The Seed of Doubt. Did Russia influence the Italian elections?

“Truth is the first casualty of war.” We launched our series “Chronicles of the Infodemic” in 2020 with this famous quote as a motto. The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be fertile ground for all types of disinformation. The authors of the Chronicles successfully explained and debunked some of the most popular myths, rumors and manipulative narratives about COVID-19. The pandemic, however, was succeeded by a full-scale war in Europe and truth, again, is a casualty. Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine
on the heels of years of pro-Kremlin propaganda, which was neglected despite the warnings of experts. This is why we, at the Association of European Journalists and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, in partnership with the independent media outlet Toest, have decided to resume the Chronicles and broaden their scope to the general role of disinformation, which has been feeding the narratives of war in the recent months.

Angel Petrov

Angel Petrov has been a reporter at the Foreign News Desk of Dnevnik.bg since 2017. Previously, he was the managing editor of an English-language news agency covering Bulgaria and the Balkans. He has degrees in journalism and political science. His areas of interest include the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa, and many other places around the globe, as he believes the world keeps getting smaller: events that may seem distant and unimportant today may hit close to home tomorrow.

Russia doesn’t need its usual propaganda tools (RT, Sputnik or the “troll factories”) to reach millions of Europeans. In March of this year Italy banned the Russian outlets RT and Sputnik, yet in the beginning of May the private TV network Rete 4 aired an extensive interview with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Asked why Ukraine had to be “denazified”, given that its president Volodymyr Zelenskiyy is of Jewish origin, Lavrov responded that “Hitler had Jewish blood too” and that “the worst antisemites are Jews themselves”. 

The private Rete 4 belongs to the media empire of the former Italian prime minister (and long-standing Kremlin ally) Silvio Berlusconi, who recently stated that Putin had been “forced by the Russian people, his party and ministers” to start the “special operation” in Ukraine. After a string of such interviews with the Russian elite, the Italian authorities reacted and the media changed course, no longer providing a platform for Kremlin-related guests and narratives. 

The following months however – as well as the outcome of the recent elections in Italy, the Western European country whose attitudes to Russia most closely match Bulgaria’s – have shown that the change of editorial policy in traditional newsrooms does not solve the problem. Fears of a tough winter due to inflation and the energy crisis have brought to the forefront one of Russia’s stealthiest weapons for the infodemic age: doubt. 

From Russia with pain

Italy seems like a good place for Russian operations. During the Cold War, it had the most powerful communist party in the Western Bloc. By the end of spring 2022, more than a third of Italians saw Ukraine and the West as the biggest obstacle to peace (a record figure among the 10 countries surveyed by the European Council on Foreign Affairs), while only a little over 50% of Italians blamed Russia for the war. Advocates of Putin’s have been and are coming back in positions of power – one such example besides Berlusconi is Matteo Salvini, the president of the far-right party League (Lega, whose kinship with the pro-Kremlin “Unified Russia” has been officialized).

In comparison, the 18 months of Mario Draghi’s government were painful for Russian president Vladimir Putin, given Draghi’s staunch pro-European positions (which is why Moscow’s reaction to his resignation was to wish Italians that their next government “does not serve the interests of the USA”). In March, the Russian foreign ministry threatened Italy with “irreversible consequences” should it adopt more sanctions.

It seems that the first casualty of Russian propaganda operations were Italian media. On the Zona Bianca show where Lavrov’s interview aired, a famous Italian journalist who has fought in Donbass in the past, said the following of the killing of civilians in Bucha: “There has been a massacre in Bucha, but quite frankly, I can’t say who’s responsible. The Nazis are in Kiev, and they were installed there by some members of our government.”

As researcher Mateo Pugliese has pointed out, the Russian elite initially received a lot of uncritical airtime in Italy. And not only by Berlusconi’s Rete 4. Some of the people who have appeared on TV since the start of the war include Kremlin’s leading mouthpiece on Russia’s Channel One Vladimir Solovyov, Alexander Dugin himself, as well as the symbol of Russia’s confrontational and full of questionable claims attitude to the West: Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian foreign ministry (an Italian journalist was sent to Moscow to interview her).

Besides its own representatives, Russia also has Italian advocates on TV. The sociologist Alesandro Orsini (who opposes supplying arms to Ukraine) claims, without any proof, that mothers from Mariupol send him letters every day, asking him to publicize that Ukrainians do not want war and Italians are “crazy” to send them weapons. The public Rai 1 channel aired a “map” of the Azovstal steel works, where the last battles before Russia took full control of the city took place, and where, according to Rai 1, the US supposedly had its “biolaboratories”. The “map” in question, which was then taken on by other media, is in fact a 3D model of an unfinished board game, publicized by Russian politologist Sergey Markov.

“At first, some opinion leaders and geopolitical analysts were convinced that Russia’s actions were legitimate [believing it was provoked by NATO]”, Arije Antinori, a professor of criminology and sociology of deviance at Rome’s La Sapienza University tells me over the phone. Online information wars are one of his areas of study. “There was victimization of Russia, as well as support for its self-victimization. Some academics, commentators and politicians took part in the debate on this perspective”, he added. 

