Russian Propaganda Finds a Home in Italian Media

Since the Ukraine invasion, Italy has become a haven for pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda.

By , a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini appears on the TV show 'Porta a Porta' under an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini appears on the TV show 'Porta a Porta' under an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini appears on the Italian TV show Porta a Porta in Rome on March 1 with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed behind him. Massimo Di Vita/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump authorized a retaliatory cyberattack on Russian government-backed trolls and hackers who were aiming to interfere in the U.S. midterm election. In 2020, the Biden administration sanctioned Russian entities and individuals for similar efforts.

In each instance, the Russians were capitalizing on divisions in American society, seeking to amplify a growing partisan gulf and erode faith in the democratic process via trolls, fake websites, and internet-based fronts.

But what if, horror-movie style, the enemy was already in the house—if the U.S. news media itself was a shill for Russian propaganda? That is the case in parts of Europe—most visibly in Italy, which has become a haven for Russian disinformation and propaganda since the invasion of Ukraine.

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump authorized a retaliatory cyberattack on Russian government-backed trolls and hackers who were aiming to interfere in the U.S. midterm election. In 2020, the Biden administration sanctioned Russian entities and individuals for similar efforts.

In each instance, the Russians were capitalizing on divisions in American society, seeking to amplify a growing partisan gulf and erode faith in the democratic process via trolls, fake websites, and internet-based fronts.

But what if, horror-movie style, the enemy was already in the house—if the U.S. news media itself was a shill for Russian propaganda? That is the case in parts of Europe—most visibly in Italy, which has become a haven for Russian disinformation and propaganda since the invasion of Ukraine.

Those who follow the Russian war in Ukraine were particularly astonished when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, generally viewed in Western capitals as a smooth operator lacking some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cruder tics, announced that it was totally consistent for the Jewish president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to be running a neo-Nazi junta because, Lavrov explained, former Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” and some of the “most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”

But buried in the reporting on this frightful tirade was the fact that Lavrov was being interviewed on Zona Bianca—a talk show on Rete 4, a private station owned by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset—and that his interviewer, Giuseppe Brindisi, did little more than toss softballs at the Putin henchman as he made these incredible statements. Indeed, Brindisi ended the interview with a salutary “buon lavoro,” according to Decode39, an Italian research institution, a salutation akin to “good luck with your work.”

Although the Lavrov interview was a notable and widely publicized moment, it was merely the tip of the Italian iceberg. Russia’s propagandists and sympathizers have made a home for themselves in Italian media and have had a significant impact on public opinion in that country. A report in a Coda newsletter (which follows disinformation) mere months after the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in February detailed numerous instances of pro-Russian or Russian-influenced news masquerading as fact. One prominent host on Rete 4 described an appalling Russian massacre of Ukrainians: “There was a massacre in Bucha, [Ukraine], but I honestly cannot say who did it. … The Nazis are in Kyiv.”

The problem is not restricted to so-called conservative Italian channels either. State news channel Rai reported on the first attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (where tensions are currently boiling) as the result of Ukrainian “sabotage.” (There is little doubt Russia was behind the “sabotage.”)

In addition to its pro-Kremlin news anchors and hosts, Italian television has generously and repeatedly provided a platform to Putin’s cronies—but not in the interest of balance, as pro-Ukraine regulars on Italian television have complained of being shut out in favor of Russophiles.

Rather, details Matteo Pugliese, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Italian TV simply offers a judgment-free zone for the likes of Putin’s house philosopher Alexander Dugin (whose daughter, Darya Dugina, was recently killed in what many Russia observers believe was a false flag operation), Federal Security Service-supported Crimea-based journalist Yulia Vitazyeva, and a list of Russian state flunkies too long to reprint. (The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab noted that “Italy was the top location of Twitter accounts using the hashtag #Dugina in reference to the death of Darya Dugina.”)

