Italy's Populist Party Found to Be Leader in Europe for Fake News

Beppe Grillo - H 2012

Europe is suffering a fake-news crisis of its own.

The U.S. isn’t the only country where fake news is swaying voters. While fake-news sites exist all over Europe, Italy has been pinpointed as a leader in fake news and Russian propaganda, according to a new report by Buzzfeed.

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is Italy’s answer to populism. Grillo, a former comedian with no political experience, has praised Donald Trump and compared his own movement to the Republican movement of the president-elect.

"We've become the first political movement in Italy and they didn't notice, they're only realizing it now and they're still asking themselves why. We will come to power and they will ask themselves, 'how did they do it?'" Grillo wrote on his blog, the most popular one in Italy. “They don't realize the millions of people no longer read their newspapers and don't watch their TV. This is the stuff Trump rode in on. He reached millions and millions of people. ...”

The Five Star Movement reportedly runs a network of fake-news sites spreading conspiracy theories, pro-Russian news and Five Star propaganda across the country. The sites, many of which bill themselves as independent news outlets, are relentless in their attacks against Italian center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Italians are going to the polls on Sunday to vote yes or no on Renzi’s constitutional referendum, his plan to reform Italy’s parliament in an attempt to end the chaos of its current legislative process. The Five Star party is one of its biggest opponents, as if the measure fails, Renzi has said he will step down. The Five Star party, now one of the most popular in Italy, sees a defeat of the referendum as their opportunity to take power in the country.

And just like in the U.S., many Italians are getting their daily news from fake or propaganda sites ahead of the vote. One of the party’s major sites, TzeTze, has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, and posts fake stories that make claims such as the U.S. is funding traffickers transporting North African migrants to Italy, and that President Barack Obama hopes to topple the Syrian regime to block access to oil from China.

The stories are generally sympathetic to Putin and are often sourced to Kremlin-owned sites like Sputnik. Another site, La Cosa, is billed as being an independent news source, but has mainly published party lines or articles attacking Renzi.

Buzzfeed has tracked TzeTze, La Cosa, Grillo’s blog and other sites to one tech company, Casaleggio Associati, that was set up by the party’s late co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio.

Last month, the party network widely spread a video from Kremlin outlet RT that claimed to show thousands of people protesting the referendum. The video, which was viewed 1.5 million times, was actually of people in favor of the referendum.

A party claim stating misinformation about the number of migrants taken in by Germany versus Italy was republished in conservative outlet La Stampa without question. A Grillo post of a photo of “an ocean of people ... tired,” signifying Italy’s unrest with Renzi, was actually a photo in Naples of a crowd of people waiting for the Pope. And in a now-deleted Facebook post, one conspiracy theory claimed that the government and media downgraded the damage of the earthquakes that struck Central Italy in order to reduce damage payments.

Renzi’s referendum has had a slew of support from Italian leaders and celebrities, including Roberto Benigni and Paolo Sorrentino, who have praised the minister’s commitment to the arts. A recent poll showed a quarter of Italians are undecided, a quarter believed will determine the results. In what is being billed as “Italy’s Brexit,” the ramifications of a defeat will affect all of Europe. Analysts believe that such a defeat will cause the euro to suffer a further blow amid an already shaky European economy.