Italy too struggling with spread of fake news

Luminosity Italia

It isn’t just America struggling with the spread of fake news, or in the most recent parlance, “alternative facts”.

On Feb. 2 Italian newspaper publishers called for government help in stopping the spread of fake news following a meeting at the Rome headquarters of their federation.

“The government should promote consultation among all professionals in the news and online content production and distribution chain to define a series of guidelines aimed at curbing fake news and placing value on quality information,” Ruben Razzante, a professor of information and communication law at Catholic University of Milan, told the conference.

Lorenzo Sassoli de Bianchi, president of the advertiser association UPA, said “an authority at the European level is needed”.

“In the meantime a self-regulating body could be created through the advertising institute. It could be a rapid and effective solution,” he added.

Maurizio Costa, president of the Italian Newspaper Publishers Federation, said a self-regulating authority “could certainly be useful”.

“There needs to be a regulation that ensures transparency and competition,” he said.

Like many countries in the West, fake news is spread online in Italy by websites using sometimes fabricated or sensational stories to drive Internet traffic that generates clicks and revenues.

And as in the U.S., some sites advance a political agenda while making money from online page views.

One group in particular is in the spotlight for its Web-based approach to politics: Italy’s populist Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, who claims clicks — not conventional ballots — reflect the real wishes of party members. Candidates for office are vetted through registration on the blog that carries his name.

Grillo, whose party is associated with a complex web of online sites, has long disputed traditional media. He created a firestorm in January when he claimed traditional media is the culprit in spreading fake news.

Flag of Five Star Movement
The Five Star Movement flag carries the Internet domain for Beppe Grillo.

Noted journalist Beppe Severgnini, op-ed columnist for Italy’s biggest newspaper Corriere della Sera as well as a contributor to the New York Times and other English-language press, told National Public Radio in the U.S. that instead it is the Five Star Movement that traffics in fake news.

“Grillo says that the biggest producer of fake news are the official media in Italy. And some of us didn’t like it at all because, in fact, he’s quite active in spreading fake news,” said Severgnini.

“Recently they published a story entitled ‘Is the U.S. covertly funding migrant traffickers to Italy?’ accusing America of having an international plot to bring thousands of desperate migrants from Africa to weaken the European Union or Italy,” Severgnini said. “It's crazy.”

Enrico Mentana, news director of Italy’s TG La7 channel, said he would sue the comedian.

According to the New York Times, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi privately discussed the spread of fake news with other European leaders and then-President Barack Obama at a meeting in Berlin last November.

Renzi, who still heads the Democratic Party in Italy, recently remarked that the Five Star Movement “is just an algorithm”.

Buzzfeed and the Italian newspaper La Stampa recently reported that blogs, social media accounts and websites in Russia connected to the Five Star Movement were spreading fake news harmful to Renzi across their virtual networks, said the Times.

Laura Boldrini, speaker of Italy's lower house of parliament, said fake news is a growing problem in Italy.

“Fake news is a critical issue and we can’t ignore it,” she said. “We have to act now.”

The Five Star Movement was co-founded Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio, an entrepreneur who died last year. Casaleggio’s Internet and publishing company Casaleggio Associati controls several popular websites that reportedly pick up sensational reports found on Sputnik Italia, an Italian version of a Kremlin-created website that projects the views of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One of the Casaleggio websites, called Tze Tze, has well over a million Facebook followers.