News Brief

In the fight against fake news, Italy is losing – badly

As the European Union elections draw nearer, new breeding grounds for disinformation are forming, especially in Italy.

Facebook announced Sunday it had taken down 23 Italian Facebook pages with a combined reach of 2.46 million followers known to be disseminating fake messages. Many were run by automated accounts and were determined to be spreading “false information and divisive content,” according to the company.

Last month the European Commission urged tech giants Google, Facebook and Twitter to do more to combat fake news ahead of the elections. The companies promised action.

But the social media giants are still losing – badly.

A report published by SafeGuardCyber last week showed during just one week in March, up to 241 million Europeans – just under half the population of the EU – had been exposed to content spread by disinformation actors on social media sites.

The Facebook cull in Italy came in after the May 11 publication of a report by Avaaz, the U.S. advocacy non-profit organization, that identified 104 Italian Facebook pages and six groups with a total of 18.2 million followers.

The most active group Avaaz identified was in support of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement, and had some 129,000 followers. One example of false information the page spread was a made-up quote falsely attributed to prominent Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, saying that he “would prefer to save migrants than Italian earthquake victims.” It was designed to create animosity and division between people on either side of the migration debate.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and the federal secretary of the far-right Northern League, is a leading proponent of spreading false or misleading information in his torrent of daily social media posts. He regularly refers to Italy’s migrants as “fake refugees.”

This week, Salvini dodged questions on Facebook’s closures of the 23 disinformation pages, many of which supported his own party. In response he said: “the real fake news I read is in the official newspapers.”

Facebook’s cull of Italy’s fake news pages coincides with the announcement of the closure of one of the country’s most prominent and ubiquitous public service broadcasters.

On Wednesday, the government confirmed the closure of Radio Radicale, a legacy public radio station. Many critics have called the closure a betrayal of Italy’s free press. “A critical and free voice is turned off a few days before the European elections,” Emma Bonino, Italy’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, tweeted. “A disturbingly-timed coincidence, perfectly consistent with these dark times.”