Major US newspapers ignored the role of fake news in Italy's high-stakes general election
A far-right party and an anti-establishment party that controls a fake news network won in major upsets in Italy’s general election on March 4 and are now vying to form a majority government. But major U.S. newspapers, some of which had previously covered the threat of fake news in Italy, entirely ignored the likely role fake news played in the election’s outcome.
Researchers in Italy noted the increasingly alarming role of fake news after Italy’s 2013 election. But the country began paying closer attention to the problem after BuzzFeed and Italian newspaper La Stampa exposed anti-establishment party 5-Star Movement’s foundational role in a network of blogs and social media accounts spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and Russian propaganda. In November 2017, a year after its original report, BuzzFeed reported on another network spreading hyperpartisan misinformation on Facebook, this one run by “an entrepreneur in Rome with links to a secretive Italian Catholic association.” That same month, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi asked social media companies, particularly Facebook, to “help us have a clean electoral campaign. The quality of the democracy in Italy today depends on a response to these issues.” In January 2018, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations summarized the threat of fake news and Russian-backed misinformation in Italy (page 137 of the report) and called on the U.S. government to cooperate with Italy on addressing the issue.
Despite warnings from the U.S. and Italian governments, investigative reporting from media outlets and, in the case of The New York Times and The Washington Post, major newspapers’ own reporting on the role of fake news in Italian elections, these papers failed to acknowledge the possible links between far-right misinformation campaigns and the March 4 election outcome that was aligned with their message.
According to a Media Matters analysis of coverage on Italy’s election day and the following two days, major U.S. newspapers including the Post, the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today engaged in zero significant discussions of the threat of fake news in the Italian election. Two passing mentions of “conspiracy theories” in the Times' op-ed section were the closest the outlet came to discussing the role of fake news.
The failure of these major outlets to connect widely reported, far-right, election-oriented fake news to far-right electoral outcomes raises serious concerns over their ability to inform readers about the threat of fake news for democracies around the world.
Media Matters used Nexis to search for mentions of “Italy” and “election” in the print editions of The Washington Post, USA Today, and The New York Times on March 4 through March 6, 2018. We used Factiva for The Wall Street Journal. We searched the resulting 26 articles for mentions of “news,” “media,” “fake,” “misinformation,” “conspiracy,” and “Russia.”