Disinformation

Bullets, threats of rape and disinformation in Italy

With the collapse of Italy’s government, the country’s immediate future will be determined by anti-establishment parties whose supporters rally against liberal politicians like Laura Boldrini

Bullets sent via mail, threats of gang rape and a permanent police escort: all of these are routine for Laura Boldrini, a member of parliament in Italy. 

The MP and former speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, who campaigns for the rights of migrants and women at a time when Italy’s politics is dominated by anti-immigration and anti-establishment parties, has become a punching bag on social media and beyond.

“I am outspoken, I don’t hide, and I dedicate myself to social issues, human rights and women’s rights. I am an anti-fascist,” Boldrini said recently, in her office in Rome.

Last week, Italy’s government collapsed, plunging the financially fragile European nation into a renewed period of uncertainty. During the government’s 14-month tenure, the nationalist-populist coalition of the hard-right, anti-migrant League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, attacked the European Union, demonized migrants and praised authoritarian figures like President Vladimir Putin.

The coalition splintered after the popular interior minister and League leader Matteo Salvini announced that he was fed up with Five Star’s incompetence and pushed for a snap election in a bid to consolidate his hold on the country. He lost his gamble when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced he would try to form a new government by securing a pact between the Five Star and the center-left Democratic party in a move that would push the League out of power while avoiding early elections.

Since coming to power in 2018, Salvini and his Five Star counterpart, Luigi Di Maio, have turned Italian politics into a 24-hour reality TV show, using Facebook Live and Twitter to attack liberal opponents like Boldrini, the EU, taxes and even beach holidays. Much of this has been achieved using emotive language, personal insults and fake news stories

The weaponization of social media has put politicians like Boldrini, who has nearly one million followers on Twitter, into a defensive crouch as they wrestle with unbridled anti-establishment supporters. She regularly comes under venomous attack whenever there is a crime committed by a migrant. 

“This has resulted in a flood of violence towards me, for every rape, every murder, every theft, as if I were the instigator, as if I had the responsibility,” she said. “And so my profiles are full of hatred, resentment, terrible words against me and my family.”

The attacks are also a drain on time and resources. Last month, Boldrini’s office announced she is suing a prominent TV personality and former deputy of Forza Italia, the center-right political party whose leader was former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. She made the announcement on Twitter after Alessandro Meluzzi shared a four-year-old fake news story on Twitter which contained falsified quotes from Boldrini.

In response, Boldrini has turned debunking fake news and disinformation into a priority: she launched a campaign to correct fake news and spearheaded a project with the Italian Ministry of Education, the national broadcaster RAI and partners such as Google and Facebook to teach students how to recognize fake news online. “Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it,” said Boldrini last year.

Facebook also collaborated with a fact checking site called Pagella Politica during the 2018 elections to debunk fake stories.

In keeping with trends across Europe, the attacks on Boldrini often target her as a woman. A 2018 study by the Inter Parliamentary Union found that 58% of female MPs from 45 European countries received online sexist attacks on social networks, 67% were targets of comments relating to their physical appearance and 46% received death threats, or threats of violence or rape. In Italy, women receive the largest number of negative tweets, according to Vox – Italian Observatory on Rights

“In the context of Italian politics, Boldrini is considered very radical and totally on the left. Her positions are very clear and to one side of the spectrum. She’s an ideal target because she is very vocal with her views,” said Giovanni Orsina, professor of political science at Luiss University. “The fact that she is a woman means she is often insulted because of her gender.”

“Italian politics always been quite aggressive, but that has worsened with social media,” continued Orsina. “Today, the level of online discussion is very bad across the board. That being said, Facebook and Twitter are a gutter. Mainstream politicians still try and keep some form of control over what they say. The same cannot be said of some people online.” 

In March, Boldrini faced a new series of online attacks from Salvini, who was addressing his Facebook audience of 3.5 million – one of the largest of a politician in Europe. He wrote, “Dance and sing with Laura Boldrini, she will teach you about ‘freedom’! These alleged ‘feminists’ talk so much about rights, somehow always forgetting about the real danger, Islamic terrorism, according to which women are worth less than ZERO.” 

Salvini’s post linked to a video of Boldrini at a march against an annual anti-gay, anti-abortion conference held by the World Congress of Families in Verona. The Illinois-based group opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, and the annual conference attracts hard-line defenders of so-called “traditional” values. While abortion was legalized in Italy in 1978, last year, Verona passed an ordinance which requires women to first consult with anti-abortion groups offering financial assistance.

Salvini’s post received 9,900 likes and 7,800 comments. One female user invited Boldrini to spend a night in a migration center without a police escort.

Boldrini responded by posting a video of herself performing a folk dance called a Tarantella. She received 10,000 likes.

