As COVID-19 overwhelms Italy, nationalist media outlets see opportunity to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment
Like other countries experiencing outbreaks of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Italy is also seeing an upsurge in narratives related to the health, economic, and political implications of the pandemic. Among this information chaos, a number of narratives targeting African immigrants have surfaced on some Italian media outlets, garnering significant engagement online.
Immigration policy is an ongoing debate in Italian politics, especially given the recent ascent of far-right populist parties that employ explicit anti-immigrant rhetoric. Now in the wake of COVID-19, some pro-right media outlets are using the coronavirus panic to feed existing anti-immigrant sentiment across the country.
Identifying the narratives
The DFRLab conducted a search of recent articles from across Italian media referencing immigration and COVID-19, then analyzed the ones that appeared to exploit the coronavirus panic while embracing the strongest anti-immigrant arguments, as well as those that led to spiked anti-immigration sentiment among readers. Across these articles, the DFRLab identified three main narratives:
1. The Italian government and nongovernmental organizations are encouraging new arrivals of immigrants in the South, despite the fact that Italians are suffering from the COVID-19 outbreak.
2. Recent Italian governments have cut public healthcare funding while increasing funding to help immigrants, but if they had done the reverse, the crisis could have been averted.
3. Despite the high number of immigrants allowed to land in the country, only a small percentage have been tested for COVID-19.
Next, the DFRLab used the social media monitoring tool BuzzSumo to measure the levels of online engagement of four widely distributed articles reflecting these anti-immigrant narratives. As shown in the image below, the four articles registered over 260,000 engagements across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. This number does not include readers that accessed the articles directly on the platforms hosting them, but indicates exclusively people who reacted to, shared, and/or commented on the posts that linked to these articles online.
In particular, the most popular articles were shared by StopCensura.info, Il Giornale, and Il Primato Nazionale. Il Giornale is a prominent pro-right newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family since 1977 and a supporter of right-wing parties. StopCensura.info is often listed among online platforms spreading far-right messages and anti-immigration disinformation, while Il Primato Nazionale appears in Alto Analytics’ assessment of the Italian information landscape ahead of 2019 EU Parliamentary elections as a right-leaning news blog.
Following its initial assessment, the DFRLab searched on BuzzSumo for combinations of keywords that would match the word coronavirus with different terms, from the most neutral migranti (“migrants”) and rifugiati (“refugees”) to the more biased terms immigrati (“immigrants”), clandestini (“illegal immigrants”), and invasori (“invaders”).
The keywords rifugiati and invasori did not return any significant results on BuzzSumo, with only a few articles that received little engagement. The neutral term migranti returned the most results, with 368 articles analyzed and 1,648,454 total engagements on social media. These results, however, included all kind of news, including reporting on several politicians’ statements and on migrants’ landing preceding the COVID-19 outbreak.
In contrast, the search results obtained by using the keyword combination coronavirus migranti were strongly dominated by Il Giornale, StopCensura.info, Libero, and other pro-right media outlets, comprising roughly 75 percent of online engagements. This would suggest that the current outbreak has not stopped pro-right media from pursuing anti-immigrant narratives.
The second combination of keywords that returned significant results was coronavirus immigrati, which identified 47 articles that garnered 202,271 engagements across online social media platforms. As suggested by the BuzzSumo graph below, StopCensura.info highly dominated these narratives, with over 174,100 engagements across online platforms, followed by Il Primato Nazionale with 11,600 engagements.
BuzzSumo also showed that at the time of research, the five most engaged-with articles in this keyword set shared one of the three anti-immigrants narratives identified by the DFRLab at the beginning of this article. In particular, the first and third article weighed in on the narrative regarding Italy’s national budget being used to support migrants instead of the national healthcare system, as well as around migrants claiming more financial support (in this case, housing) from the Italian government while Italy was weathering the coronavirus crisis.
The second and fourth most engaged-with articles, both from StopCensura.info, used misleading titles and content to fuel hate against migrants. Specifically, they used deceiving language to report on two statements from officials. The first statement, released by Matteo Orfini of the Italian Democratic Party, related to policies to stop the immigration crisis in Libya. The second, by Jacqueline Weekers, director of migration health at the UN’s International Organization for Migration, encouraged the world to stop discriminating against migrants, including in the context of public health. The StopCensura.info articles incorrectly claimed that the statements invited people to “forget about Coronavirus” and prioritize migrants’ issues over Italians’ struggles.
Lastly, the article published by the far-right media outlet Il Primato Nazionale argued that only a small fraction immigrants recently landed in Pozzallo, Italy were tested for the new coronavirus, implying that those not tested could be carriers and a public health threat. By making this implication, the narrative exploited domestic panic about COVID-19 to intensify Italians’ fears and suspicion against African immigrants.
The most biased and derogatory of the search terms, clandestini (“clandestines,” akin to the term “illegal immigrants” in English), returned a total of 18 articles and 104,981 total engagements. While three articles from StopCensura.info, Il Primato Nazionale, and Libero individually gained the highest number of engagements, the keyword analysis was strongly dominated by articles published by Rassegne Italia, with a total of 36,500 engagements.
Additionally, Rassegne Italia has a Facebook page with more than 35,500 followers. In May 2019, when Facebook took down 23 assets for spreading hate and disinformation online, the activist group Avaaz included Rassegne Italia in a list of 80 assets still active online that spread defamatory content and racial hate.
In this case, the most engaged-with articles from Rassegne Italia claimed that the coronavirus would not stop an immigration “invasion.” It also noted, “Northern Italy is locked down due to coronavirus, Pozzallo [Sicily] has an open harbor for illegal immigrants,” while “only 45 illegal immigrants over 276 were tested for coronavirus.”
In the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, Italy has found a renewed national pride and an increased incentive for collaboration among citizens. And yet, as political forces from all sides face the dramatic impact of the outbreak, some media outlets continue to exploit the rampant fear and panic to boost anti-immigrant sentiment.
Lukas Andriukaitis is Associate Director at the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Anna Pellegatta is Associate Director at the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
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