Populist parties were the big winners in Italy’s parliamentary elections on March 4, with Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), Lega Nord (LN) and Forza Italia taking home almost 70 percent of the votes.
But the election results aren’t just an indication that Italy has been swept up in the wave of populism that’s taken hold across Europe and the U.S. It’s also a troubling sign that Italians are rejecting mainstream news outlets in favor of news on social media.
Italy’s populist parties enjoy a cozy relationship with social media. So much so, that the leader of LN, Matteo Salvini, took to Facebook to thank social media for his party’s electoral success.
M5S, too, knows how to leverage social media for its own benefit. In fact, the political party came into being after a blog post written by its co-founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, went viral. Since then, social media platforms have been integral to the rise of M5S. Members can even go online to vote in primary elections and have their say on potential policies.
So far, this sounds like more of the same: Trump, America’s Twitter President, often bypasses established media outlets to communicate in 140 characters. In the U.K., Nigel Farage has tweeted almost twice as much as Theresa May and boasts double the number of Twitter followers.
Something else Italian populists seem to have in common with their counterparts abroad? An outspoken distaste for mainstream media. Just as Trump regularly disregards journalism as “fake news” (183 times in his first year as president to be exact), Italian populists frequently call out journalists who disagree with them. Grillo has even advocated for “people’s juries,” a randomly selected group of citizens to determine fact from fiction in mainstream media.
One reason for the recent rise of populist parties is that their opposition to mainstream media is shared by a significant portion of the electorate. In 2016, Americans’ trust in traditional media plunged to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with only 32 percent of respondents saying that the media reports the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” The same year, only 25 percent of Brits trusted journalists to tell the truth. Similarly, a recent study found that in 2017, 45 percent of Italians had a low level of trust in mainstream media.
Italians’ disillusionment with mainstream media reflects a deeply entrenched unhappiness with the current system: The media is sick and Italians have had enough.
One of its gravest illnesses? It’s insidiously tied up in Italian politics. First, there is the ever-revolving door between politics and journalism as many ex-politicians find new employment as reporters and vice versa. Worse still is what Italians call “lottizzazione,” translated as “the division of land into plots.” It describes how control over various public TV and radio channels are distributed between powerful political parties. For instance, former Prime Minister Berlusconi founded Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster, and his family’s holding company still owns a controlling stake in it.
It isn’t just its overly intimate relationship with politics that contaminates journalism. It’s also the mafia groups and local criminal gangs who influence what gets reported and what doesn’t. The pressure mafia groups place on journalists to stop digging into certain stories is one of the reasons why Italy consistently does badly in the World Press Freedom Index.
One regrettable result of Italy’s distrust in the media is that newspaper readership has declined. Circulation rates have taken a nosedive since 2000 from 6 million copies per day to just 2.5 million by 2016. This means newspapers are bringing in less money every year and that in turn forces them to rely on business sponsorships. As as a result, they often publish articles that cater to an elite, forgetting those who already feel left behind.
With the widespread perception that mainstream media is controlled by politicians, the mafia and businesses, it’s no wonder Italians are moving away from traditional outlets and towards social media for their news. A recent study showed that Italian voters often went directly to populist parties’ websites and social media accounts, rather than mainstream media websites, when looking for political news.
This paints a troubling picture of politics in Italy, especially because of the high rates of fake news found on social media. Last year, Buzzfeed reported that several sites in the M5S network had cross-posted fake news stories. Another blog in the M5S network was excluded by the Google AdSense network after it was accused of misleading its users.
Democracy relies on informed citizens making choices. So with voters across Italy relying on social media as their main source of news, the nation’s democracy may be in danger.
So how can Italy revive its journalism and democracy? For one thing, the government could prosecute websites that distribute fake or misleading news. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely as M5S, the populist party set to take power, doesn’t see the problem social media poses. After all, its co-founder claims that newspapers are the real fabricators of fake news and “need controlling.”
So it’s up to the mainstream media to bring democracy back to life in Italy. Journalists must find ways to separate themselves from the murky worlds of politics, big business and criminal gangs. This process won’t be easy, but outlets can start by no longer recruiting ex-politicians to their newsrooms. They can also find alternative sources of funding, perhaps by establishing a modest paywall.
The mafia problem will be harder to solve, but the police are starting to take the matter seriously. Just recently, they opened a coordination center to combat attacks against journalists.
Once Italy can solve the problems plaguing it’s journalism, we’ll see voters go the polls with facts instead of frustration.