By Maria Giovanna Sessa, Senior Researcher at EU DisinfoLab
- The Italian general elections will take place on September 25 instead of in the spring of 2023 due to the sudden fall of the previous government in the middle of the summer.
- Amidst the rush to organise the snap elections, only a handful of initiatives have been put forward by stakeholders to protect the vote from disinformation and foreign interference. Institutions and parties have made vague references to cyber-security and disinformation (as the right-wing equated content moderation to censorship). Platforms only marginally improved their processes, while fact-checkers organised few specific initiatives to debunk electoral hoaxes. In this regard, CORRECTIV.Faktencheck provided a rule of thumb on how fact-checkers can monitor disinformation around elections.
- The Italian situation shows a lack of long-term infrastructure to counter disinformation, which makes it vulnerable to malign actors. Experts call out the deficit and delays in the peninsula concerning preventive and protective measures that are available elsewhere in Europe. For example, France created Viginum, a national agency to combat information manipulation ahead of the presidential elections. Furthermore, public and private stakeholders cooperated in Germany to set an extensive list of initiatives against hybrid threat during the federal elections.
- In case of additional announcements, this blog post will be updated accordingly.
A brief contextualisation
The collapse of the 67th government was triggered in mid-July by the Five Star Movement’s abstention during a vote of confidence on a package (“decreto aiuti”) aimed at helping Italians deal with the surging cost of living caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Although the decree was approved, the move opened a political crisis, signalling a lack of support for the government. After a first resignation that President Mattarella rejected, Prime Minister Mario Draghi presented his resignation again on July 21. The President finally accepted it and dissolved the Parliament the next day.
Initially expected in the spring of 2023, the elections were anticipated to September 25. Looking back at the 17 months of Draghi’s technocratic cabinet backed by four main parties (except Brothers of Italy), fact-checker Pagella Politica verified 127 statements of his, finding that only one-third were misleading or inaccurate.
A (short) list of initiatives to ensure vote integrity during the Italian elections
Fact-checkers and researchers:
- Pagella Politica and Open, IFCN members and Meta’s independent third-party fact-checking partners, created an ad hoc initiative called Electoral Facts (“fatti elettorali”).
- Fact-checkers have primarily focused on verifying statements by politicians and parties and debunking common myths that populate this last-minute electoral campaign.
- The Italian Digital Media Observatory (IDMO) discussed the electoral disinformation in July in its monthly report. Moreover, they also monitor the electoral campaign on Twitter weekly.
- Lavoce.info, another IFCN signatory, dedicated a special website section to the elections, with detailed analyses debunking myths on economic topics (from the flat tax to the citizenship income).
- The Mapping Italian News Research Program created a tool tracking coordinated link sharing networks on Facebook in the run-up of the 2022 general election.
- On August 3, the Italian regulator and competition authority for the communication industries (AGCOM) approved the parity regulation to be applied during the electoral campaign by television and radio programs, as well as social media. Platforms are asked to define self-regulatory procedures and ensure that “every useful initiative is taken to promote the shared and coordinated adoption of measures to combat the phenomena of disinformation and the violation of online information pluralism.” We also flag that AGCOM’s Online Disinformation Observatory page has not been updated since 2020.
- Adolfo Urso, President of the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR), which is a body of the Italian Parliament, assigned to survey and oversee the activities of the Italian intelligence agencies, denounced: “A substantial weakness of interventions to combat disinformation and the various forms of interference. A clear deficit and delay of our country concerning commitments, tools, strategies, and measures that have already been operational for some time in the international contest.”
Political parties are notably absent when it comes to anti-disinformation measures. However, it is worth mentioning that:
- The ‘centre-right’ coalition (i.e., Brothers of Italy, Forza Italia, and the League) mentioned in its framework agreement the “strengthening of cyber-security measures and systems.”
- In its program, Brothers of Italy promises to “fight against the arbitrary censorship of social networks and guarantee respect for the free expression of thought by the large communication platforms.”
- The Democratic Party’s program declared: “We want to protect people’s right to express themselves freely in a secure digital space. We want to ensure transparency on data and content brokered by large online platforms. In the wake of European regulations, we want to ensure that users of digital services have full control of their data, together with effective regulation against the abuse of artificial intelligence applications, against the interference of disinformation strategies, against forms of tracking and biometric recognition or the use of surveillance software.”
- Google (and YouTube). According to Diego Ciulli, Head of Government Affairs and Public Policy at Google, the platform has “a very solid set of systems to counter disinformation that is not designed specifically for elections but is the result of daily work.” He added that neither Google nor YouTube suffers from a big disinformation problem, which allegedly affects only 0.25% of the content.
- Meta. The company managing Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, collaborated with fact-checking organisations – i.e., Pagella Politica, Facta.News, and Open – but did not envisage additional counter-disinformation initiatives around the Italian elections. Nonetheless, Facebook users based in Italy could find a reminder about the upcoming elections on top of their feeds, redirecting them to the Ministry of the Interior’s website.