This back and forth between politicians with opposing political views is far from innocuous. Salvini, who has been accused of ties to Russia, and his Five Star coalition partner Luigi di Maio, dominate social media platforms. An investigation by L’Espresso magazine has found that Salvini spends 314,000 euros a year on the salaries of his communications team, most of whom dedicate themselves to social media. 

The Five Star Movement, which was formed in 2009, won a 25% vote share in 2013 in the first national elections it had contested. During the 2018 elections, the party largely bypassed traditional media and used inflammatory and visually arresting posts to rally voters, according to Facebook data collected by the University of Pisa’s Media Lab

Salvini’s Lega party also regularly and successfully courts outrage on social media. As a result of receiving threats, Boldrini now has a permanent police escort of two. “Without this I would risk a lot, because today there is not much difference between the virtual and the real world. What happens if someone really comes close to me and does something? What if someone throws acid in my face or disfigures me?” she said. 

“These are not fantasies, it has happened,” says Boldrini. “Jo Cox was killed because she believed in the same values I believe in.” The story of the British Labour MP Cox, who was assassinated in Birstall, Yorkshire by a far-right radical ahead of the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016, touched Boldrini. She dedicated a parliament commission on the study of hatred, intolerance, xenophobia and racism to Cox’s memory.

Boldrini, 58, first entered politics when she was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in February 2013 after working at the United Nations for more than two decades. Politics seemed very different from her previous work.

She ran as an MP for the small and now defunct left-wing party Left Ecology Freedom (SEL). She was voted in as the speaker of the lower house of parliament, or chamber of deputies, the third most senior position in the country, and held the position for five years.

As her political profile rose, she encountered resistance for her focus on the visibility of women in Italian public life and hate speech. Social media only amplified the attacks against her. 

“Since I always say to boys and girls in schools and universities not to succumb to bullies and to react, I cannot be the one who lowers her head vis-a-vis this abusive attitude,” said Boldrini.

She sits in her office in Rome in a Medieval convent turned into an office building for MPs. 

She was first attacked by Five Star, founded by the bombastic comedian Beppe Grillo and tech entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio, who promoted the Internet as a new means of organizing politics. Casaleggio died of brain cancer in 2016, but Five Star still pushes Eurosceptic messages about sovereignty and immigration.

Following her decision in 2014 to fast-track the approval of decrees on the recapitalization of the Bank of Italy and a housing tax, Five Star supporters erupted in protest, calling her Lady Guillotine. Shortly after, Grillo wrote a Facebook post headlined, “What would happen if you found Boldrini in a car?” The post linked to a video with a man talking to a cut-out of Boldrini and attracted a huge reaction from Grillo’s nearly two million followers. 

“Take her to a gypsy camp and let the camp chief screw her,” wrote one user. “What if she likes it?” responded another user. Five Star said the comments appeared when moderators were not on duty. They were later removed.

On a TV show, Boldrini said the tweet amounted to the “instigation of violence”. 

A few days later, on February 5, a letter addressed to Boldrini containing threats and a bullet was intercepted at a sorting center.

Debunking fake news

In 2017, Matteo Camiciottoli, a mayor with Lega, responded to the arrest of four immigrants for sexually attacking a Polish woman and a Peruvian sex worker in the coastal town of Rimini by suggesting they should be placed under house arrest at Boldrini’s house “to put a smile on her face”. Boldrini sued Camiciottoli for defamation and won. “I sued him for several reasons: as a woman, as a mother, and as an institutional figure. I had to do it,” she said.

Another Lega politician, now agriculture minister Gian Marco Centinaio, shared a picture of a man drinking a glass of champagne. The post said the man was Andrea Boldrini, Laura’s brother and that he earned a salary of about $51,000 (47,000 euros) a month because of his sister’s influence. Both assertions were wrong. Centinaio later said he was playing a prank. Hoaxes surrounding Boldrini’s relatives abounded, including one about her deceased sister, while others linked her to human trafficking rings bringing migrants to Italy.

David Puente, who previously worked for Gianroberto Casaleggio and now debunks fake news for a website called Open Online, has followed the trail of several profiles that spreading fake information about Boldrini and other public figures.

“She has become an easy target,” said Puente. “Salvini or Di Maio never intervened to tell his fans or activists to stop attacking a woman. This is politics, it is part of the political game.”

Boldrini says that she has no intention of giving up. “Sometimes I say, enough, this is a lost country. It’s one of the darkest times. But leaving would be like a failure. I can’t do it,” she said.

Irene Caselli

Irene Caselli is a freelance multimedia journalist reporting for the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Washington Post, and The Guardian, among others. She was based in Latin America for a decade as a BBC correspondent in Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador. She is currently based in Monte Castello di Vibio, Italy.

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