Analysis

Italy’s Anti-Vaccination Movement Is Militant and Dangerous

An online campaign led to the storming of Italy’s parliament.

By , a freelance writer who publishes the Garbage Day newsletter about web culture and technology.
Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against vaccine passes in central Rome.
Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against vaccine passes in central Rome on Oct. 9. TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, thousands of Italian anti-vaccine advocates mobilized across the country. Thick plumes of tear gas filled the streets and water cannons were turned on the crowds as far-right gangs stormed parliament’s stairs. Shocking photos and videos hit Twitter and immediately went viral even outside of Italy for their uncanny resemblance to the Jan. 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill.

According to Reuters, more than 30 Italian anti-riot police officers were injured, and leaders of Italy’s far-right New Force party were arrested along with dozens of other protesters. The organizers of the demonstrations across the country in October were a mix of trade unions, far-right gangs, and a decentralized anti-vaccine movement that has sprung up on the country’s social media. At one point, protesters attempted to force their way into the emergency unit of a hospital in Rome to try and free a fellow protester. Medical staff had to create a barricade to protect themselves.

The intensity of Italy’s anti-vaccine movement is confusing at first glance. The country has done a good job of vaccinating its citizens during the pandemic. Right now, around 83 percent of people over 12 years old have had both doses. To put that in perspective, the United States is around 59 percent vaccinated, and as of last month, around 74 percent of adults in the European Union were vaccinated. But that hasn’t made Italian anti-vaccine hysteria any less powerful.

Last month, thousands of Italian anti-vaccine advocates mobilized across the country. Thick plumes of tear gas filled the streets and water cannons were turned on the crowds as far-right gangs stormed parliament’s stairs. Shocking photos and videos hit Twitter and immediately went viral even outside of Italy for their uncanny resemblance to the Jan. 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill.

According to Reuters, more than 30 Italian anti-riot police officers were injured, and leaders of Italy’s far-right New Force party were arrested along with dozens of other protesters. The organizers of the demonstrations across the country in October were a mix of trade unions, far-right gangs, and a decentralized anti-vaccine movement that has sprung up on the country’s social media. At one point, protesters attempted to force their way into the emergency unit of a hospital in Rome to try and free a fellow protester. Medical staff had to create a barricade to protect themselves.

The intensity of Italy’s anti-vaccine movement is confusing at first glance. The country has done a good job of vaccinating its citizens during the pandemic. Right now, around 83 percent of people over 12 years old have had both doses. To put that in perspective, the United States is around 59 percent vaccinated, and as of last month, around 74 percent of adults in the European Union were vaccinated. But that hasn’t made Italian anti-vaccine hysteria any less powerful.

Italy’s current anti-vaccine movement dates back to 1998, when a now-discredited U.K. study in the Lancet from anti-vaccination activist and former doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed vaccinations against measles, mumps, and rubella could be linked to autism in children. Although this study is the basis for anti-vaccine movements around the world, it really made an impact in Italy. Today’s anti-vaccine advocates are preaching to an already prepared audience.

The biggest engine of current anti-vaccine activism in Italy, according to Viola Stefanello, an Italian journalist and web culture researcher, is Facebook. According to recent leaks from the Facebook Papers, brought to light by whistleblower Frances Haugen, the platform has been aware of its growing anti-vaccine problem since at least 2019 but refused to do anything about it. Stefanello told Foreign Policy that while anti-vaccine content is a global problem for Facebook, the scale at which vaccine opponents are able to grow in Italy is completely beyond anything the United States has seen.

“We also have our own people who are obsessed with finding home therapies—like Ivermectin—to cure the virus,” Stefanello said. “One of the most prominent figures, Mauro Rango, a human rights graduate with no medical background, became famous among COVID skeptics in 2020 for a viral WhatsApp message filled with misinformation.”

Rango is connected to a 74,000-follower page on Facebook called IppocrateOrg. The IppocrateOrg Facebook page is used to regularly share memes containing COVID-19 misinformation as well as links to Rango’s anti-vaccine YouTube videos. Unlike with similar content in the United States, not a single post on the IppocrateOrg Facebook page contains a misinformation warning or even the COVID-19 health information widget Facebook mandates for English-language content.

“There’s a whole galaxy of Facebook pages that have been peddling this kind of stuff—and other conspiracies—for years,” Stefanello said.

The biggest node in the Italian anti-vaccination network is Informare x Resistere (“Inform x Resist”). It’s an extremely active page that, for the last few weeks, has been warning its massive audience that the Italian government could use vaccinations as a way to imprison them inside their homes. It shares posts that claim COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous or even possibly deadly. The page has been around so long it was accused of spreading fascist rhetoric in 2015.

Anti-vaccination beliefs have also circulated widely within new-age communities around the world, and last month in Italy, many of the anti-vaccine movement’s disparate elements came together in Trieste, Italy, one of the most intense areas for recent COVID-19 vaccination protests. Far-right gangs clashed with antifascists in the city as anti-vaccine protesters did yoga in the main square.

In the years since Wakefield’s fraudulent study was published, both anti-vaccine misinformation and politically weaponized disinformation has become an increasingly powerful tool for Italian populists to build political support. And as Facebook became more popular in Italy, both meme-fueled political populism and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have become further embedded in the country’s social media and political apparatus. All of this came to a head during the country’s 2018 general election.

