Italian students to learn art of spotting fake news

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ROME: Italian students will soon turn to the dangers of the digital age reports The New York Times. They will now receive a list of what amounts to a new set of Ten Commandments.

Among them: Thou shalt not share unverified news; thou shall ask for sources and evidence; thou shall remember that the internet and social networks can be manipulated.

The lessons are part of an extraordinary experiment by the Italian government, in cooperation with leading digital companies including Facebook, to train a generation of students steeped in social media how to recognize fake news and conspiracy theories online.

“Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it,” said Laura Boldrini, the president of the Italian lower house of Parliament, who has spearheaded the project with the Italian Ministry of Education.

“It’s only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies,” said Boldrini, who is left-leaning but not affiliated with any political party. The initiative will be rolled out in 8,000 high schools across the country starting on Oct. 31.

Italy, of course, is not alone in trying to find a way to grapple with the global proliferation of propaganda that has sown public confusion and undermined the credibility of powerful institutions.

Pope Francis recently announced that he would dedicate his 2018 World Communications Day address to the topic of fake news, and the United States Congress is investigating how Russian agents manipulated Facebook and Twitter to spread false stories and stoke conspiracy theories to sway the 2016 presidential election.

But ahead of crucial Italian elections early next year, the country has become an especially fertile ground for digital deceit. Frustrated by economic woes, upset by a migrant crisis and fed a steady diet of partisan media, many Italians subscribe to all kinds of conspiracy theories. It is what they call dietrologia, the belief that there is also always something dietro, or behind, the surface.

The Italian passion for seeing intrigue — whether or not it exists — around every corner runs deep, said Alessandro Campi, a professor of political science at Perugia University. “All of this is part of the Italian cultural heritage,” he said.

A history of scheming Borgia cardinals, waves of foreign domination, papal crackdowns and corrupt governments had imbued Italians with an abiding distrust of authority, Campi said.

In recent years, this background has helped erode the standing of traditional political parties while being expertly exploited by political upstarts, insurgents and outsiders, none more so than the surging Five Star Movement and its founder, Beppe Grillo.

“I’d say that the Five Star Movement believes more than any other political party in conspiracy theories,” said Campi, an editor of “Conspiracies and Plots — From Machiavelli to Beppe Grillo.”

“It’s not only a tactic,” Campi said of the movement, which has succeeded in attracting votes from the left and the right with an ideologically ambiguous form of populism. “It’s their political worldview.”

Nicola Biondo, a former chief of communications for the Five Star Movement, said that for the party, spreading conspiracies was akin to a policy.

“They use the term Great Powers, never specifying who those powers are,” said Biondo, who has recently written a book, “Supernova: How Five Star Was Killed,” with another party defector. “It is a mantra.”

Boldrini, a sponsor of the new student curriculum, asserts that the web cannot be forfeited to the fringes and that the government must teach the next generation of Italian voters how to defend themselves against falsehoods and conspiracy theories designed to play on their fears.

She said she had included Google and Facebook in the project in an acknowledgement that virtual space is where many young Italians live.

Nevertheless, she expressed scepticism in particular about Facebook’s commitment to reining in fake news and hate speech and recognized the possibility that the Italian school project provided the embattled giant with a much-needed public relations boon.

Facebook was quick to applaud the program. Laura Bononcini, chief of public policy for Facebook in Italy, Greece and Malta, said on Tuesday that “the program is part of an international effort. Education and media literacy are a crucial part of our effort to curb the spread of false news, and collaboration with schools is pivotal.”

Boldrini also noted that Facebook was contributing by promoting the initiative through targeted ads to high-school-age users, and she said she hoped that the program, which aimed to show students how their “likes” were monetized and politicized, could become a “pilot program” for Facebook throughout Europe.

But some of the Italian course load seems unrealistic. While some tips are useful, such as keeping an eye out for parody URLs, students are also called upon to reach out to experts to verify news stories, essentially asking the students to re-report articles.

In Italy, that gives them a lot of ground to cover.

For months here, conspiracy theorists who reject scientific consensus have connected vaccinations to medical conditions including autism in children, often blaming pharmaceutical companies as a dark force behind the medical practice. It was an issue that struck a nerve in Italy and played right into the wheelhouse of the Five Star Movement’s distrust of expertise and authority.

At the same rally, Five Star activists screamed “shame” and railed against the political parties, right and left, for joining forces to draft a new electoral law they considered (maybe correctly this time) designed to keep the movement out of power.

But the Five Star Movement is not the only political force to have profited from fake news, and students are not the only ones who can be deceived by it.

Last weekend, Gian Marco Centinaio, a senator from the Northern League, a right-leaning party, acknowledged that he had put on Facebook a post, subsequently shared 18,000 times, of a picture of a man identified as Boldrini’s brother, and complained how the news programs “don’t cover” the man’s no-show job that paid 47,000 euros, or more than $55,000, a month. The man in the image was not her brother, and none of the allegations were true.