The Italian authorities reacted and Russians and their supporting acts disappeared from the air. However, disinformation did not.

Propulsion instead of propaganda

“Alternative” online media and fake news are only part of the explanation – consider the 34 blogs translating “alternative information” from the Russian outlet News Front, described in an investigative report by the analytical department of the newspaper Corriere della Sera (News Front also has a Bulgarian desk). Also aiding Russian operations was the largest network of European media website clones, spreading fake news on Ukraine, the refugees and the sanctions since February 24. Their posts were removed by Metta a week ago.  

In a report last month, the Italian parliamentary committee on security COPASIR noted there were “substantial weaknesses in the actions to counter disinformation and different forms of interference”. The report, which covers the period between February and August 2022, also states that “Italy, due to its history and geography can serve as a tool to put pressure on Euro-Atlanticism and weaken its Mediterranean vector in favor of the increasing Russian strategic presence in Northern Africa, Sahel and the Balkans.”

Maria Zakharova proved that she knows that. With her actions, she also demonstrated the weapon that current strategies are helpless against. In early September, three weeks before the parliamentary elections in Italy, Zakharova addressed Italians directly. On Telegram, she attacked the freshly adopted national plan for energy saving, claiming that the winter would be tough and cold because Italians were puppets on the strings of Washington (which was pushing Brussels’ policies). The Italian economy, she asserted, was captured and put on the path to suicide due to the “sanctions madness”, while American businesses’ electricity costs were seven times lower than their Italian counterparts. There were some Italian responses to her post. The minister of foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio called her comment “an interference” in Italy’s sovereignty (unlike Salvini, who agreed with her). 

Her words resonated strongly with the Italian media. The energy crisis emerged as the leading topic of Russian operations in Italy – not least because it’s a real issue on society’s agenda. According to an analysis by EURACTIV, it was a well articulated theme in pro-Russian posts on social media during the campaign: rising energy prices were not the doing of President Putin, but of the EU because of its arms supplies and sanctions against Russia. Even the talk of switching off gas pipelines could be weaponized.The European platform EUvsDisinfo pointed this month to a publication in L’AntiDiplomatico, which concurs with Zakharova’s opinion on the imminent “economic suicide”. 

Addressing Italians directly allows “bottom-up” access to the audience. This approach is characteristic of the 20th, not of the 21st century, prof Arije Antinori believes. He studies Twitter, Telegram and other alternative networks such as Gab, where extreme groups mix the topic of Ukraine with issues of gender, migrants and islamophobia. Only a minority of Italians are members of such groups. Do their messages reach the majority, however – especially as, in the words of prof Antinori, Russia aims at the fabric of society in an attempt “to destroy democracy from within each state itself”? The conclusion he has reached from his observations is that Russian operations do not need to influence a crowd – only a critical mass of people. 

“The problem today is not how to reach the masses”, he explains. He believes that propaganda (originating from the Latin “to spread”) is a notion belonging to the past two centuries. He prefers to talk of “propulsion”. The targets of “propulsion” are “globalized individuals”, susceptible to influence and able to form small groups in “connective” rather than “collective” communities.   

 “You don’t need to change the thoughts and actions of Italians, as Nazis did with the Germans  […] If you want to induce a reaction, you don’t need millions of people. You need only a few events, a little bit of unrest here and there – in Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Rome or France”, Antinori says. The power of the manipulator stems not from the polarization of society, but from “one of the most essential weapons for today’s scenario: doubt”. People need not be anti-government (or anti- the dominant discourse), people need not be convinced to support Russia – it is hard to keep them constantly polarized, but it’s easyr to manipulate their emotions. It’s enough to make them doubt the authorities and the political system, to make them consider whether the sanctions are hurting Italy”, Antinori concludes.

The silent third

The “doubt effect” was not obvious in the election results: support for the staunchly pro-Russian Lega waned. Did Russian operations fail to influence the elections? “They did not succeed, but they were helpful in strengthening the key players in these elections – the people who didn’t vote. More than 36% of Italians opted not to vote, while the figure for some southern regions reached 50%. More than a third of the population is not represented”, Aninori notes. These figures will probably not impress Bulgarians who are used to lower election turnouts. For Italy, however, it was a negative record.

Prof. Antinori’s research points to heightened campaign activity of groups who undermine trust in authority: not by offering opposing ideas or alternatives, but by sowing doubt. In Italy (just as in the other target territories of Russian propaganda, Germany and Estern Europe) “it is necessary to create critical mass, not mass opposition to the government”. This poses substantial risk, the professor notes, because some of these groups may claim to speak on behalf of the 36% abstaining Italian voters. 

Can Italy expect Russian pressure for lifting the sanctions and other influence operations this fall? Prof. Antinori says yes. He anticipates that in the conditions of economic crisis public attitudes on the subject may make it to the agenda of the new right-wing government. Playing with the emotions of the aforementioned “connective communities” and their influence on public opinion may prove decisive for politics in Italy in the coming months – and thus for Europe as a whole.

The series Chronicles of the Infodemic is produced in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. The views and opinions in the series are those of AEJ – Bulgaria and the authors only and do not necessarily reflect those of the foundation or its partners.

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