Misinformation Monitor: January 2021
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By Virginia Padovese
Chine Labbe, Marie Richter, Gabby Deutch, and Bron Maher also contributed to this report
Falsehoods about violence at U.S. Capitol and Biden’s inauguration spread widely among well-known European misinformers
Following the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month — two weeks before the inauguration of President Joe Biden — misinformation about what happened during the riots found a home overseas. Several European sites that had recently delved into promoting the U.S.-centric QAnon conspiracy theory and falsehoods about the 2020 U.S. election have now turned to the Capitol riots, claiming — as have right-wing commentators, misinformation publishers, and some politicians in the U.S. — that it was actually the left who caused the violence. Many of those same sites continued to push falsehoods about the U.S. election until right before President Biden was sworn in, or even during the inauguration.
Breaking it down: Claims that antifa, a coalition of left-wing activists, was responsible for the Capitol riots have proven popular on European misinformation sites and social media accounts, despite the initial source for these claims later issuing a major correction to its story.
- The day after the Capitol riots, the French far-right site RiposteLaique.com claimed that the demonstration was “good natured,” yet also that the violence was committed by members of antifa posing as Trump supporters. “It was actually antifa militias that infiltrated the demonstration, and proof is starting to accumulate,” the site reported.
- DataBaseItalia.it, an Italian site rated Red (or generally unreliable) by NewsGuard, regularly shares QAnon conspiracy theories, and claimed that “It was Antifa’s terrorists and not Trump’s supporters who rushed to the Capitol, broke in, and tried to incite a riot.” Another Red-rated site, MaurizioBlondet.it, posted videos of the riots, commenting: “Raid at the Capitol of Antifa wreckers who pretend to be ‘patriots’. Not very convincing.”
- The German version of the Epoch Times, a right-wing pro-Trump newspaper, republished a Washington Times article claiming that facial recognition firm XRVision detected antifa members at the Capitol. XRVision, however, said this was untrue, and The Washington Times’s story now features a prominent correction. The German Epoch Times also published the Washington Times’s correction and issued an apology — after its article had already reached close to 900,000 users on Facebook and Twitter, according to CrowdTangle data.
- In the UK, conspiracy theorist David Icke also republished the Washington Times story, but the DavidIcke.com story remains uncorrected.
In France, some unreliable sites and commentators saw in these events the beginnings of a so-called “U.S. Spring” — like the Arab Spring — and warned that a similar violent popular revolution might also happen in Europe.
- On January 7, far-right site Breizh-Info.com, wrote: “Are we moving towards a US Spring? It seems that last night’s historical event revealed two Americas that don’t want to/can’t live together anymore. Is it a foretaste of what’s coming to Europe a few years from now?”
- Three days later, the site Dreuz.info asked if the invasion of the Capitol could be the first act of a revolution in the making. “What happens when the democratic process does not work anymore? …The impossibility to express oneself through voting necessarily leads to civil war, and the Capital storming is the first act.”
In the days and hours leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration, and even right after he was sworn in, misinformation about the election having been stolen from Donald Trump continued spreading in Europe.
- The day before the inauguration, Italian site UnUniverso.blog published an article claiming that Joe Biden had been arrested and the ceremony would not take place. “He will remain in federal custody until a detention hearing on Friday,” the article said. A few days earlier, Italian blogger Cesare Sacchetti, the owner of Red-rated site LaCrunaDellAgo.net, tweeted that “the [U.S.] army is still loyal to Trump,” which he deemed a “major problem” for “globalism,” suggesting that the army would remain on Trump’s side even after he left office. Sacchetti’s evidence was an article from the American conspiracy site RealRawNews.com, which falsely claimed that the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps accused U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of “treason.”
- On the day of the inauguration, the German Epoch Times published an article claiming that a “review of the elections [is] still far from complete” and that there had been “influence on the election from Italy.” Of course, the integrity of the U.S. election had already been affirmed by the governors and secretaries of state of all 50 U.S. states, as well as federal officials and the Electoral College.
- Hours before Biden’s inauguration, an author on the French site Dreuz.info wrote: “I will not be watching the ceremony. It will be a hideous sham… All the country’s institutions have failed.” And on the day Trump left office, French QAnon website QActus.fr wrote that the inauguration was just an “illusion,” continuing to assert that Trump would stay in power as the heroic figure at the heart of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Why we should care: Real-life violence fed by online misinformation could well happen in Europe, too. Some well-known French misinformation websites are already warning about it. In Germany, observers of the Capitol riots were reminded of the events in Berlin in August 2020, when hundreds of people protesting the German government’s COVID-19 measures attempted to storm the Reichstag. (Police stopped them from entering). Prior to the protest, right-wing activists had used messenger apps and social media to spread the falsehood that American and Russian soldiers were in Berlin to help overthrow the German government. During the protest, the claim emerged that even then-President Donald Trump himself was in town.
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Days before a new president was inaugurated, a new election fraud theory emerged: #ItalyDidIt
Earlier this month new false claims about U.S. presidential elections were widely shared on social media, with the hashtags #ItalyDidIt and #ItalyGate.
According to these false claims, an information technology specialist who used to work for Leonardo Spa, an Italian company operating in aerospace, defense, and security, orchestrated illegal vote switching during the 2020 U.S. election.
A similar claim, based on a 52-minute video in which Maria Strollo Zack — a chair of Nations in Action, an organization that claims to be dedicated to advocating for families, according to its website — baselessly stated that votes were switched from Trump to Biden at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. According to Zack’s unsubstantiated claims, former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were involved in the plot to rig the election.
A Jan. 5, 2021, tweet by BlueSky Report, a US account created in October 2020 that now has more than 39,000 followers, claimed, “Italy interfered with the U.S. Elections. Let’s first look at the possible players involved. Obama and former PM of Italy Renzi. The Story is developing” was retweeted approximately 6,000 times.
- Italian blogger Cesare Sacchetti’s site LaCrunaDellAgo.net, best known for publishing QAnon conspiracy theories, published an article on ItalyGate, concluding that “If we want to find the key to this elaborate international coup, we must necessarily look to Rome.”
- In an article headlined “US elections: All ways lead to Rome,” French Red-rated site Geopolintel.fr promoted the claim that the U.S. election fraud was orchestrated by Barack Obama and Mateo Renzi.
- The German EpochTimes.de also advanced that claim and wrote that there had been “influence on the election from Italy.” The site again made this claim the day of the inauguration, after Trump left the White House for the last time.
- Some American unreliable sites also advanced the #ItalyDidIt narrative — but, curiously, the misinformation super-spreader TheGatewayPundit.com, which has published hundreds of stories about supposed U.S. election fraud, was skeptical, writing, “Reported Italian Intervention in the 2020 Election Falls Apart with Scrutiny.”
Why we should care: Italy isn’t the first European country to be targeted as complicit in a false American election claim; in November and December, one false narrative that circulated online claimed that evidence of illegal vote switching was housed on the servers of a Spanish company and seized by the U.S military in Frankfurt, Germany. American misinformation purveyors now have a ready-made European audience willing to leap at the chance to spread falsehoods about U.S. politics, even if these falsehoods implicate their own country.
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