Far-right leader credits Facebook for Italian election success

"Thank God for the internet, thank God for social media, thank God for Facebook."

Lega far right party leader Matteo Salvini at the Lega headquarter in Milan on March 5, 2018 for a press conference ahead of the Italy's general election results. (CREDIT: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
Lega far right party leader Matteo Salvini at the Lega headquarter in Milan on March 5, 2018 for a press conference ahead of the Italy's general election results. (CREDIT: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

One of Italy’s most prominent far-right figures credited Facebook for his party’s success in the country’s nationwide elections on Sunday.

“Thank God for the internet, thank God for social media, thank God for Facebook,” Matteo Salvini, the openly-racist leader of the far-right Lega party, told reporters on Monday morning.

Sunday’s elections resulted in a hung parliament, with the far-right Forza Italia, Lega, and Brothers of Italy parties winning a collective 37 percent of the overall vote. The the anti-establishment Five Star Movement won approximately 32 percent of the vote, and the center-left coalition led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came in third, with around 23 percent. Because no party won an outright majority of the vote, Italian President Sergio Mattarella will be forced to form a new government, with party leaders jockeying for power. Salvini has already stated his party has the “right and the duty” to take the reins.

According to Il Post journalist Davide Maria De Luca, who spoke to BuzzFeed News this week, Salvini has plenty of reasons to be grateful for social media, which helped push his far-right, anti-immigrant beliefs to the forefront of the election.

“Facebook was a huge part of his surge in the polls. In the last month of the election campaign he launched what was called a ‘revolution of common sense,’ presenting himself like your good neighbour who has all the good ideas,” he said. “His political Facebook posts were always about immigration. There was also crime committed by migrants and well, crime in general.”

Much of the Salvini and the Lega party’s campaign was based on stoking unfounded fears about immigrants and refugees, as well as claims that the “traditional media” was attempting to censor its message.

“#StopInvasion!” the far-right leader wrote in the captions of several posts featuring immigrants and refugees. On a post about one video, which featured law enforcement appearing to arrest several alleged immigrants, Salvini wrote that he “dream[ed] of an Italy” in which “refugees did not send police officers to the hospital”; on another video, he claimed that refugees attempting to enter Italy were only there to get more money.

“Which war are these ‘refugees’ escaping from???” he wrote. “We cannot accept all of Africa…ITALIANS FIRST!”

Screengrab, Matteo Salvini Facebook
Screengrab, Matteo Salvini Facebook

In separate videos, Salvini urged his Facebook followers to “help” him make videos go viral, including one that he claimed would be censored by mainstream news outlets. He tagged the video #ItaliansFirst (#PrimaGliItaliani). The video, which was filmed on an iPhone, according to BuzzFeed, has since racked up 2.6 million views and has been shared more than 34,000 times. (Salvini also shared the video on his official Twitter account on February 25, where it was retweeted more than 2,000 times.)

According to De Luca, the far-right leader was hardly shy about his intentions, even encouraging his followers to compete in a contest days before the election meant to boost his own Facebook page engagement.

“It was called ‘Vinci Salvini’, meaning ‘Win Salvini’,” De Luca told BuzzFeed. “You participated by liking and sharing Salvini’s Facebook posts, with the ones who shared and liked the most named the daily winner. Each winner got a phone call from Salvini, a photo posted on the page and sometimes a one-on-one coffee.”

Some of the viral content posted on Salvini’s pages was also pushed by conspiracy sites and Facebook pages that frequent in fake news. According to The New York Times, many of those sites also shared Salvini’s nationalistic and anti-immigrant stances.

At least one of those pages, DirettaNews, has a verified badge and nearly 3 million followers. According to a BuzzFeed report in November, the DirettaNews Facebook page received more than 5 million shares and more than 25 million overall interactions in a span of 12 months. In February, the page shared one of Salvini’s Facebook videos, captioning it “How can [anyone] disagree? … This video tells the truth!”

According to BuzzFeed, “an Italian fact-checking website describes DirettaNews’ approach to news as ”pseudo-journalism‘ — an honour reserved for those websites that don’t clearly distinguish between facts and hyperpartisanship, and/or those that appear to copy stories from dubious sources without checking their veracity.”

Screengrab of Matteo Salvini video shared by DirettaNews on Facebook
Screengrab of Matteo Salvini video shared by DirettaNews on Facebook

Facebook has been criticized for its slow response to a wave of such “pseudo journalism” as well as the roles it has played in elevating fake news in several political campaigns across the globe. While much of the attention so far has been focused on Facebook’s part in allowing fake news stories to be peddled on its platform during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the social media network has been hijacked in other parts of the world as well, allowing conspiracy theorists to promulgate their ideas unchecked.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, a series of papers has since shown that the results of the Brexit vote were swayed by hundreds of Russian government-linked troll accounts, which backed pro-Brexit advocates and slammed the European Union in the days leading up to the election. Facebook, while acknowledging the existence of some of those Russia-linked accounts, maintained that its platform had not been manipulated to interfere in the election.

During Catalonia’s independence referendum last fall, Spanish authorities also identified an “avalanche” of Russian bots that were being used to spread misinformation in an attempt to sway the vote.

“We learned that 55 percent of those fake profiles were in Russia, and an additional 30 percent in Venezuela,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said during an interview with the Cope radio network last November. “This has happened with Brexit [and] in the French elections…. What is clear is that there are people who may be interested in things not going well in Europe.”

Facebook has maintained that it is doing its best to crack down on the fake news crisis plaguing global elections in recent days, shrugging off suggestions that it filter out false stories itself by saying that the responsibility should be left up to readers and third-party fact-checkers.

“In the public debate over false news, many believe Facebook should use its own judgment to filter out misinformation. We’ve chosen not to do that because we don’t want to be the arbiters of truth, nor do we imagine this is a role the world would want for us,” Facebook product manager of civic engagement Samidh Chakrabarti wrote in a January blog post. “Instead, we’ve made it easier to report false news and have taken steps in partnership with third-party fact checkers to rank these stories lower in News Feed.”

Chakrabarti added that the social media giant was “working to make it harder for bad actors to profit from false news, eliminating their incentive to create this content in the first place.”