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Facebook: Avaaz investigation results in takedown of Italian disinformation networks with almost 2.5 million followers ahead of EU elections

** 23 Italian Facebook pages spreading disinformation and hate, including over a dozen pages supporting League or 5 Star, were taken down for policy violations **

Executive summary of report submitted to Facebook: https://secure.avaaz.org/italynetworks

Facebook has shut down 23 Italian Facebook pages with over 2.46 million followers that were spreading false information and divisive anti-migration, anti-vaccine and anti-Semitic content ahead of EU elections. Among the pages were over a dozen that support League or 5 Star.

The action followed an investigation by Avaaz, the global citizens’ movement. The pages had more followers than the official pages of the League (506K followers) and 5 Star (1.4 million followers) combined. They also generated over 2.44 million interactions over the last three months.

Facebook acted after Avaaz flagged various breaches of the platform’s Terms of Service, such as page name changes that transformed non-political pages into political and partisan ones; the use of fake accounts; hate speech; inauthentic pages and spam behavior.

The most active page was "Vogliamo il movimento 5 stelle al governo", an unofficial page in support for the 5 Star Movement. One example of fake news shared by the page included a made-up quote falsely attributed to the anti-mafia Italian writer and journalist, Roberto Saviano, saying he would "prefer to save migrants than Italian earthquake victims." He never said it, but was forced to deny it publicly.

The most active League supporting page among those taken down, “Lega Salvini Premier Santa Teresa di riva”, has been the biggest recent sharer of a video purporting to show migrants smashing a police car. The video, which has almost 10 million views, is actually a scene from a movie and has been debunked several times over the years, but is still widely shared.

Christoph Schott, Campaign Director at Avaaz, said: "This is more proof that lies designed to sow hate and division in our societies are being spread deliberately on social media ahead of the EU elections. Facebook has done a good job in taking these pages down, but it says a lot that a multi-billion dollar company is relying on a crowd-funded Avaaz investigation to defend Europe’s democracy. Facebook need to do more, and they need to do it fast."
Political pages taken down by Facebook include "Vogliamo il movimento 5 stelle al governo" (“We want the 5 Star Movement in Government”) [129,685 followers], "NOI SIAMO 5 stelle." (“We are 5 Star”) [53,916 followers], "Lega Salvini Premier Santa Teresa di riva" [16,581 followers], and "Lega Salvini Sulmona" [23,402 followers], many of them for misleading page name changes, for example from a local farmers’ association to a League supporting page.

Some of the pages taken down were apparently non-political, but were used to disseminate far-right material. "I valori della vita" ("The Values of Life"), with more than 1.5 million followers, looked like a generic lifestyle page, but was part of a network that shared content from the well-known far-right news site leggilo.org multiple times a day.

Avaaz presented its findings to Facebook on May 3rd. More specifics and examples can be found in the linked summary of Avaaz’s report.

Avaaz identified another 80 pages and groups in its investigation that are still live and active and is urging Facebook to investigate, and also act in line with a recently introduced policy to reduce the reach of such misinformation spreading groups and pages.

The investigation is a part of an EU-wide campaign by Avaaz to fight the spread of disinformation ahead of the EU elections. A team of investigative reporters, researchers and data analysts are monitoring disinformation operations across the continent, focusing on identifying fake news before it spreads, rooting out the networks driving it and working with platforms and governments to correct false information.

A similar investigation by Avaaz in Spain led to the takedown by Facebook of three far-right disinformation networks with a total of 17 pages and 1.4 million followers days before national elections.

Notes to editor:

An executive summary of the report, including screenshots, examples and graphs, can be found here and can be quoted.

Contact - Francesco Benetti on francesco@avaaz.org / +39 392 127 6444 and Julie Deruy julie@avaaz.org / +33 6 76 47 72 59