The following sections provide an operational definition of ‘target’ and describe the methodology employed. Then, the top five targets of the COVID-19 debunks made by Italian fact-checkers over one year and a half are presented. Finally, the conclusions underline the main takeaways and learning outcomes.
What’s a target?
According to Oxford Languages, a target is “a person, object, or place selected as the aim of an attack”, a definition that is echoed by other dictionaries. In view of this, the present research considers a target to be the entity – either an individual (e.g. a public figure) or collective person (e.g. a political party), or an object (e.g. the vaccine) – that is criticised or blamed by the message or, in this case, the piece of disinformation around COVID-19. Therefore, the definition of target used in this study does not include the audience that a disinformation transmitter aims to influence, but simply the actor attacked by or deemed responsible for the falsity.
A sort of “blame game” is very often embedded in disinformation and conspiracy theories, as the possible effect of a collective sensemaking process gone wrong, in the face of unfamiliar and upsetting events like a global pandemic. Identifying an enemy resonates with the need for flattening the world into a struggle between good and evil, which nurtures “feelings of security and control”.
The study relies on the debunks made by leading Italian fact-checkers and treats each fact-checking article as a single observation in our dataset. Then, the 1,627 observations collected over eighteen months are divided according to three periods:
- Period 1: 1 January 2020 – 31 June 2020, 719 debunks;
- Period 2: 1 July 2020 – 31 December 2020, 452 debunks;
- Period 3: 1 January 2021 – 31 June 2021, 456 debunks.
A variable for the disinformation target was manually coded throughout the dataset, reflecting the coder’s perception. The need to pick a single target category adds another layer of subjectivity and simplification. However, the targets of the disinformation often overlap, as transmitters pull various strings of audience polarisation.
For instance, the distorted news that the government had adopted a law that would allow doctors in nursing homes to vaccinate patients regardless of their family’s authorisation could fall into multiple categories. In this case, we consider that the hoax raises an issue that is related to an alleged violation of the patient’s freedom of choice by the government, rather than blaming the vaccine directly as a COVID-19 preventive measure. Accordingly, doctors are perceived as executioners of the alleged government decision; hence the debunk was considered to be targeting the government. Of course, other researchers could opt for a different attribution, thus we can only try to be transparent in motivating our choices, for which we made an effort to maintain consistency through a case-by-case evaluation.
The main targets of COVID-19 disinformation in Italy
This section provides an account of the top three targets of Italian fact-checked disinformation around the pandemic, divided across the three time periods identified, whose distribution is illustrated in the table below.
All percentages in the table are calculated after subtracting the number of fact-checks that do not have a specific target (these are 216 in period 1, 80 in period 2, and 75 in period 3). For example, these targetless disinformation items comprise fabricated claims that people in a given town contracted COVID-19 (e.g. in Lecce, Aprilia, or Palermo) or chain messages providing false information about the closing of schools and supermarkets. Their abundance in the first period, and thus during the first wave of the pandemic, is the epitome of the information disorder aimed at spreading panic about the unprecedented event. As time went by and the virus entered the everyday lives of millions of Italians, disinformation became more sophisticated and targeted.
Targeting the government
The Italian government was the number one target of COVID-19 fact-checks in 2020, with some actors trying to exacerbate the debate around the government’s management of the pandemic. Popular narratives relied on disinformation to present the implemented containment measures as unjustified or absurd: examples include misleading claims that in a post-lockdown phase, people would be allowed to visit museums but not to attend mass, or that gyms, pools, and bars would remain closed because the government deemed these activities – and their employees – unessential. Some hoaxes misrepresented judiciary rulings to challenge the government decrees defining appropriate measures as “illegitimate and unconstitutional”.
Others claimed that the above measures were tools for social control of the population: from allegations that the government-financed contact tracking app Immuni was already embedded in smartphones to spy on users, to the groundless assertion that the declaration of the state of emergency would allow the government to suspend private property rights.
Another recurrent topic framed financial mechanisms funded by the government to support businesses as insufficient, e.g. false claims that the €600 bonus for freelance workers was before taxes, or the hoax that out of the €400 billion promised to support companies through the crisis, only €16 billion were actually allocated. In general, disinformation directed against the government provided a deceitful and inaccurate representation of its management of the health crisis to amplify debates and portray the ruling coalition as incompetent or acting in mala fides.
Targeting the “deep state”
The so-called “deep state” remained a stable target in the Italian disinformation landscape around COVID-19, holding second place throughout the year and a half period considered. There is a conspiratorial bent to the hoaxes in question, which suggests that a corrupted elite is pushing an evil agenda in the context of the pandemic. Although there is certainly some element of contact with government-targeted false information, this category includes explicit statements of responsibility of the “deep state” in general, along with big technological or pharmaceutical companies in particular.
Given the global nature of the infodemic, internationally and in Italy, Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, and George Soros were portrayed as public enemies accused of plotting the pandemic “with the help of pharmaceutical companies and investment companies” to harm the world population. Besides accusations of an artificial virus, several fact-checks fed on denialist convictions to suggest that the World Health Organisation staged the pandemic or that Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dénis Mukwege was bribed into declaring every dead person as a COVID-19 victim.