- TikTok. The Chinese social media activated an in-app Election Centre helping those interacting with electoral content to draw on reliable sources and information. A specific label is attributed to the content related to the elections and proposed by accounts belonging to politicians and parties, redirecting users to the Centre. The company also recalled that paid political announcements are not allowed, and its Community Guidelines prohibit content that presents “electoral misinformation, abuse, hateful behaviour, and violent extremism.”
- Twitter. When users search for terms related to the Italian political elections, the first result is a search notice redirecting them to a dedicated page on the official website of the Ministry of the Interior. Twitter has also launched a specific emoji, which depicts a ballot box covered with the Italian tricolour flag, which will appear on the platform every time the hashtag #ElezioniPolitiche2022 is used.
- At the end of May, an article revealed that Oleg Kostyukov (first secretary of the Russian embassy in Rome) would have allegedly asked Antonio Capuano (Matteo Salvini’s foreign policy consultant) if the League was willing to withdraw his ministers to terminate the Draghi government.
- An article by the Financial Times titled “Spectre of Russian interference hangs over Italy’s snap elections” rekindled the controversy, as the government was taken down by the three parties that have the closest ties to the Kremlin (i.e., the League, Forza Italia, and the Five Star Movement).
- To favour abstention in the run-up to the Italian elections, a confidential report from the Swiss secret services warned against the risk of Russian cyber-attacks in Western countries.
Electoral disinformation narratives
Electoral disinformation emerged since the announcement of the vote in July. Political parties did not launch anti-disinformation initiatives but have been the main spreaders of inaccuracies verified by fact-checkers. Social media plays a primary role in political communication – either genuine or deceptive – and politicians like Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi have debuted on TikTok.
Concerning the format, we flag the spreading of fake electoral surveys besides deceiving statements by parties and politicians. The most salient topics are:
- Economic issues: false and misleading statements about the flat tax, the citizenship income, and the relationship between inflation and sanctions against Russia have been made.
- Social issues: hoaxes range from the debate around the unlikely reintroduction of mandatory military service to the weaponization of the discussion the liberalisation of cannabis. Disinformation about migration abounded; for instance, fact-checkers analysed Brothers of Italy’s proposal of a naval blockade to stop migratory flows and debunked fabricated claims about migrants who already had economic subsidies upon landing.
- Environmental issues: Despite being a relatively marginal topic in Italy, it has reappeared since the debate around the use of nuclear energy came back as a solution for energetic independence. In particular, the green party Europa Verde passed as new a decade-old map to accuse the pro-nuclear energy centre-right of secretly scheming to set up nuclear power plants.
To illustrate the type of online political communication around the elections, we report two examples of borderline disinformation by running candidates:
- A tweet by Enrico Letta went viral, where the Democratic Party’s leader and former Prime Minister asked, “with bacon or pork cheek? You choose,” evoking a debate over the ingredients for carbonara sauce. Letta declared his preference for pork cheek (required by the traditional recipe), as the wording stands out of a red background that symbolises leftism, as opposed to bacon’s black background that recalls right-wing politics.
- The official account of Brothers of Italy caused indignation over victim blaming for listing a series of alleged “youth deviant behaviours” they stand against, including anorexia and obesity alongside alcohol and drug addictions.
Why so few counter-disinformation initiatives?
Overall, we noticed a worryingly low level of counter-disinformation initiatives, as if the election-related infodemic was a non-issue. The timing of the elections has played a role in this situation. In Italy, all kinds of activities stop in August, during which parties rushed to finalise coalitions, prepare their electoral programs, and organise the electoral campaign. The anticipation of the election did not leave enough time to implement pertinent counter-disinformation initiatives. This should serve as a cautionary tale on the risks of not having long-term infrastructure against false news.
- Despite rising international attention to the risks of disinformation to vote integrity, minimal initiatives have been set in Italy ahead of the elections. The topic has been overlooked by parties and politicians, despite often being hoaxes’ protagonists and targets. In addition, counter-disinformation efforts by public institutions remained almost absent. Finally, fact-checkers and platforms potentiated only slightly existing measures.
- There seemed to be a more significant debate around the topic during the 2018 elections. There was no equivalent initiative to the “task force against fake news” created in 2020 for Covid-19, despite accusations of censoring free speech and perplexities over the lack of data accessibility.
- A viable explanation is that the snap elections on September 25 left stakeholders unprepared and without a long-term infrastructure to ensure information integrity and fight disinformation. This entails negative consequences given the extreme fragmentation and polarisation of Italian politics, leaving the country vulnerable to interferences and manipulations by malign actors.
- At present, rumours about Russian influence operations remain unverified. Yet, experts are concerned that electoral disinformation might influence the results as hoaxes over salient issues can affect public opinion’s voting decisions.