Russia exploits Italian coronavirus outbreak to expand its influence

Russia takes advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to tout its largesse and question the EU’s response to the crisis

(Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab)

This article is part one in a three-part series on how international powers are seizing the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy as an opportunity to increase their influence over Europe.

When the COVID-19 outbreak reached Italy at the end of February, the country suddenly had to face an unprecedented health emergency, exacerbated by a parallel “infodemic” that has overwhelmed public discourse with rumors and disinformation. As Italians try to understand how to cope with the tragic losses caused by the pandemic, some domestic and foreign political actors have embraced the opportunity exacerbate political divisions.

Over the past three decades, the Italian political system has become increasingly unstable. There have been 19 different governments over the last 30 years, when normally a government would serve a full five-year term. The rise of populist parties during the 2018 elections, coupled with the gradual delegitimization of institutions and rampant discontent among the population, have contributed to this instability. The use of digital platforms has allowed populist parties to engage younger and wider audiences while simultaneously amplifying unverified content and disinformation narratives with ease.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy’s political and social environment provides the perfect opportunity for domestic and foreign actors to spread divisive narratives and galvanize popular discontent. Italian right-wing opposition parties, namely Lega and Fratelli d’Italia, are exploiting the pandemic to weaken the government’s approval rating with the intent of triggering new elections, while Russia and China are taking advantage of the relatively modest support offered by E.U. member countries overwhelmed by their own outbreaks to foment anti-EU, anti-NATO, and anti-US sentiment across Italy and present themselves as alternative allies.

The Italian information environment has been overwhelmed by all sorts of contradicting news, from conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, to anti-establishment memes and slogans. There are also deceiving narratives pushed by foreign powers that compete for long-term influence, with center and center-left parties mostly supporting US, EU and NATO cooperation, as Lega aligns with Russia and the Five Star Movement facilitates stronger relations with China.

“FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE”

From Russia, with love: that is how the Kremlin has branded its shipment of medical supplies and experts to Italy to help the latter deal with the COVID-19 crisis. From March 23 onward, pro-Kremlin outlets and Russian officials introduced supporting narratives that quickly spread across social media in both Russia and Italy.

Before the supplies even landed in Italy, though, Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov tweeted from his official account, “Poland did not allow Russian aircraft with humanitarian help for Italy through its airspace,” forcing the Russian cargo plane to take a much longer trajectory through Turkey. The Polish government’s prompt denial of the incident and the removal of the tweet did not prevent Pushkov’s statement from going viral on Russian news outlets and social media.

Using different sets of keywords on Buzzsumo, the DFRLab found dozens of articles reporting the statement online. The search term Польша не пропустила (translated to: “Poland didn’t let [them] through”) returned 15 articles with 52,681 engagements registered in one week.

For the search term Польша не пропустила (“Poland didn’t let [them] through”), Buzzsumo returned 15 articles that received 52,681 engagements online. (Source: DFRLab via Buzzsumo)

Using the social media monitoring platform Meltwater Explore, the DFRLab found that the news gained the largest traction on Twitter, receiving over 3,000,000 impressions.

Posts that included the keywords Польша не пропустила (“Poland didn’t let [them] through” received 3 million impressions on Twitter in one week. (Source: DFRLab via Meltwater Explore)

On March 23, the same day of the tweet, Sputnik Italia shared the alleged accusation in an article that was later updated to include Poland’s denial. The Sputnik Italia article received 107,800 engagements online over three days.

Sputnik Italia posted an article reporting Pushkov’s statement. The article was updated after Poland’s response. Over three days, the article gained 107,800 online engagements, according to Buzzsumo. (Source: DFRLab via Buzzsumo, top; DFRLab via CrowdTangle, bottom-left and bottom-right).

A video on Youtube titled “Russia tries to help Italy. But is someone mysteriously boycotting it?” was watched by more than 250,00 people and liked over 8,000 times. On social media, pro-Russian Italians started circulating similar images showing the cargo plane’s trajectory to insinuate that EU countries are posing obstacles to the countries that send help, such as Russia. The image was often combined with angry slogans against Poland and the rest of the European Union, as well as the hashtags #italexit and #uscITA, both in support of Italy leaving the EU.

“Flight trajectory of the Russian plane with supplies to Italy,” claimed one image circulated on social media. “Our European ‘brothers’ didn’t allow [the plane] in their airspace. The European dream is a NIGHTMARE.” “Poland denied access to its airspace to supply directed to Italy,” wrote another. SHAME ON EU.” Yet another version stated, “We have reached madness, sorry, but honestly we’re in disbelief of EU behavior in this moment of crisis.”

