Moves afoot to help Italian students recognise digital deceit

One observer says the Italian passion for seeing intrigue everywhere has helped erode the standing of traditional political parties while being expertly exploited by political upstarts and insurgents, none more so than the Five Star Movement and its
One observer says the Italian passion for seeing intrigue everywhere has helped erode the standing of traditional political parties while being expertly exploited by political upstarts and insurgents, none more so than the Five Star Movement and its founder, Mr Beppe Grillo (fourth from left).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
One observer says the Italian passion for seeing intrigue everywhere has helped erode the standing of traditional political parties while being expertly exploited by political upstarts and insurgents, none more so than the Five Star Movement and its
Ms Laura Boldrini (above), president of the Italian Lower House of ParliamentPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ROME • After reading the horrors in Dante's "Inferno", Italian students will soon turn to the dangers of the digital age. While juggling maths assignments, they will also tackle worksheets prepared by reporters from the national broadcaster RAI. And separate from the weekly hour of religion, they will receive a list of what amounts to a new set of Ten Commandments for the digital age. Among them: Thou shall not share unverified news; thou shall ask for sources and evidence; thou shall remember that the Internet and social networks can be manipulated.

The lessons are part of an extraordinary experiment by the Italian government, in cooperation with leading digital companies including Facebook, to train a generation of students steeped in social media how to recognise fake news and conspiracy theories online.

"Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily Web diet and we end up infected without even realising it," said Ms Laura Boldrini, president of Italy's Lower House of Parliament, who spearheads the project with the Education Ministry.

"It's only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies," said Ms Boldrini. The initiative will be rolled out in 8,000 high schools across the country starting on Oct 31. Italy is not alone in trying to find a way to grapple with the global proliferation of propaganda that has sown public confusion and undermined the credibility of powerful institutions.

Pope Francis recently announced that he would dedicate his 2018 World Communications Day address to the topic of fake news, and the United States Congress is investigating how Russian agents allegedly manipulated Facebook and Twitter to spread false stories and stoke conspiracy theories to sway the 2016 presidential election.

But before crucial Italian elections early next year, the country has become an especially fertile ground for digital deceit. Frustrated by economic woes, upset by a migrant crisis and fed a steady diet of partisan media, many Italians subscribe to all kinds of conspiracy theories. It is what they call "dietrologia", the belief that there is always something dietro, or behind, the surface.

The Italian passion for seeing intrigue - whether or not it exists - around every corner runs deep, said professor of political science Alessandro Campi at Perugia University. "All of this is part of the Italian cultural heritage," he said. A history of scheming cardinals, waves of foreign domination, papal crackdowns and corrupt governments had imbued Italians with an abiding distrust in authority, he added.

DROPS OF POISON

Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily Web diet and we end up infected without even realising it. It's only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies.

MS LAURA BOLDRINI, president of the Italian Lower House of Parliament, who is spearheading the project with the Education Ministry to train students to recognise fake news and conspiracy theories online. The initiative will be rolled out in 8,000 high schools across the country starting on Oct 31.

In recent years, this background has helped erode the standing of traditional political parties while being expertly exploited by political upstarts, insurgents and outsiders, none more so than the surging Five Star Movement and its founder, Mr Beppe Grillo.

"I'd say that the Five Star Movement believes more than any other political party in conspiracy theories," said Prof Campi. "It's not only a tactic," he said of the movement, which has succeeded in attracting votes from the left and the right with an ideologically ambiguous form of populism. "It's their political worldview."

Ms Boldrini, sponsor of the new student curriculum, asserts that the Web cannot be forfeited to the fringes, and the government must teach the next generation of voters how to defend themselves against falsehoods and conspiracy theories designed to play on their fears. She said she had included Google and Facebook in the project in an acknowledgment that virtual space is where many young Italians live.

Nevertheless, she expressed scepticism in particular about Facebook's commitment to reining in fake news and hate speech, and recognised the possibility that the Italian school project provided the embattled giant with a much-needed public relations boon.

Facebook was quick to applaud the programme. Ms Laura Bononcini, chief of public policy for Facebook in Italy, Greece and Malta, said "the programme is part of an international effort. Education and media literacy are a crucial part of our effort to curb the spread of false news, and collaboration with schools is pivotal".

Ms Boldrini also noted that Facebook was contributing by promoting the initiative through targeted ads to high school-age users. She said she hoped the programme, which aimed to show students how their "likes" were monetised and politicised, could become a "pilot programme" for Facebook throughout Europe.

But some of the Italian course load seems unrealistic. While some tips are useful, such as keeping an eye out for parody URLs, students are also called upon to reach out to experts to verify news stories, essentially asking the students to "re-report" articles.

The programme seeks to deputise students as fake-news hunters, showing them how to create their own blogs or social accounts to expose false stories and "showing how you uncovered it". In Italy, that gives them a lot of ground to cover.

For months here, conspiracy theorists who reject scientific consensus have connected vaccinations to medical conditions including autism in children, often blaming pharmaceutical firms as a dark force behind the medical practice. It was an issue that struck a nerve in Italy and played right into the wheelhouse of the Five Star Movement's distrust of expertise and authority. In May, amid a measles outbreak, Italy strengthened its vaccination requirements for school-age children, prompting so-called No-Vax activists to protest outside Parliament for the right to choose.

But the Five Star Movement is not the only political force to have profited from fake news, and students are not the only ones who can be deceived by it. Recently, Mr Gian Marco Centinaio, a senator from the Northern League, a right-leaning party, acknowledged that he had put on Facebook a post, subsequently shared 18,000 times, of a picture of a man identified as Ms Boldrini's brother, and complained how the news programmes "don't cover" the man's no-show job that paid €47,000 ($75,400) a month.

The man in the image was not her brother and none of the allegations were true. Mr Centinaio called the post a joke and said: "People should be less credulous."

A healthy dose of scepticism is exactly what the new Italian programme hopes students will adopt.

"If people are prepared, educated on digital," Ms Boldrini said, "maybe they don't fall for it."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Moves afoot to help Italian students recognise digital deceit'. Print Edition | Subscribe