The Facebook fake news sites thesis for Donald Trump’s surprise win has alarmed politicians across the globe facing upcoming elections and referendums where far-right populism could easily triumph.
Next to face a vote on the established order is Italy on Sunday, where Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s referendum on shrinking the size of Congress and Italian bureaucracy is seen by many as a “yes” or “no” vote on his time in office itself. Renzi himself has pledged to step down if it fails.
On Facebook, fake news sites and deceptive memes alike have characterized it as a vote on whether or not the country will leave the European Union. While that’s not entirely true, columnists and Italian voters have made it clear that the referendum could decide Italy’s future in Europe, wrote Yale lecturer Vikram Mansharamani in a recent PBS column.
“Two groups in particular stand to win if Renzi loses: the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigrant Northern League. Both are anti-establishment organizations that question the value Italy receives from being part of the European Monetary Union or from using the euro as its currency. As a result of this setup, the stakes of the December 4th vote are enormous. A Renzi defeat may affect Italy’s future relationship with Brussels.”
The leaders of Five Star and Northern League are accused by critics to be the motors of the Facebook fake news machine in Italy. A recent investigation carried out by Buzzfeed found that the lead sites linked to M5S are owned by a firm founded by one of the party’s former leaders, who passed it on to his son when he died earlier this year. One Google Ads developer told the news site that this relationship ran directly in contrast to M5S’s transparency rhetoric. TzeTze, the largest of the sources, claims to be independent on its Facebook page.
“M5S talks a lot about transparency, but then as part of my job I realized that they are making so much money off this thing. When you look online there is no transparency about the amount of money they make with the blog and the sites. It’s all so mixed up. The leaders of the party are making money with a fake news aggregator. It’s like if Trump owned the Macedonian sites [publishing fake pro-Trump news].”
The digital paper trail left by such fake news often leads back to fringe bloggers, many of whom use openly racist language on their sites. One such viral TzeTze story accused the U.S. of purposely fomenting the refugee crisis to consolidate power. While it made the rounds on Facebook under the more acceptable source’s name, the original blog post was heralded with the title “N****rs and smugglers.”
Fake news isn’t limited to these sites. 5SM leader Beppe Grillo uses his personal Facebook to post images of mass gatherings of Italians watching the pope speak or manifesting in favor of the referendum and then claims that they are actually hoards of anti-Renzi protesters.
Elsewhere in Europe, the specter of fake news also haunts another pivotal decision that will be made in 2017. Even before Trump’s victory, German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed reservations about the algorithms used by Facebook and Google, arguing that such influential tools needed to be more transparent.
— Vocativ (@vocativ) November 24, 2016
Others have scoffed at the idea that fake news on Facebook can meaningfully shape an election. Some have even gone as far as accusing those crusading against the misinformation of “red scaring” or neo-McCarthyism against Russia. A recent Washington Post piece citing organization PropOrNot was derided by many in the media for condemning alternative sites such as Counterpunch as Russian propaganda for simply providing a viewpoint outside of the narrative that dominates Western media: a demonized Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Despite these counter-arguments, many examples of political propaganda have emerged that are difficult to call anything but fake news. During Colombia’s recently failed referendum on a historic deal with guerrilla rebel force FARC, a photo circulated online of a popular singer wearing a shirt urging voters to choose “no.” Even after he condemned the viral picture as false on social media, it continued to circulate online.
Si tú me conocieras bien, sabrías que jamás apoyaría algo como esto. Esta imagen es un montaje descarado. pic.twitter.com/BYUooR1vhS
— JUANES (@juanes) July 26, 2016
When decisions like Colombia’s referendum or Donald Trump’s victory come down to the choices of just hundreds of thousands of voters, it’s easy for the government to become preoccupied with such manipulations. Facebook, while initially denying that fake news on their site had anything to do with the U.S. election results, has since promised to add safeguards to keep blatantly false news items from circulating. What that means for Italy’s future in the European Union is yet to be seen.
[Featured Image by Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images]