Italy is to become one of only five countries where the social network allows fact checkers to flag disputed articles, alerting users that they may be reading or sharing "fake news".
The feature, already in place in the United States, France, Germany and the Netherlands, will debut in Italy from Monday – a month from its general election, during a campaign that many fear has been plagued by online misinformation.
- READ ALSO: Who's who in Italy's 2018 election?
Facebook has asked Italian fact checkers Pagella Politica, who focus on political disinformation, to review any articles that they suspect may be misleading, especially those that are being shared at a higher rate than usual.
If the organization judges that an article is unreliable, it add a flag that warns users the content is disputed. Facebook can also automatically lower the article in users' news feeds so that fewer people see it.
It is Facebook's second move against misinformation in Italy this month: earlier this week, the network posted a notice at the top of the news feeds of users in Italy warning them to be alert to misleading content. Clicking through took users to a list of tips for spotting fake news compiled by Italian non-profit Fondazione Mondo Digitale, including to beware of sensational claims, amateurishly formatted pages and spelling errors.
The intervention comes after pressure on Facebook from those who warn of deliberate efforts to misinform voters in Italy, akin to the explosion of misleading content shared on social media before the 2016 US election and the UK's referendum on the EU.
Early in the campaign, Italy's governing Democratic Party appealed to Facebook to help tackle the spread of deliberately misleading content, which it accused its opponents of systematically deploying. An investigation published by Buzzfeed in November detailed a "massive network of Italian news websites and Facebook pages that spread nationalist rhetoric, anti-migrant content, and misinformation", much of it favourable to the far-right Northern League.
"The genre of Facebook-focused hyperpartisan news that exploded in the US and gained traction in the UK has also taken hold in Italy, where this network often reaches as many people on Facebook as some of the country's biggest mainstream news outlets," according to the site's findings.
The number of Italian fake news sites has grown significantly since 2015, Michelangelo Coltelli, founder of fact-checking website Butac.it, told The Local in February 2017.
“In Italy there are sites used for political purposes, for disinformation, and those that make money through clickbait," he said. "Sadly I don't think there's a solution to this apart from education – it needs to start with schools teaching children the difference between fake news and real news.”
There is evidence that the danger of fake news in Italy is overstated, however. New research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, which measured the number of people in Italy and France accessing unreliable news sites, how long they spent looking at them and the number of interactions their content generated on Facebook, found that far more Italians spend their time reading genuine news websites than false ones.
Most false news websites reached less than 1 percent of Italy's online population in 2017, the study said, compared to 50.9 percent for the country's most popular newspaper website, La Repubblica. The most popular false news sites were viewed for 7.5 million minutes per month, La Repubblica for 443 million minutes.
Where false news content performs disproportionately well, though, is on Facebook – where, according to the study, it generates reactions, comments and shares beyond its readership and on a par with some genuine news sites.
The researchers concluded that the extent of fake news sites' impact on Facebook wasn't clear, but said that "overall, our analysis of the available evidence suggests that false news has more limited reach than is sometimes assumed".
In the past, research has suggested that Italian internet users are among the least susceptible to fake news, regularly using multiple sources to check the veracity of news reports.
The real-life impact of misinformation remains difficult to quantify. And whether Facebook's fact-checking feature is really necessary here or not, it will at least give watchdogs a chance to observe firsthand how bogus reports spread on Italy's largest social network.
As Pagella Politica's director, Giovanni Zagni, told Poynter: "A lot of things have been said about misinformation and disinformation in Italy, but the dimension of the phenomenon is not so clear for the time being. Working on this project will give us an opportunity to understand more."
Photo: Gabriele Bouys/AFP