This flood of Russian propaganda and propagandists in Italy is all the more notable in light of the fact that the Italian government (as part of a European Union decision) has banned Russian channels RT and Sputnik. But even without Kremlin-directed media broadcasting in Italy, Moscow’s messages are sticking.

Putin is not the first Russian to hold the Italian imagination. During the Cold War, Italy boasted the largest communist party in Europe. And the anti-Americanism that became all the vogue in the 1960s and 1970s was all the deeper in Italy, and it drove ever closer business and academic ties with the Soviet Union. “Italia-URSS” (Italy-USSR) clubs were ubiquitous, with particular purchase among Italy’s intellectuals. A recent study details the Italian Communist Party’s post-World War II efforts to penetrate Italy’s cultural institutions (having abandoned the notion of a proletarian revolution as an unlikely prospect), ultimately reaching into the highest levels of Italian politics, publishing, and research. (The study is a shocking read, unfortunately only easily accessible in Italian.)

With this history, it should come as little surprise that a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) survey of Europe this year found Italians the most sympathetic to Russia of all countries polled. For the question “Who is mainly responsible for the outbreak of the war in Ukraine?” only 56 percent of Italians polled blamed Russia—the lowest number in Europe—with fully 27 percent blaming “Ukraine, the EU, or the U.S.” Ditto on the question of “Which country constitutes the biggest obstacle to peace between Russia and Ukraine?”—with 39 percent of Italians blaming Russia (again the lowest percentage in Europe), and an almost equal 35 percent blaming “Ukraine, the EU, or the U.S.”

(From Washington’s perspective, the ECFR survey highlighted another problem in NATO ally Italy’s public: To the question “Should your country spend more on defense now given the war in Ukraine?” only 14 percent of Italians said yes, again the lowest number in Europe.)

Twitter is another force amplifying pro-Russian propaganda in Italy. A study in the Italian edition of Rolling Stone revealed a “ferocious and pervasive” network of both genuine and bot accounts promoting the Russian—or Z or Zeta—narrative. (Z is the Russian-adopted symbol of the war in Ukraine.) Using a rigorous system of filtering and cross-referencing retweets, hashtags, users, and messages—while underscoring that supporting Russia and its actions in Ukraine is not illegal—the author, Alex Orlowski, boiled the Italian pro-Z Twitter phenomenon down to 250,000 users. That’s a quarter of a million people—no small potatoes in a country of only 60 million people.

Crowning Orlowski’s list of most-followed, most-amplified accounts—more than the Russian Embassy account in Rome—is the Twitter account of pro-Kremlin member of the European Parliament Francesca Donato. Donato, once a member of the rightist Lega (ex-Lega Nord) party in Italy, quit the party in protest at the EU-wide COVID-19 vaccine certification system, and she was then booted from her Identity and Democracy Party in the European Parliament after refusing to condemn Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

Donato is far from the only Italian politician to shill for Moscow. Her former colleagues in the Lega, including former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, are well-known apologists for the Kremlin. Like politician Marine Le Pen in France, Salvini has made no secret of his sympathies; the Italian press reported in May that secret meetings between Salvini’s emissaries and the Russian Embassy were likely aimed at destabilizing the current Mario Draghi government. Indeed, together with the pro-Russian Five Star Movement, the Lega, which touted its opposition to Italian military aid to Ukraine, brought down Draghi not long after.

The question of Italian support for Ukraine may well have been behind the fall of the technocratic Draghi unity government. But with elections slated for Sept. 25, front-runner Giorgia Meloni, head of the Brothers of Italy party, has reiterated her support for Ukraine. This has not so much been seen with the other agents of Draghi’s demise, Salvini’s Lega, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, and the fading Five Star Movement.

What will that mean once Italy’s infamous coalition-building process begins in the wake of elections? It’s anyone’s guess, but one thing is for certain: The ground in Italy is fertile for yet a greater swing toward Moscow.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On? Twitter: @dpletka

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