Photographer: LDProd/iStockphoto

Russia Helped Shape Italy's Twitter Obsession With Immigrants

  • Social-media analysis shows influence of Russian websites
  • Sputnik Italia fueled opposition to immigration last year

Russian efforts to fuel alarm about immigration in Italy had an impact on voters last year, according to an analysis of social-media activity.

Russia’s state-controlled news agency Sputnik Italia was the most influential foreign media organization attacking immigration in Italy and among the top 2 percent of all news sources cited in the online debate, Madrid-based Alto Data Analytics found. The company uses software similar to Google’s search algorithm to rank websites by the number and quality of their links.

The company screened more than 1 million Italian-language posts from almost 100,000 social-media profiles between February and July 2017. People citing Sputnik were opposed to immigration 90 percent of the time, the company found, and often they were public, right-wing figures arguing that the country is suffering an “invasion” of foreigners.

“Russian media are targeting decision-makers, not the general public,” said Marco Cacciotto, a political consultant and professor at the University of Turin. “So the impact may be particularly strong.”

Russia has been accused of interfering with elections in the U.K., France and Germany over the past year and U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller last month said that hundreds of Russian nationals were involved in an effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run for president. Italians go to the polls on Sunday with anti-immigration extremists of the Five Star Movement and the League threatening the pro-Europe mainstream.

The Russian government has regularly denied meddling in other countries’ democratic processes.

Putin’s Friends

While President Vladimir Putin has allies across the political spectrum in Italy -- he’s often partied with 81-year-old center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi -- a surge in support for the euroskeptics of Five Star or the League might be most helpful. Both of those parties would pose a challenge to the European Union establishment which has maintained economic sanctions against Russia since its 2014 incursions in Ukraine.

Immigration has been a central issue in the campaign, since a surge in the number of refugees arriving from North Africa in 2016. Forty-one percent of Italians questioned by Ipsos in July last year cited immigration among their biggest concerns, the most of 26 countries included in the survey.

League leader Matteo Salvini has been hammering home fears about an immigrant crime wave throughout the campaign, even though several EU countries have received more refugees and the number of arrivals has fallen dramatically in the past two years. Last month, a supporter of his party injured six African migrants in a drive-by shooting.

Outsized Presence

Alto Data Analytics found that people opposed to immigration were far more prolific in their social-media posts than those in favor. Within the sample period, just 32 percent of profiles were anti-immigration, but they produced 68 percent of comments on the topic.

Those in the anti-immigrant camp posted 22 times on average during the period, while those in favor made fewer than six comments. That suggests that automated profiles or dedicated propagandists were mingling with ordinary users to reinforce the anti-immigration message alongside the Russian media.

Automated social-media accounts, or bots, can be used to exaggerate the support for a particular viewpoint, helping to sway regular voters.

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