While Italians place a higher level of trust in the internet than survey respondents in other countries, they were also among the most diligent fact-checkers.
In the study, researchers from Oxford University and Michigan State University questioned 14,000 internet users from Italy, France, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, Spain, and the United States on how they used traditional and online media.
And the results suggest that “fake news is overrated”, one of the authors, Dr Grant Blank, told The Local.
While he noted that there is plenty of misleading information out there, he said there was “no real evidence that there is more unreliable news around now than earlier”.
And what’s more, study respondents – and Italians in particular – seem well aware of the phenomenon. In Italy, internet users devote more time to fact-checking and verifying reports than was the case elsewhere. They also used a variety of sources and communicated with more people who hold different political views.
More Italians than any other nationality said they checked the veracity of news reports “often” or “very often”. In total, 61 percent said they did this, followed by 58 percent in Spain, while at the other end of the scale, just 35.3 percent of Germans did so.
“Italians are actually more trusting of the internet than traditional media, and this scepticism may be linked to strong partisanship in Italian news” explained the researcher. “Mistrust of traditional media may also be linked to the Italian political environment which has not been very stable and has been characterized by frequent corruption.”
More than half (55.8 percent) of Italians felt search engine results were reliable, the second highest figure in any country surveyed. The internet was their main source of political information, ahead of television, radio, and newspapers.
Many of Italy’s major media outlets have strong ties to political parties: for example, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who leads the Forza Italia party, is the controlling shareholder of Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster, while the government appoints top executives at state broadcaster Rai.
So, could the tendency to trust online media benefit some of Italy’s newer political forces, such as the Five Star Movement, whose leader Beppe Grillo frequently criticizes the reliability of traditional media and communicates through his blog?
“It could certainly benefit political entities which are able to use online media more effectively,” said Blank.
However, he noted Italian internet users were well aware that biased or fake information was also prevalent online.
In the study, more Italians than any other nationality said they had come across false information online, and they also used online searches to verify news reports more than their peers in other countries.
And Italians had the most diverse political opinions among people they communicated with online, with seven in ten saying they communicated with people who held mixed beliefs, and a higher than average number saying they regularly checked different news sources from usual.
Overall, Blank believes “concerns over filter bubbles have been overstated” and says the results of the study gave a “positive” picture of Italians’ engagement with news media. “It shows people take their responsibility seriously. They want to have informed opinions,” he said.
Fake news in Italy
The number of Italian fake news sites has grown significantly since 2015, Michelangelo Coltelli, founder of Butac.it, a fact-checking website which highlights cases of fake news, told The Local in February.
“In Italy there are sites used for political purposes, for disinformation, and those that make money through clickbait,” he said. “Sadly I don’t think there’s a solution to this apart from education – it needs to start with schools teaching children the difference between fake news and real news.”
A bill put forward in the Italian Senate in February proposed fines and prison terms for those caught spreading fake news, and thousands of high-profile Italians signed a petition aimed at tackling the problem.
Concerns over bogus news reports came to the fore in Italy ahead of a critical referendum on constitutional reform in early December, when the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) was accused of being behind a network of pro-Russia fake news sites that were believed to have influenced the outcome of the vote and former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s eventual resignation.
Party leader Beppe Grillo denied the accusations, writing on his blog: “The M5S has its official social media accounts, its official site and blog. Other sites or social media accounts are not attributable to the M5S.”
Grillo himself regularly accuses traditional media outlets of fake news, and has called for public juries to have the final say in deciding whether or not news is fake.