Recent examples from Italy:
- Pictures on websites that falsely captioned a government minister’s appearance at a funeral of Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina, the notorious Mafia boss, who died recently. The websites support the Five Star Movement, a web-savvy anti-establishment party.
- A video of former prime minister Matteo Renzi at an old news conference with President Putin of Russia: A false translation of Mr. Putin’s Russian made it seem as if he were blaming the Italian government for the national soccer team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.
- A senator from the Northern League, a right-leaning party, posted on Facebook—which was subsequently shared 18,000 times–a picture of a man identified as a government official’s brother whose “no show” job, paid 47,000 euros ($55,000) a month. The man in the image was not the brother, and the allegations were untrue.
False information and false captions are becoming child’s play in the digital world; fake news is evolving faster than methods to combat it. Fact checking is no longer enough to counteract the many strategies out there. Fake news is easy to create and very difficult to combat.
Even in the murky world of internet subterfuge, content is sometimes easier to understand than where the content comes from. Recently, an investigation by BuzzFeed, an American internet media company, unveiled a galaxy of websites and Facebook pages from the one family-run business, Web365, out of Rome, with only 6 employees and a handful of “journalists.” On Facebook—Direttanews.it and iNews24.it—have more followers than the mainstream media. The content from the entire network? Articles against immigrants, nationalistic rants, and even religious hoaxes with sensationalistic headlines like “10 minutes and the tumor disappears.”
The strategies are varied and growing. Some sites subtly mix real news with plausible, but erroneous, information. Many use headlines that grab attention. Much of the disinformation is politically motivated. Some of it is motivated by “click baiting,” the technique of constructing sensationalist headlines to catch the clicks of users and the profits that ensue. Some sites are motivated by both. When Facebook shut down the pages for Direttanews and iNews24, a member of the family that runs the empire, said the content was “merely intended to attract clicks in a country fed up with the Democratic Party’s government.”
As elections approach in Italy, Mr. Renzi is obviously very concerned about these fake news sites. An analysis of Google codes has revealed an apparent connection between seemingly unrelated sites promoting anti-establishment political movements critical of Mr. Renzi and the current government. The official web page of a movement promoting Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega party, shares unique codes with a page supporting the Five Star Movement. These parties are not allied; they are even considered rivals. But they share an interest in advancing the pro-Russia, anti-establishment and anti-immigrant agenda that has made the Five Star Movement the most popular party in Italy. Any connection has not been verified.
But what is true is that sites that have been shut down learn to adapt and reappear. No more invented sensationalistic news, but real news, copied in whole from national daily newspapers. But with a twist. For example, “Pensions, the Cgil [a trade union] again rejects the last proposal of the government” reproduced completely from La Repubblica, to which is added a little introductory paragraph: “Camusso [from the trade union] f…s gentiloni on pensions,” with lewd language and the name of the Premier written in small letters.
The campaigns on all fronts continue….