April 23. 2024. 6:26

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Italian parliamentarians commit to defunding disinformation

Prominent Italian parliamentarians committed on Thursday (29 February) to “strengthening the immunity system” of their society by making sure that global brands stop advertising with media outlets that spread disinformation.

The announcements were made during a conference on “Defunding Disinformation” organised in the Italian Chamber of Deputies by the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI), a group of media experts concerned about the decline of media freedom in Southeastern Europe.

The BFMI director Antoinette Nikolova presented a report that said advertising revenues from major North American and European brands are funding – and thus legitimising – media outlets that spread disinformation about the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Kosovo, and other divisive issues in the Balkans.

Peter Horrocks, former BBC World News director who is now a board member of Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, argued that the Balkans was home to an extreme information war and the rest of Europe could learn from that.

Media experts explore defunding disinformation in the Balkans

Media spreading pro-Russian disinformation in the Balkans often use advertising bought by reputable Western companies to reinforce their credibility, media experts concluded at a panel held in the European Parliament on Tuesday (19 September).

Lorenzo Cesa, an Italian parliamentarian and secretary of the Union of the Centre, who hosted the event, added that Italy was equally vulnerable to disinformation. He said major reputable brands such as Ferrero, Barilla, or Prada, were among those who monetise the creation and distribution of disinformation.

“As parliamentarians, our duty is to boost the immunity defence of our country,” he said, adding that this was even more important in a year when Italy will have the presidency of the G7 and one of the themes will be Artificial Intelligence.

The discussion took place after the revelations made a day earlier by Alfredo Mantovano, state secretary at the prime minister’s office dealing with security.

He said Italian intelligence has found that some pro-Russian social channels try to legitimise the idea that the farmers’ protests across Europe are due to the economic effects of the Western sanctions on Russia.

How it works

Sarah Kay Wiley, a director with CheckMyAds, a US-based watchdog fighting for a transparent information industry, explained the mechanisms that feed media outlets spreading disinformation with revenue from global brands.

The so-called ad exchange in digital advertising involves middlemen and targets specific audiences at the best price, working on the basis of real-time bidding.

The ad exchange in digital advertising acts as an online market where publishers and advertisers trade ad space in real time, targeting specific audiences at optimal prices. Real-time bidding (RTB) is the instantaneous selling and buying of data. This technology broadcasts sensitive information about people while they use the internet, for example, the device they are using or their location.

A cross-party coalition of MEPs demanded the Commission last November to address real-time bidding practices, prompted by revelations that sensitive data including from European leaders was being auctioned to the highest bidder.

“This is how it is decided which media outlets get the advertising and which outlets die,” Wiley said, adding that the system was unregulated and opaque, including for the global brands buying advertising.

“Advertisers don’t know where their ads end up and are often horrified when their ads end up on media spreading disinformation, xenophobia, election disinformation, Russian propaganda etc. Their dollars are funding that content,” she said.

Mariolina Castellone, vice president of the Italian Senate who is also a doctor, spoke of her personal experience with disinformation in Italy during the COVID crisis. One of the examples she gave was the increase in vodka consumption, as disinformation purported that consumption of vodka could prevent contagion.

Giacomo Lasorella, chair of AGCOM, the national regulatory authority for the communication industries in Italy, also agreed that the complexity of the digital value chain makes it more difficult for the regulator to find the right interventions.

He said platforms should have enough staff, which was more difficult in smaller countries such as the Balkans or the Baltic states.

Alessio De Giorgi, director of the daily Il Riformista, said that out of seven million pieces of content identified as fake news on Facebook in Italian in the first half of 2023, only 45,000 have been removed, which he likened to “emptying the sea with a glass for water”.

Horrocks recommended that global brands should require advertising agencies and ad tech companies to provide them with detailed information on where their ads are going and drop outlets that promote disinformation.

At the same time, Horrocks said, global brands and advertising companies should identify credible independent outlets and support them through advertising, adding that this can be achieved by engaging with civil society and media freedom organisations.

He also advocated for private businesses to find mechanisms to provide financial support to credible media outlets.

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