Russian propaganda finds a home in Italian media

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In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump authorized a cyber attack on Russian government-backed trolls and hackers seeking to interfere in the US midterm elections. In 2020, the Biden administration sanctioned Russian entities and individuals for similar efforts.

In both cases, the Russians took advantage of the divisions in American society and sought to amplify a growing partisan divide and erode faith in the democratic process through trolls, fake websites and internet-based fronts.

But what if, in horror movie style, the enemy was already in the house – like the American news media? yourself was a shill for Russian propaganda? Such is the case in parts of Europe – most visibly in Italy, which has become a haven for Russian disinformation and propaganda since the invasion of Ukraine.

In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump authorized a cyber attack on Russian government-backed trolls and hackers seeking to interfere in the US midterm elections. In 2020, the Biden administration sanctioned Russian entities and individuals for similar efforts.

In both cases, the Russians took advantage of the divisions in American society and sought to amplify a growing partisan divide and erode faith in the democratic process through trolls, fake websites and internet-based fronts.

But what if, in horror movie style, the enemy was already in the house – like the American news media? yourself was a shill for Russian propaganda? Such is the case in parts of Europe – most visibly in Italy, which has become a haven for Russian disinformation and propaganda since the invasion of Ukraine.

Those following Russia’s war in Ukraine were particularly astonished when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, generally seen in Western capitals as a smooth operator who lacks some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grosser tics, announced that it was perfectly consistent for Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to lead a neo-Nazi junta because, Lavrov explained, former Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” and some of the “fervent anti-Semites are.” mostly Jews”.

But buried in the coverage of this terrifying rant was the fact that Lavrov was interviewed on Zona Bianca— a talk show on Rete 4, a private station owned by Mediaset of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — and whose interviewer, Giuseppe Brindisi, did little more than throw softballs at Putin’s henchman as he made these incredible statements. Brindisi indeed ended the interview with a heartfelt “buon lavoro‘, according to Decode39, an Italian research institution, a greeting that resembles ‘good luck with your work’.

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While the Lavrov interview was a remarkable and widely publicized moment, it was just the tip of the Italian iceberg. Russian propagandists and sympathizers have found a home in the Italian media and have had a significant impact on public opinion in that country. A report in one code newsletter (following misinformation) just months after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, featured numerous instances of pro-Russian or Russian-influenced news masquerading as fact. A prominent presenter on Rete 4 described a terrible Russian massacre of Ukrainians: “There was a massacre in Bucha, [Ukraine], but I honestly can’t say who did it. … The Nazis are in Kiev.”

The problem is also not limited to the so-called conservative Italian channels. State news channel Rai reported on the first attacks on the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant (where tensions are currently rising) as a result of Ukrainian ‘sabotage’. (There is little doubt that Russia was behind the “sabotage.”)

In addition to the pro-Kremlin news anchors and presenters, Italian television has generously and repeatedly provided a platform for Putin’s cronies, but not in the interests of balance, as pro-Ukrainian regulars have complained on Italian television that they were being left out. in favor of Russophiles.

Prefer details Matteo Pugliese, a researcher at the Italian Institute of International Political Studies, Italian TV is simply providing a judgment-free zone for people like Putin’s resident philosopher Alexander Dugin (whose daughter, Darya Dugina, was recently murdered in what many Russian observers believe was a false flag operation), the Crimean journalist Yulia Vitazyeva, supported by the Federal Security Service, and a list of Russian statesmen too long to reprint. (The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab noted that “Italy was the prime location for Twitter accounts using the hashtag #Dugina in reference to Darya Dugina’s death.”)

This flood of Russian propaganda and propagandists in Italy is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the Italian government (as part of a European Union decision) has banned the Russian channels RT and Sputnik. But even without Kremlin-led media coverage in Italy, Moscow’s messages linger.

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Putin is not the first Russian to capture the Italian imagination. During the Cold War, Italy had the largest communist party in Europe. And the anti-Americanism that became fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s ran deeper in Italy, forging ever closer business and academic ties to the Soviet Union. “Italia-URSS” (Italy-USSR) clubs were ubiquitous, especially by Italian intellectuals. A recent study details the post-World War II Italian Communist Party’s efforts to invade Italy’s cultural institutions (after abandoning the idea of ​​a proletarian revolution as an unlikely prospect), and ultimately the highest levels of Italian politics , publishing and research. (The study is shocking to read, unfortunately only easily accessible in Italian.)

With this history, it should come as no surprise that a survey by Europe’s European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) this year found that Italians were the most sympathetic to Russia of all the countries surveyed. For the question “Who is mainly responsible for the outbreak of the war in Ukraine?” only 56 percent of Italians surveyed blamed Russia – the lowest number in Europe – and 27 percent blamed “Ukraine, the EU or the US” Ditto for the question “which country poses the biggest obstacle to peace between Russia and Ukraine?” – with 39 percent of Italians blaming Russia (again the lowest percentage in Europe), and an almost equal 35 percent blaming “Ukraine, the EU or the US”

(From Washington’s perspective, the ECFR survey highlighted another issue in NATO ally Italy’s audience: When asked “Should your country spend more on defense now given the war in Ukraine?”, only 14 percent of Italians answered. yes, again the lowest number in Europe.)

Twitter is another force bolstering pro-Russian propaganda in Italy. A study in the Italian edition of rolling stone revealed a “ferocious and pervasive” network of both real and bot accounts promoting the Russian – or Z or Zeta – story. (Z is the Russia-adopted symbol of the war in Ukraine.) Using a rigorous system of filtering and cross-referencing retweets, hashtags, users and posts – while underlining that supporting Russia and its actions in Ukraine is not illegal – the author, Alex Orlowski, reduced the Italian pro-Z Twitter phenomenon to 250,000 users. That’s a quarter of a million people – no small potatoes in a country of only 60 million people.

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The pinnacle of Orlowski’s list of most followed, most fortified accounts — more than the account of the Russian embassy in Rome — is the Twitter account of pro-Kremlin Member of the European Parliament Francesca Donato. Donato, once a member of Italy’s right-wing Lega (ex-Lega Nord) party, left the party in protest at the EU-wide COVID-19 vaccine certification system, and she was subsequently expelled from her Identity and Democracy Party in the European Parliament after rejecting condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Donato is far from the only Italian politician who shuns Moscow. Her former colleagues in the Lega, including former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, are well-known apologists for the Kremlin. Like politician Marine Le Pen in France, Salvini has not kept his sympathy secret; the Italian press reported in May that secret meetings between Salvini’s envoys and the Russian embassy were likely aimed at destabilizing the current Mario Draghi government. Indeed, along with the pro-Russian Five Star Movement, the Lega, praising its opposition to Italian military aid to Ukraine, toppled Draghi not long after.

The issue of Italian aid to Ukraine may well have been the cause of the fall of the technocratic Draghi unity government. But with the elections scheduled for September 25, leader Giorgia Meloni, head of the Brothers of Italy party, has reiterated her support for Ukraine. This isn’t often seen with the other agents of Draghi’s downfall, Salvini’s Lega, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, and the fading Five Star Movement.

What will that mean if Italy’s infamous coalition-building process begins in the aftermath of the election? It’s a gamble, but one thing’s for sure: the soil in Italy is fertile for an even bigger swing to Moscow.

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