#ElectionWatch: Echo Campaigns and Electoral Results in Italy

How foreign influencers amplified the Italian political debate on websites and social media

(Source: Facebook / Il blog delle Stelle)

Prior to nationwide elections on March 4, @DFRLab published analysis outlining the complex relations between Italian political parties and the Kremlin. In the wake of foreign interference in domestic elections across Europe and the United States, a pressing debate continued over how these relations may impact Italy’s nationwide vote.

However, links between political actors are not the only channel through which foreign influence can potentially spread. The internet offers a new environment of less conventional, but perhaps more effective, channels to disseminate information and, therefore, disinformation. Social media pages, news blogs, and other types of websites have become the easiest and quickest means to promote a message, whether a traditional political program or malicious propaganda.

Ahead of the March 4 Italian elections, many expressed concern that an influence campaign from Russia could affect Italian voters’ political choices. Yet it is much more difficult to determine and measure how online (dis)information actually changes individuals’ ideas. This challenge is exacerbated because internet users often tend to engage with accounts, pages, and news providers that reaffirm their already strong opinions — the so-called echo chamber phenomenon.

A graphic illustrating the ‘echo chamber’ phenomenon. (Source: Pew Research Center)

Greater awareness of what kind of content exists online, and how different platforms can be manipulated to propagate certain narratives, is key to building resilience to these types of influence campaigns.

In the Italian case, Facebook, for example, is loaded with pro-Russian user content. Pages like Figli di Putin, Figli di Putin II, Vladimir Putin é il mio Presidente, Putin Team Italia, We Love Lavrov, Russia Community, Vladimir Putin Italian Fun Club 2.0, and others appeared to be vehicles made in Italy to promote Putin’s narratives surrounding the Italian political space.

Figli di Putin (Putin’s Sons) has 374,761 followers, Figli di Putin II has 3,817, and Vladimir Putin Italian Fun Club 2.0 has 38,067 followers. These three pages mainly shared satirical pictures glorifying the Russian President’s “maschismo” (masculinity), accompanied by videos and posts with political subtexts favoring Russian positions. The content draws a thin line between parody and propaganda. However, the memes and merchandise peddled have the impact of content that is accessible, relatable, and pro-Kremlin.

Translation from Italian: “In Russia the cold shakes in front of Vladimir!”; “One thing is for sure: today Italians will blow away 5 years of ‘radical chic’ narratives”. (Source: Facebook)

Pro-Russia news articles were posted more frequently on Putin Team Italia, We Love Lavrov, and Russia Community (108,728 followers). Putin Team Italia (93,839 followers) linked to a news blog called Putin Mania; We Love Lavrov (40,862 followers) connected to Italia e Russia Unite; and Vladimir Putin é il mio Presidente (“Vladimir Putin is my president”, 68,040 followers) redirected to a blog called Klepsydra Magazine.

Translation from Italian: “#Putin at the forum on media: ’If I could change history? I’d prevent the fall of the Soviet Union’”; “Matteo Salvini (Lega): ‘With us at the government stop to anti-Russia sanctions, they hurt our country and we’ll recognize Crimea as part of Russia.’” (Source: Facebook)

“Vladimir Putin é il mio Presidente” propagated stories most frequently from Russia state-owned media outlet Sputnik Italia, which enjoyed an uptick in traffic — measured in social media engagement — prior to the Italian vote.

Translation from Italian: “Syria, Russian embassy: Washington should not use excuses to attack“; “Putin’s message: “now you’ll listen to us”“. (Source: Facebook)

In an effort to shape Italian public opinion, these pro-Russian pages on Facebook also shared a multitude of articles from dozens of other controversial news sources. Among the others were controinformazione.info, opinione-pubblica.com, as well as oltrelalinea.com and lantidiplomatico.it , which @DFRLab highlighted in a previous report.

Translation from Italian (from top-left to bottom-right): “Secret report: U.S. secret service couldn’t poison Putin”; “Russia alarms against the ‘unacceptable’ foreign interferences in Iran”; “The dirty war of the West against Russia”; “Security, Lavrov: “Western countries turn a blind eye to terrorists’ chemical weapons””. (Source: Facebook)

La Stampa Report

More traditional Italian news outlets have tried to investigate the online information environment looking for foreign influence on Italian voters. In February, the daily newspaper La Stampa published an article entitled “This is how pro-Russia social propaganda is trying to influence the Italian vote” (translated). According to La Stampa, Russians tried to intervene in the political debate in Italy ahead of the elections through Twitter. On social media, La Stampa identified five accounts that, inactive until 2015, had shared a total of 160,000 tweets in support of the Five Star Movement and Lega in the two years prior to the vote.

La Stampa asserted that the boost in the frequency of posts since 2015, along with the type of content and interactions (i.e. political, pro-Five Star, often Sputnik sourced) raised suspicion over the accounts.

Three of the five accounts identified were shut down by Twitter Public Policy the day after La Stampa published the article, while the other two accounts, @DoctorWho744 and @FrancoSuSarellu, remained active today. As La Stampa described, the high number of tweets from both accounts was suspicious, especially when compared to the proportionally low number of followers.

(Source: Twitter / @DoctorWho744, @FrancoSuSarellu)

In fact, Vladimir74 and Franco Sussarellu attacked the far right Lega party headed by Matteo Salvini even more often than La Stampa claimed, with both satirical and political posts.