A more domestic component of “deep state” targeted contents intertwined international and Italian public figures as the unproven belief by League MP Claudio Borghi that Bill Gates maintained a “strange relationship” with former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, from whom he allegedly received million-euro donations for his foundation, or that the tech tycoon and philanthropist financed the Professor of Microbiology Andrea Crisanti to “terrorise” the public regarding the virus.
Targeting China and Chinese communities in Italy
During the first period, which roughly corresponds to the first wave of the pandemic, the third go-to target exploited the fact that SARS-CoV-2 initially appeared in China. Disinformative items consist of a somewhat abstract attempt to blame the Asian country as a potential threat, although the average hoax in this category conveys some unproven or partial information about the foreign power that is deemed accountable for the virus’ proliferation. Although there is still uncertainty on the exact origin of the virus and legitimate debate regarding the transparency of the Chinese government on the outbreak of COVID-19, some actors weaponised this ambiguity by making unproven or fabricated attacks on the Asian country. Examples include the overestimation of the pre-prints of an unpublished article, allegedly proving the artificial origin of the new coronavirus. While scientists understand the nuances of the scientific debate – and the overconfidence with which some results are often presented – decontextualised pre-prints can promote distortion and confusion. Otherwise, entirely made-up content includes a revived hoax falsely attributing a quote to Nobel prize-winning Dr. Tasuku Honjo, maintaining the Chinese-made nature of the virus.
A number of hoaxes were directed against the Chinese communities living in Italy: e.g. fabricated reports of physical aggressions of Asian-looking individuals; the boycotting of Chinese-owned businesses for allegedly being breeding grounds of the virus; or the negative stereotyping of Chinese habits and diet (accusing them of eating bats and mice), especially given the role attributed to wet markets in proliferating the virus. However, this target became much less salient after the first period, as COVID-19 became part of Italy’s reality and stopped being seen as a foreign intruder.
Targeting doctors and healthcare workers
In the framework of the health emergency, there have been hundreds of reports of violence and harassment against doctors worldwide. Italy is no different, as initial demonstrations of solidarity and celebration of doctors and nurses as heroes were progressively replaced by the vilification of healthcare workers, who also became targets of disinformation. This can be interpreted as an expression of frustration over the fact that, since the pandemic showed no signs of a fast resolution and the situation continued to worsen, frontline medical personnel were usually the bearers of bad news. Moreover, COVID-19 disinformation nurtured feelings of distrust in science, of which healthcare professionals are the personification.
In this context, the heart-breaking March 2020 images of military convoys taking coffins away in Bergamo, as morgues and cemeteries struggled to cope with the number of virus-related deaths, was likely a turning point for disinformation. Accordingly, hoaxes against doctors and the healthcare system mostly ranged from accusations of malpractice (e.g. patients “alone, tortured, and murdered by hospital ‘heroes’”) and conspiracy theories involving the alleged scheming of medical professionals (e.g. claims that doctors receive €2,000 for each COVID-19 hospitalisation).
Targeting the vaccine and vaccination campaigns
Disinformation targeted against vaccines consistently appeared in the second period (28 observations) and spiked in the third (148 observations), corresponding to the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in December 2020. Although not exclusively focused on the Italian case, EU DisinfoLab has already addressed a specific publication on the disinformative narratives of COVID-19 vaccines, labeled as dangerous (e.g. the fabricated news of vaccine recipients dying) and useless (e.g. a hoax that the AstraZeneca vaccine only offers 8% protection from the virus). A third narrative identified in our previous research is that vaccines are ill-intended. However, for this piece, we would consider such a narrative – suggesting that vaccines are part of an evil plan – as targeting the “deep state” rather than the vaccine per se. As they impacted the population at large, vaccination campaigns were heavily targeted and often linked to other targets of disinformation (including the government, healthcare workers, or big pharmaceutical companies).
Overall, this category is rather tricky, as we have so far dealt with targets that can be somehow personified or traced back to a group of individuals. This is obviously not possible with the vaccines and the vaccination campaign, which nevertheless are consistently blamed for allegedly harming rather than saving people’s lives.
Main takeaways and conclusions
The research explored the main targets of disinformation – i.e. the entities against which or whom a piece of disinformation is directed – focusing on false and misleading information that was fact-checked in Italy from 1 January 2020 to 31 June 2021. Overall, we noticed a relatively stable distribution of these targets across the eighteen months observed, except for two outliers. The first exception regards the Sinophobia registered in the first period, which roughly corresponds to the first pandemic wave. Unacquainted with the new virus, Italians perceived it as something foreign and blamed the country where it was initially detected. The second disruption consists of false news targeting vaccines, as the third period marked the start of mass vaccination against the coronavirus.
Therefore, one learning outcome is that disinformation shows once again a capability to adapt to the surrounding environment, absorbing and reflecting the occurrence of exogenous shocks – i.e. a new virus or a new vaccine. However, it should not be underestimated that most targets have been recurrent for over a year and a half. Through this repetition, disinformation sediments a distorted perception of reality by creating enemies to blame and mistrust, and there lies its ultimate danger.
 These are: Bufale.net, BUTAC, Facta.news, Giornalettismo, Next Quotidiano, Open, Pagella Politica, and Smask.online.
 In reality, if patients are unable to decide for themselves and have not left any provision on the matter, the decision would be made by their legal representative. However, if the latter opposed the doctor’s recommendation to vaccinate the patient, the nursing home manager may appeal to a tutelary judge, who will analyse the case.