It was during that election that former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, long considered the European Union’s first modern populist leader, was finally ousted from power thanks to a new generation of Facebook-supercharged populist parties, of which many seized on the country’s anti-vaccine community. They also used similar conspiratorialist recruitment tactics around the country’s recent influx of migrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. It was in 2018 that the Week declared Italy the anti-vaccine capital of Europe. While campaigning during the general election, then-Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the center-right party, the League, said vaccines were useless and dangerous during his campaign. And populist right-wing party the Five Star Movement, actively courted and recruited vaccine opponents during the same election.

Berlusconi, a media magnate who had never held office before, was prime minister under four different governments between 1994 and 2011 and first rose to power with a huge push from right-wing TV in Italy. Now, Stefanello said there is an entire political media ecosystem—from Facebook to TV—in Italy that uplifts vaccine deniers and oftentimes turns them into celebrities or political tastemakers.

“There’s a whole universe of right-wing newspapers that have been stoking fears around COVID vaccines as well as disinformation about the origin of the virus, anti-lockdown rhetoric, the whole deal,” Stefanello said. “Anti-vax doctors who go viral online are also sometimes invited to talk on TV.”

Italian scientists were aware of this from the pandemic’s start. Italy was the first Western country to be hit hard by the pandemic, which devastated the country in February 2020. Public messaging that could counteract anti-vaccine disinformation was worked into the country’s COVID-19 response, with the country’s version of immunologist Anthony Fauci, virologist Roberto Burioni, taking a tough stance when advising the country through the pandemic—the thinking being that to fight populism, you need scientifically accurate populism.

Although vaccination rates in Italy have been strong, the government’s aggressive COVID-19 response has also given a gift to the country’s far right, which has become more politically powerful since the 2018 general election. Two vaccine opponents were arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails at a vaccination center in May, and the Five Star Movement is struggling to rein in their anti-vaccine supporters in the midst of the country’s very real need to get vaccinated.

To hopefully get the country back to normal, Italy has launched what it’s calling the green pass system, which was what caused the most recent wave of protests. As of Oct. 15, Italians are now barred from working without a digital vaccination certificate. During the green pass demonstrations, U.S. actor Jared Leto was caught in riots and tear gassed. The crowds weren’t just the people sharing Facebook memes about autism rates though. There was a serious presence of racist and fascist extremists in the crowds.

“The better organized far-right, neofascist groups have taken advantage of the discomfort caused by the measures taken to counter the spread of COVID since April/May 2020,” Carlo Gianuzzi, a member of the education committee for the Brescia chapter of the National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI), told Foreign Policy. “The government appears to be struggling, in my opinion, to counter this anti-vax narrative.”

ANPI is one of Europe’s longest running antifascist organizations, founded in 1944 by Italian resistance fighters to battle the Nazi-backed Salò regime set up by former Italian leader Benito Mussolini after the collapse of the original fascist government. Over the last 10 years, it has been adapting to the digital war against authoritarianism. Gianuzzi’s Twitter account is a rolling stream of updates on the country’s far-right street gangs. It was one of the accounts that lit up on Twitter during the green pass demonstrations.

“The level and features of the Oct. 9 weekend violence was disturbing, with scenes—broadcasted live or uploaded to social media—reminiscent of the January storming of Capitol Hill,” he said. “Those images evoked identical scenes from exactly a century ago, as Mussolini’s Black Shirts were building up the momentum, which would lead to the March on Rome and the taking of power in Italy.”

According to Gianuzzi, however, as much as Facebook has been a huge vector for anti-vaccine conspiracy theories over the last decade, the bulk of the organizing that led to the green pass protests happened on the messaging app Telegram.

Italian misinformation researcher and fact checker David Puente confirmed this. According to Puente, Telegram is now coordinating the bulk of viral anti-vaccine content, which then spreads outward to larger, more public platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

“The top of the polarization is on Telegram,” Puente told Foreign Policy. “They publish a post with a news article. Users share it in other groups or Telegram channels, then on Facebook and Twitter (or Instagram, but not much). There are Italian authors, but a lot of material comes from other countries. The material is translated and published under another author’s name.”

Puente said the far-right connection is fairly straightforward. Extremists in Italy see anti-vaccine advocates as an angry network of support and use misinformation to lure them in. Then they drive up anger until it culminates in the kind of violence that occurred in October. Protesters clashed with police and stormed a hospital, but at the same time, extremists tried to break down parliament’s doors and destroyed the country’s largest trade union’s headquarters, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL).

“Right-wing extremists use themes where people get angry the most. The assault on the CGIL in Rome is an example,” Puente said. “Many are citizens who have been fooled by the antivax. People who are afraid, how do they react? With violence.”

The fact that Italy’s anti-vaccine community is slowly transitioning from organizing in public on Facebook to organizing in smaller, more private groups on Telegram could signal the next step in online misinformation’s evolution. Now that these groups have found each other, removing them from the internet isn’t as simple as moderating the still wildly unmoderated Facebook. And if platforms or governments try to crack down on anti-vaccine demonstrations in both the United States and Italy, things could become more violent than ever before: an insurrection for every conspiracy theory.

“The process is the same as the QAnon, but with less exaggerated stories,” Puente said. “The far right feeds the anti-vaxxers by sharing their ideas, and in the end, something big happens, as with the QAnon, in fact. We were supposed to learn from Capitol Hill, but people don’t learn.”

A version of this story first originally ran in the Garbage Day newsletter.

Ryan Broderick is a freelance writer who publishes the Garbage Day newsletter about web culture and technology.

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