Translation from Italian, left to right: “Did Salvini leave?”; “Lega and Forza Italia voted the criminal European TREATY“. (Source: Twitter)

Along with what appeared to be automated messages, the same Twitter accounts also had “human-like” interactions, including responses to other accounts, comments, and original captions.

@DoctorWho744 — Example of non-original content. (Source: Twitter)
@DoctorWho744 — Example of human-like interactions. “Replying to @serebellardinel #Zucconi could realistically be a street cleaner, for sure he knows how to clean any kind of waste“; “Replying to @sputnik_italia Of Course I’m going to vote, it’s the last right left to our people“. (Source: Twitter)

According to the reporter responsible for the article, La Stampa knew the identity of at least one of the owners of the identified accounts, but decided not to release it.

Sky TG24

This week, Sky TG24 also released a report explaining how a network of foreign news outlets linked to international alt-right groups allegedly supported the campaign of Matteo Salvini — the leader of Italy’s far-right Lega party. This international network particularly focused on spreading anti-immigration and anti-European Union narratives, which aligned with Salvini’s political program.

Sky TG24 identified alt-right news blogs including Breitbart in the United States (921,000 followers on Twitter), pro-Russian social media accounts and news sources like Voice of Europe (192,000 followers on Twitter), and UK YouTube influences such as Paul Joseph Watson (823,000 followers on Twitter, 1.1 million subscribers on his Youtube channel).

(Source: Twitter / @V_of_Europe)

While Voice of Europe referred to Salvini as “Italy’s Trump“, Breitbart News reported how Steve Bannon — former Executive Chairman of Breitbart and Trump’s former Chief Strategist — was in Italy for the election day “to lend his support to the growing anti-establishment and Euro-skeptic movement that cuts across party lines.” These different online profiles retweet and repost each other on a daily basis, echoing and increasing the resonance of their messages.

How biased is your News Source? (Source: MarketWatch)

The retweeted sources of Voice of Europe include, for example, breitbart.com, RT, Sputnik, and Daily Express. Breitbart wrote about the YouTube star Paul Joseph Watson, who is coincidentally also the editor at Infowars, owned by Alex Jones. On Youtube, Alex Jones appeared to be linked to the channel of Gefira, which in turn appears among the sources of anti-immigration articles published by Voice of Europe. The network also included right-wing journalists like Peter Sweden, activists like Tommy Robinson, and what Sky TG24 identified as bots, such as the account @Juliet777777. As demonstrated below, all of these accounts amplified each other content reached millions of people online.

From top-right to bottom left: Voice of Europe, Breitbart News, Paul Joseph Watson, Peter Sweden, Juliet777777, RT UK. (Source: Twitter)

The anti-immigration and anti-EU narratives promoted by this international network are particularly consequential as they permeated an Italian public already divided over hostility toward migration flows into their country and doubts over the EU’s effects on Italy’s economy.

Public opinion polls demonstrating Italians’ views toward immigration and EU membership. (Source: Bloomberg)

Italy’s election day was on Sunday. And as the scrutineers are still counting the votes, a victory of the two populist parties, Five Star Movement and Lega is apparent. Five Star Movement is the first party in the country, collecting around 30 percent of the votes, while Salvini surpassed Berlusconi within the right-wing coalition. According to the current polls, Lega and Forza Italia collected respectively around 18 percent and 14 percent.

What does the “alt” or “far” right international network mentioned above have to say about these results? The following posts on Twitter are pretty self-explanatory.

From top-left to bottom-right: Paul Joseph Watson; Voice of Europe; Daily Express; Sputnik; Brexit Home; Voice of Europe. (Source: Twitter)
From top-left to bottom-right: @Juliet777777; Brexit Future (article by Breitbart.com); Voice of Europe; Paul Joseph Watson (article by RT); Paul Joseph Watson; @Juliet777777. (Source: Twitter)

Other anti-establishment international characters, such as Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, congratulated with the winners of the Italian elections.

(Source: Twitter / @JulianAssange)

Alto Data Analytics

Along these lines, the global big data and artificial intelligence agency Alto Data Analytics released a study this week titled “The construction of anti-immigration electoral messages in Italy“. Alto’s study analyzed 98,191 online users that posted over one million comments between February 1 and July 31, 2017.

Regarding the debate around immigration, the study shows how online users tended to fall into two opposing communities: one pro-immigration and the other anti-immigration.

(Source: Alto Analytics)

Alto’s data scientists used the company-developed software, Alto Analyzer, to determine which international media outlets have the highest degree of influence in the Italian political debate, discovering Sputnik Italia in second position on this issue. Alto’s software found that Sputnik’s rhetoric aligned with the political positions of individuals belonging to the anti-immigration community, which was also the group distributing and amplifying the most Sputnik content, thus responsible for the uptick in web traffic prior to the elections.

Conclusions

Although it remains difficult to determine if and how foreign propaganda and political narratives influenced the Italian voters ahead of the 2018 nationwide elections, it is clear that foreign actors played a role in amplifying anti-immigration and anti-EU messages online. Regardless of whether this was part of a carefully-orchestrated strategy to spread disinformation and influence the Italian electorate or simply a natural evolution of Italian political opinions, the promotion of these narratives online boosted populist parties and sentiments in Italy and beyond.


Anna Pellegatta is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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