Italy’s legislative elections have been marred by Russian state-sponsored online activity aimed at boosting support for the far-right, Spanish daily El Pais reported Saturday.
El Pais analysed over one million posts from just under 100,000 profiles, tracing stories published by Russia’s state-sponsored propaganda outlet Sputnik, which published anti-NGO and anti-immigration Italian-language content that was then shared online, mostly on Facebook and Twitter.
The online presence of Sputnik – a platform with content in 30 languages – suggests it is the second most influential new source in Italy after Huffington Post. Despite only having 45,000 Italian followers on Facebook and no more than 6,300 on Twitter, there are thousands of users that regularly share its content.
While not all xenophobic content originates from Sputnik, there is evidence of automated accounts – or bots – that are suspiciously active on both Facebook and Twitter. According to El Pais, 90% of all accounts sharing Sputnik generated content regularly share xenophobic content.
The main narrative pushed by Sputnik is that Italy is under attack from refugees, suggesting that by 2065, 40% of the Italian population will be made up of migrants or their direct offspring.
During the electoral campaign, the far-right ultranationalist party Lega Nord saw its support surge in the polls alongside the neo-Fascist CasaPound party. An overtly chauvinist, racially-charged, anti-immigrant, and staunchly Eurosceptic tone has dominated the debate in the run-up to Sunday’s election. The Milan-based Lega Nord – which is also as Northern League, in English – combines virulently racist rhetoric and vitriolic attacks against the Euro and the EU as part of its party platform.
In addition to online links to the far-right, there have been serious allegations of political and financial ties to the Kremlin. A year ago, Lega Nord’s leader, Matteo Salvini, was seen with Sergey Zheleznyak, a hardliner in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and the Kremlin’s official envoy to Europe.
Known for his firebrand anti-Western stances, Zheleznyak was blacklisted and sanctioned by the EU and US for his support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Salvini has also received the backing of Steven Bannon, US President Donald J. Trump‘s former White House strategist, who was in Rome as recently as March 1 to offer his support for Lega Nord, according to Italian newspaper La Stampa. Bannon, who espouses a brand of populist white nationalism, previously lent his support to former Ukip leader Nigel Farage in the run-up to 2016’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. According to the La Stampa report, Bannon hopes victory at the polls for Lega Nord will help usher in a wave of populist, nationalist governments that will eventually unseat centrists like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Most of Europe’s far-right parties – including France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party, the UK’s Ukip, Hungary’s Fidesz, and Lega Nord – are known to admire and have close ties to Putin’s Kremlin. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is known to have a long-established relationship with Putin, having travelled with the autocratic Russian leader to Crimea after Moscow occupied the peninsula four years ago. Berlusconi has long called for an end to the sanctions the European Union’s levied against Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine. He has also called on Brussels to forge closer ties with the Kremlin since being convicted of tax fraud in 2013.
Lega Nord is officially campaigning for an end to Russian sanctions, citing the cost to the Italian economy.