Two explosive stories began circulating in Italy in November. The first was about a 9-year-old Muslim girl who was hospitalized after being sexually assaulted by her 35-year-old “husband” in the northeastern city of Padua. The second concerned Maria Elena Boschi, a prominent lawmaker and member of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling Democratic Party, who was photographed at a funeral mourning the recent death of the notorious mafia boss Salvatore Riina.
What the stories had in common was the potential to cause turmoil in an already raucous political debate—one defined in part by anti-immigrant and antiestablishment sentiment—ahead of the country’s March 4 general election. Another thing? They were both fabricated, and it’s not clear by whom.
The issue of “fake news” has preoccupied policymakers across Europe as multiple countries ready for elections. The term became ubiquitous during America’s 2016 presidential election, when it typically described false stories, often generated or amplified by Russian-linked social media accounts, that spread online. (“Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” is the paradigmatic example. He did not.) “Fake news” has since been applied to everything from outright fabrications to simple mistakes in news reporting, and even true news one wants to discredit. But in the sense of targeted disinformation designed to influence elections, the issue is particularly urgent in Italy, where a national election is a little over a week away. Numerous countries are experimenting with different models for handling the problem, and the varieties of approaches reflect different answers to the central question: Whose job is it to fight disinformation, if anyone’s? Should it be the responsibility of tech companies, governments, or readers themselves?