ROME (NYTIMES) - With critical national elections only months away, anxiety is building that Italy will be the next target of a destabilising campaign of fake news and propaganda, prompting the leader of the country's governing party to call on Facebook and other social media companies to police their platforms.
"We ask the social networks, and especially Facebook, to help us have a clean electoral campaign," Matteo Renzi, leader of the Democratic Party, said in an interview on Thursday (Nov 23).
"The quality of the democracy in Italy today depends on a response to these issues."
In a global atmosphere already thick with suspicion of Russian meddling in elections in the United States, France and Germany, as well as in the British referendum to leave the European Union and the Catalan independence movement in Spain, many analysts consider Italy to be the weak link in an increasingly vulnerable European Union.
No one in Italy is more worried than the governing Democratic Party. In recent days, its members have made an orchestrated attempt to focus the attention of the country - and of powerful social media platforms like Facebook - on a misinformation campaign that they believe is devised to damage one of the last major center-left governments standing in Europe.
Renzi, a wily political operator who partly blames online misinformation campaigns and fake news for the failure of a referendum that forced his resignation in December, is not only seeking to protect himself, but also to go on the offensive.
Renzi is making the issue central to his own Facebook posts and a conference that he kicked off in Florence on Friday evening to call attention to the issue.
This week, government officials publicly denounced pictures on websites supportive of the Five Star Movement, a web-savvy anti-establishment party, that falsely captioned a government minister's appearance at a funeral to make it seem as if she were mourning Salvatore Riina, the murderous Mafia boss.
Another video showed Renzi, a former prime minister who is waging an uphill battle to return to power, at a years-old news conference with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
A false translation of Putin's Russian made it seem as if he were blaming the Italian government for the national soccer team's failure to qualify for the World Cup this month.
Andrea Stroppa, a researcher with a company called Ghost Data who advises Renzi on cybersecurity issues, contributed to a report about fake news that BuzzFeed published this week and that has become one of Renzi's chief talking points.
After the report was published, Facebook shut down the sites, which trafficked in nationalistic and anti-immigrant screeds.
Davide Colono, a member of the family that managed the sites, said the content was merely intended to attract clicks in a country fed up with the Democratic Party's government.
He called the shuttering of the sites "against the freedom of the press" and "just politics."
Facebook representatives have told Italian officials that they are planning to dispatch an Italian "task force" of fact-checkers to address the fake-news problem here before the elections, according to a government official who was present during the negotiations but was not authorised to speak on the record.
Facebook declined to comment on Friday about those plans.
Stroppa has also prepared a report for Renzi that attempts to demonstrate a connection between seemingly unrelated sites promoting rival anti-establishment political movements critical of Renzi and the center-left government.
The report, which Stroppa shared with The New York Times, shows that the official webpage of a movement promoting Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, shares unique Google codes with a fan and propaganda page supportive of the Five Star Movement.
The codes, used to track advertising and web traffic, are also shared by an array of other sites, some of which spread wild conspiracy theories, attack Renzi or deliver explicitly pro-Russian spin.
One site, IoStoConPutin.info, or I'm With Putin, excoriates the US investigation of Russian involvement in the US election as "fake news" and features posts written by anonymous staff, including one with the headline "Putin Model of a Real Leader," which features the reporting of Sputnik Italia.
Another, mondolibero.org, peddles a distinctly anti-American and anti-liberal worldview. "Moscow Reveals That Twitter Relies on the U.S. Secret Services," one headline read.
The assorted sites share a unique ID assigned by Google Analytics to keep track of how a site is performing, as well as an AdSense number through which Google manages advertisements placed on the sites, according to data in Stroppa's report and verified by The Times.
All the sites also share a template on their contact pages. But in the murky world of internet propaganda and subterfuge, the tilt of the content is clearer than where it originates, and what the shared codes amount to is not entirely clear.
"We frequently see unrelated sites using the same IDs, so that's not a reliable indicator that two sites are connected," said a Google spokeswoman, Simona Panseri.
Some analysts, however, noted that the ad revenues would flow to the same operator and suggested that the assigning of separate site ID numbers indicated the hand of a single manager, who could then easily track traffic and metrics.
Google would not identify the site administrators. Emails sent to addresses listed on the contact pages of the sites went unanswered.
Chris Norton, a spokesman for Facebook, said, "We take the issue of fake news incredibly seriously." And he added that the company considered the issue of accurate information on the platform "especially important during elections."
He said it was disrupting the economic incentives for false news, removing fake accounts and investing in resources and technology to address the problem. But Facebook declined to identify the administrator of the accounts with the shared Google codes.
A spokesman for the Five Star Movement said the fan page in question that shared the codes was not an official site and could have been made by an independent activist.
Asked about the shared codes between his official webpage and the page promoting the Five Star Movement, Francesco Zicchieri, a leader of the "We're With Salvini" movement, appeared legitimately bewildered.
"I don't even know what we are talking about," he said, adding that the party's web guru, Luca Morisi "does everything" for the movement's assorted sites.
Late Friday evening, Morisi acknowledged that the site We're With Salvini shared the same Google codes as sites outside the League's political universe.
He explained that a former supporter of the Five Star Movement had helped build the We're With Salvini site and pasted codes from his Five Star fan page, as well as I'm With Putin and his conspiracy sites, onto the official page.
"But we have nothing to do with the pro-Putin or pro-Five Star sites," Morisi said, explaining that he thought he had actually changed the codes in the past and promised to do so this weekend to clear up any confusion.
The League and the Five Star Movement are not nominally allied, and even cast themselves as rivals. But they share an interest in advancing the pro-Russia, anti-establishment and anti-immigrant agenda that has made Five Star the most popular party in Italy. NYTIMES