The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the war against election interference, Italy experiments with new approaches

President Trump continues to insist the Democrats are responsible for any story relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The 37-page indictment issued by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team last Friday may have revealed the details of Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. But to some, what appeared even more striking were the details about just how vulnerable the United States had become to such — sometimes barely disguised — attempts to sway public opinion.

On page 24 of the indictment, one of the defendants, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, is quoted with a worrisome assertion, made in September 2017: “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”

Even though the admission only occupied one line in the lengthy indictment, some saw it as “an essential, embarrassing insight into American life: large numbers of Americans are ill-equipped to assess the credibility of the things they read,” the New Yorker's Evan Osnos summarized.

While some in the U.S. government still appear unwilling to fully confront the problem, other countries are now leading the way in developing possible solutions. With elections coming up in March, Italy has emerged on the forefront of European efforts to stop interference.

In an extensive report late last fall, the Atlantic Council think tank concluded that Russia’s influence may be strongest in Italy, where the highest-polling populist Five Star Movement has attracted both right-wing and left-wing supporters. “The party’s documented pro-Kremlin stance combined with its grassroots mobilization capacity make it a particularly important ally for the Kremlin, and thus a dangerous force against the E.U., NATO, and the transatlantic partnership,” they write, even though a direct link between the Kremlin and the Five Star Movement has never been proved and a recent increase in bot activity there has so far not been directly traced back to Russia.

But while the use of bots itself may be impossible to root out, one of the lessons Italy has learned from the 2016 U.S. elections is exactly the one now publicly accessible in Robert S. Mueller III's indictment: Voters from Rome to San Francisco are probably ill-prepared for the risks of the digital age.

Italy has decided to do something about it.

Internet-literacy lessons

Last fall, less than one year after the U.S. election, the country launched a scheme at 8,000 schools to teach students about how to distinguish between fake and real news in an experiment supported by social networks such as Facebook.

“Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily Web diet, and we end up infected without even realizing it,” Laura Boldrini, the independent president of Italy’s lower house of Parliament, told the New York Times last year. “It’s only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies,” she said.

Some of the lessons Italian high school students are learning are simple but could turn out to be effective. Their assignments include distinguishing between real URLs of news sites and modified URLs linking to fakes, designed to trick users into believing they’re on more well-known websites, for instance.

Criminal charges

As Italy's government has made the fight against foreign election meddling a priority, other authorities have also stepped up their efforts to combat the phenomenon. Italians can report alleged fake news through an online service, which is directly connected with the country’s police. Analysts then evaluate the authenticity of the reported posts or websites and can pursue possible criminal charges. The idea has come under criticism, however, as some fear a threat to the freedom of expression.

The German government has faced similar allegations after it introduced a law earlier this year that forces social networks to take offensive content down or face major fines. Despite such concerns, France is also in the process of drafting a separate bill to limit the spreading of fake news during election campaigns.

The Czech Republic recently established a dedicated anti-fake news department but decided against censoring or taking down websites spreading fake news. Instead, the Prague-based center has relied on mass media to pick up its tweets or statements to debunk misleading online reports. The problem with that idea, however, is that many of the estimated 25 percent of Czechs who read websites accused of spreading fake news have stopped consuming mainstream media where those corrections usually appear.

Fact checking

Fearing similar issues in Italy, Rome hopes that social networks themselves will make it easier for users to come across verified reporting. As my colleague Anna Momigliano wrote earlier this month, Facebook has tasked a team of independent fact checkers in Italy to hunt down and debunk fake news on the social network ahead of the March 4 vote.

The fact-checking program, which launched the week of Feb. 5 and will run at least until the end of 2018, is the fifth anti-hoax experiment Facebook has launched in various countries over the past few years, and is in response to the 2016 U.S. elections. But this is the first time that professional fact-checkers will have a “proactive role” in finding hoaxes circulating on the site, a Facebook representative told The Washington Post earlier this month.
Similar tools were launched in Germany in January 2017, in France the following month and in the Netherlands in March — all three countries held elections that year. But for the first time, Italian fact-checkers are actively searching for fake news instead of relying on alerts from users.

Northern Europe has long watched scandal-ridden Italian politics as a role model for how things can go wrong, but in the lead-up to the March 4 parliamentary election, there may be some valuable lessons to be learned.

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