Why you should care

Because Italy’s experiences could hold lessons for others. 

On January 24, Pope Francis delivered an unlikely message from his seat in the Vatican, which is serviced mostly by Italian citizens. The Biblical Garden of Eden, he said, was the original source of “fake news.” Eve was a naive news recipient, the snake was a “fake news creator” and the forbidden fruit was misinformation.

Then, drawing parallels with the present, he asked journalists to “unmask what could be called the ‘snake tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place.” The Pope’s message was written for World Communications Day 2018. But it was in synchrony with a far deeper churn rippling through every segment of Italian society — and even beyond, into the hallowed halls of the Vatican.

An Italian government initiative in January to get citizens to report suspicious content they find online to a web portal drew global attention. But that’s only one element of a broader battle playing out in the country. And though the country’s March 4 elections are the immediate context for this focus on fake news, the debate is contributing to an institutionalization of measures that will last far beyond that vote.

News and ‘fake news’ on migration are being used as a political weapon.

Maria Ranieri, media education expert

Italian high schools are teaching students how to sieve out false information from what is factually accurate. In partnership with Facebook, Italian fact-checking organization Pagella Politica is analyzing news and down-voting those articles or posts identified as fake. Legislators have proposed hefty fines for the publication of fake news, as well as a law against digital hoaxes, online anonymity and hate posts on social media. And the country’s ruling center-left Democratic Party and populist Five Star Movement are locked in a war of accusations and counter-accusations centered on fake news propaganda.

“In many parts of the world, ‘centers for the production of polluting information’ have been established with the clear intention of influencing the political course of individual parties or entire electoral campaigns, including national ones,” says Democratic Party senator Monica Cirinnà. “What happened in the recent U.S. presidential elections, just to give an example, is highly disturbing.”

According to Freedom House, Italy’s internet penetration lags behind other European countries at around 65 percent of the population, but more than 91 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 surf the web. Facebook alone has 30 million subscribers in Italy. As the most frequent consumers of the internet, young Italians are particularly exposed to fake news — especially as they are also the ones most vulnerable to the impact of sensitive subjects like immigrants and Italy’s response to them.

“In the wake of the forthcoming elections, I see that news and ‘fake news’ on migration are being used as a political weapon,” says Maria Ranieri, media education expert and associate professor at the University of Florence.

A political war has erupted over fake news. The Democratic Party is urging global social media companies to better monitor their platforms ahead of the campaign, accusing the Five Star Movement of intentionally distributing false information to smear the government. The Five Star Movement, in turn, has invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the upcoming elections, painting itself as a victim of fake news.

“This is becoming a bigger and bigger problem which goes beyond standard ethics and ends up in the domain of information crime,” says Francesco Formiconi, a Senate candidate for the Five Star Movement.

The government initiative to get citizens to report fake news and then have police investigate complaints is unlikely to prove effective, says Giuseppe Federico Mennella, secretary of the Ossigeno per I’informazione (Oxygen for Information) nonprofit. It’s also dangerous, says Mennella, who’s additionally a journalist and a professor at Rome’s Tor Vergata University. “How can one think that such a delicate matter, relating to freedom of expression, freedom of speech and political speech, can be entrusted to the control of the police?” he asks.

By contrast, the large-scale media literacy program launched last October in high schools by the Education Ministry can help tackle fake news more fundamentally, experts argue. The program includes classes on how to recognize fake news and how to verify online information in 8,000 Italian schools, targeting 4 million students. “Training is one of the pillars for combating online fake news,” says Mennella. “The other two pillars are information and legislation.”

The initiative launched by Facebook and its Italian partner organization Pagella Politica is also reviewing suspicious news pieces and flagging the false ones. “We expect to make a difference in terms of the amount of false news that is spread on the social network,” says journalist and Pagella Politica director Giovanni Zagni.

Pagella Politica’s fact-checkers are also explaining reasons why they are flagging identified posts, going a step beyond what Facebook does with partners in the U.S., Netherlands, Germany and France, where fact-checkers were only tagging fake news.

This elaborate web of strategies still won’t block all fake news. The agreement between Facebook and Pagella Politica, for instance, only “covers links to news from external web pages, leaving out of its analyses images, videos, users’ original posts and potential bots or fake accounts,” points out human rights lawyer and media freedom expert Francesca Fanucci. And no amount of sieving out of fake news will stop the increasingly personalized consumption of news that lets individuals read only that which reinforces their existing opinions, prejudices, fears and beliefs, cautions Fanucci.

All of which is why Ranieri believes media education is critical as part of a wider strategy to fight the spread of fake news. If the high school program succeeds, Italy’s challenge with fake news may be less acute by the time it next faces elections.

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