Geopolitics Global Agenda

TV, leaders and bot farms: the underestimated but far-reaching Russian disinformation campaign in Italy

Raul Bertoldini

On May 1, 2022, 3 months after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian FA ministry Sergei Lavrov was interviewed on Rete 4, one of Italy’s most-watched TV channels and part of Berlusconi’s Mediaset group. Almost a year later, in February 2023, at the Sanremo Festival (a prominent and nationally relevant convention), a video message from Ukrainian President Zelenskiy was also scheduled for screening. Even though similar messages had already been shown on similar occasions abroad, the matter came under severe political scrutiny. After some protests, Italian public television replaced that message with a much less incisive reading by the host. Both events created a bitter debate among Italian politicians and the general public concerning the appropriateness of such choices.

These examples are emblematic of how rapidly TV became the stage of a communication war, parallel to the one ongoing in Eastern Europe and almost as important. Considering the Ukrainian reliance on the support of Western democracies, any element weakening these relations would represent a massive win for Moscow. As the one on the battlefield, this other war needs a practical and comprehensive strategy to succeed.

Within the Italian context, it is essential to underline how television still represents the primary mass media followed by the population, especially the older generation. It is no coincidence that they mainly follow the TV channel chosen for Lavrov’s appearance. Furthermore, since the start of the war, for more than one year now, several opinionists, academics and even politicians have regularly appeared in many nationally-broadcasted talk shows, taking a (more or less open) pro-Kremlin stance and getting traction in the public debate. The main narrative promoted within these contexts sees Ukraine and the West as powerless in front of the Russian might. One example of this is Alessandro Orsini, an Italian sociology professor regularly hosted by prominent Italian talk shows, who already one year ago affirmed how “Russia can gut Ukraine as and when it wants to”, standing by similar positions since then. Italy’s vulnerability towards this phenomenon caught the attention of many international observers already in 2022. Another point concerns the energy crisis that started in Europe due to the conflict and how sanctions damage our countries more than Moscow.

Social media is another central area of influence for Russian propaganda. In contrast to TV, their usage is widespread in all population segments. Here, like on TV, the main narratives promoted relate to the risks of a nuclear war or a conflict escalation due to Western support to Kyiv. The tools range from the social pages of the Russian Embassy in Italy, often responsible for sharing untruthful posts, to the use of so-called bot farms, helpful in spreading similar pro-Russian content. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Russian Embassy has started what could be described as a media war with the Italian Ministry of Defence by spreading posts like one denouncing the made-up destruction or capture of Italian-made weapons and vehicles in Ukraine.

Regarding bots, Italian Twitter users have recently noticed a significantly high number of accounts sharing comments in favour of the Kremlin or indirectly referring to the energy crisis. Many of them reach quite high levels of resemblance to real profiles, using a wide range of options to obtain attention, from sharing blog posts to having attractive profile images. However, a more in-depth analysis can trace them back to Russia-related troll farms disseminated through Europe and beyond.

Even in resilient and well-developed civil societies such as Italian, the effects of this propaganda are undeniable. Analyses from 2022, such as the one already quoted or provided in the article by ISPI, mention the elaborated disinformation strategy that Russia has tailored for Italy, but conclude that its effectiveness could be limited by the political context in which it operates. Looking at numbers published in February 2023 concerning the opinion of Italians about the war, 51% of the respondents affirmed that they would prefer the war to stop as soon as possible, and only 39% perceived Russia as an adversary. The latter percentage is considerably lower than in most European countries (or the US). These numbers are not contradictory to the observation made by ISPI. Despite the fact that the Italian government is now led by Giorgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d’Italia party has always been strongly pro-Ukrainian, other coalition members have closer ties to Russia. The League and its leader Salvini are currently being investigated for links with Putin’s party, while Berlusconi, a personal friend of the Russian president, leads Forza Italia. The situation on the other side of the political spectrum is also controversial, with the new leader of the main centre-left party PD only recently quelling doubts on her position, confirming she is in favour of sending weapons to Kyiv. However, most of the farther left in the country have pacifist tendencies, opposing the shipment of weapons to Ukraine and promoting marches for peace towards a negotiated solution instead.

Since the end of WWII, Italian society has been one of the least resilient societies in the Western block against foreign influence. While it is hard to identify precisely all the elements playing a role in this, the threat represented by disinformation is often underestimated. The Kremlin narratives have proven effective in gaining traction within Italian audiences, focusing on presenting Russia as a mighty and friendly state, as opposed to the imperialism of the United States. Despite this, a combination of coercion and policy choices has always kept the country in line with Atlanticist positions. Thus, it is likely that Rome will maintain this course in its support for Ukraine as well, aligning its position with that of critical partners. However, a discussion about these issues is vital, as it shows how, especially in democracies, wars are not fought only on the frontlines anymore.

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