Examples of social media memes criticizing Poland and the EU for allegedly interfering with Russian aid to Italy. (Source: Facebook, left; Facebook, top center; YouTube, bottom center; Twitter, right).

While medical supplies were being shipped to Italy, the operation was strongly promoted by pro-Kremlin media in Russian and in English. These articles heavily emphasized rhetoric depicting Italy as abandoned by its allies in the European Union and United States and saved by a “benevolent” Russia. “A friend in need, a friend indeed,” wrote one. “How Russia helps Italy fight coronavirus.” And another: “The French about Russian aid to Italy: ‘Europe is not even able to help each other. Sadly, all the thanks go to Putin.’”

Examples of Russian media content pushing pro-Russian, anti-EU, and anti-US narratives in context of aid to Italy. (Source: Sports.ru, top; Baltnews.ee, bottom left; Stolica-s.su, bottom center; Tsargrad.tv, bottom right)

An article published by RT, meanwhile, quoted a former prime minister from Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, as saying that Italy turned to Russia after being “left practically alone” by the European Union. The article received 1 million impressions on Twitter over three days.

Impressions received by RT article on Twitter in one week. (Source: DFRLab via Meltwater Explorer)

Even before Russia’s decision to send medical supplies to Italy, pro-Russia supporters in Italy had started spreading similar anti-EU narratives, advocating a switch in alliances. A statement attributed to Vladimir Putin — “If Italy left Europe, it would find in Russia a trustful ally” — started spreading in Italian media and on social media. Although the statement was quickly debunked by Italian fact-checkers — Putin made it during a press conference in 2015, unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic — it still gained traction by being shared in several anti-establishment Facebook groups with large audiences, including StopEuropa.

1. News about Putin’s alleged statement, “If Italy left Europe, it would find in Russia a trustful ally,” being shared by a user in the anti-E.U. Facebook group StopEuropa; 2. The membership size of StopEuropa. At the time of the analysis, the group had 897, 227 members. 3. For the search term “L’Italia non deve temere l’Europa” (“Italy doesn’t have to fear Europe”), CrowdTangle measured 58,840 impressions in three days on public groups and pages. (Source: Facebook, top-left; Facebook, bottom-left; DFRLab via CrowdTangle, right).

Russian medical supplies to Italy were not only supported by a propaganda operation from the Kremlin; they were also warmly welcomed by pro-Putin Italians who started expressing their gratitude online via posts, videos of the landing cargo, and memes. For the keywords Grazie Putin (“Thank you, Putin”), Meltwater Explore and CrowdTangle registered 796,000 impressions on Twitter, 547,250 interactions on Facebook, and 16,492 on Instagram.

Top-right corner: example of a meme found on Instagram showing gratitude to Putin. Bottom-right corner: word cloud of Facebook public content containing “Grazie Putin.” (Source: DFRLab via CrowdTangle, top; Instagram, top-right; DFRLab via Meltwater Explorer, center; DFRLab via CrowdTangle, bottom).

Videos, memes, and images of Italians replacing the E.U. flag with the Russian flag also started circulating online. One particular video, posted on March 23, went viral on Facebook. In less than one week, it gained 567,000 views, 10,000 likes, and was shared by 44,000 users.

Left: Video posted on March 23 showing author replacing E.U. flag with the Russian flag. Right: Screenshot of video shared on Facebook public groups. (Source: Facebook, left; DFRLab via CrowdTangle, right.)

The video received so much traction that it was quickly picked up by Russian news outlets, as well as social media users outside of Russia. Some of the actors sharing the content demonstrated anti-EU sentiment; others condemned the anti-E.U. gesture. In Russia, Diplomatru.ru and 360tv.ru shared the celebratory video in two articles that gained almost 96,000 engagements on Facebook alone.

Searching “Итальянцы Заменяют Флаги” (“Italians replace flags”), Buzzsumo returned two articles published by Diplomatru.ru and 360tv.ru that gained a combined 95,900 engagements online in four days. (Source: DFRLab via Buzzsumo)

In part two of this series, the DFRLab will analyze pro-Chinese narratives in Italy, while part three will focus on domestic Italian narratives exploiting the pandemic.


Anna Pellegatta and Lukas Andriukaitis are Associate Directors of the Digital Forensic Research Lab. They are based in Brussels.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.