ROME — Since the invasion of Ukraine, Nadana Fridrikhson, a TV host on a Russian ministry of defense-owned channel, has been a repeat guest on Italy’s talk shows, claiming that Ukraine “has a Nazi problem,” and denying that Russian forces were behind the atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha.
She is just one of numerous Kremlin mouthpieces and apologists for President Vladimir Putin regularly hosted on Italian networks in the name of balance. While controversy over some of the guests — and their parroted propaganda — has boosted ratings, it has also sparked a backlash against what is perceived as the Italian media’s soft treatment of the Kremlin, and their embarrassing tendency to roll out the red carpet for Putin’s accomplices.
Andrea Gilli of the Rome-based NATO Defense College is among several geopolitical experts who now refuse to appear on TV with Fridrikhson.
“She has said things that were evidently false and read from a script. You cannot exchange opinions, readings and solutions with those who disseminate false information, prepared directly by the Kremlin’s propaganda office,” he said.
Italy’s parliamentary committee for security, Copasir, last week opened a probe into disinformation, in response to widespread concerns that Italian news outlets are being used to spread the pro-Putin line.
In perhaps the most egregious example of a top Russian official exploiting western media for disinformation, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared in an interview on a privately-owned TV channel founded by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He used the occasion to assert falsehoods virtually unchallenged, including an inflammatory assertion that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” — a remark for which Putin ultimately had to apologize to Israel. The European Commission was forced to remind EU broadcasters that they “must not allow incitement to violence, hatred and Russian propaganda in their talk shows.”
Andrea Romano, a parliamentarian for the Democratic Party who pushed for the Copasir investigation, said: “Disinformation is part of Russia’s military strategy, as investigations by numerous European parliaments have found. Putin’s regime is very effective in its capacity to penetrate democratic debate, to confuse, and create doubts. It would be ingenuous to close our eyes.”
For Adolfo Urso, president of the parliamentary security committee, Russia has deliberately targeted Italy in a hybrid war fought with fake news and disinformation that pollutes public opinion.
Since 2016, at least 13,000 instances of fake news have been documented by the EU’s task force, he said. “The aim is not just to confuse but to condition choices”.
Italy is often seen as a soft touch for Kremlin disinformation and a potential Trojan horse in Europe because of historic ties to Russia based on strong economic ties and the largest Communist party in the west.
“Italy has always been a kind of frontierland of NATO, part of the alliance but also supportive of Russia,” said Urso.
After coming to power Putin built a warm relationship with Berlusconi, based on shared economic interests. Over the past decade, and even after the annexation of Crimea, Putin has engaged with the rise in populist and anti-establishment parties — and especially the far-right League party — who saw him as a fellow adversary of the EU and global western elites.
Attempts to influence discussion in Italy have been constant. During the pandemic Russia’s aim was to project the impression that China and Russia were more effective against the virus than western democracy, a previous Copasir investigation found.
Since the invasion, Russian influence has taken two forms.
Russian guests, whether journalists or officials, see Italian media as their platform of choice when it comes to projecting the views of the state apparatus.
As far as Lavrov’s appearance goes, Berlusconi’s Mediaset defended the interview saying it confirmed Putin’s unwillingness to arrive at a diplomatic solution and therefore allowed us to learn something about the Russian leadership.
On the same evening, another channel interviewed Vladimir Soloviev, a presenter on Russian state TV, who is subject to sanctions, and described by the U.S. State department as the Kremlin’s most energetic propagandist today.
Pro-Kremlin views are also spread by apparently independent voices — including some respected Italian journalists and professors.
Veteran Italian war reporter Toni Capuozzo questioned on Facebook whether the Bucha massacre was staged, alleging inconsistencies between the images of dead civilians in Bucha and the narrative of the massacre, and citing a lack of blood on the street.
A study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue found that Italy had the most shared posts casting doubt on the legitimacy of the images being shared on mainstream media on Russian atrocities in Bucha, with 8 out of 10 such posts referencing Capuozzo’s post.
Italian TV stations were forced to apologize after publishing a graphic that apparently showed NATO biological laboratories underneath the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, but was in reality drawn from an apocalypse-themed board game.
It’s not just TV that has been amplifying anti-Western sentiment. The Fatto Quotidiano newspaper published a full-page article blaming the U.S. and the EU for “the massacre that is taking place in Ukraine” so favorable to Russia it was retweeted by the Russian Embassy in Italy.
But it is Italy’s distinctive political talk show tradition, strong on melodrama and orchestrated arguments and light on fact-checking and tough interviews, that is causing the most commotion. The all-in-one politics and show-business format began with shows such as Rita Dalla Chiesa’s Parlamento In, on Berlusconi’s private TV channels in the 1980s, but was soon imitated by the state broadcaster Rai.
“It is like a traveling theatre company, everyone has their role,” said Jacopo Iacoboni, a journalist at La Stampa newspaper, who has investigated Russian infiltration of the Italian media landscape.
Rai’s Cartabianca has seen a rise in its ratings since a row over one regular pro-Kremlin guest, Alessandro Orsini, a professor who has said that the West should allow Putin to win. The talk shows “are a kind of infotainment,” said Romano. “The objective is to create a row not inform.”
The parliamentary investigation will look at how talk show guests are selected and whether they had been paid by the Kremlin, he said.
“I am reasonably convinced that some of the protagonists of the Italian debate could have a material interest. Russia has huge resources for disinformation — it makes sense that they would be directing some of it at Italy. ”
Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk said that she no longer accepts invitations to such shows.
“I gave up on Italy. I feel I am there to create the illusion of objectivity then am outnumbered by guests who haven’t been to Ukraine, don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, but are repeating propaganda clichés.”
The Italy media landscape is more polluted than other countries, she said. “The talk shows fail to give context, distinguish between opinion and facts. They care more about creating a show and ratings.”
Romano, the MP, agrees. “We cannot treat facts and opinions with equal value, you wouldn’t have Goebbels debate Anne Frank about the Holocaust.”
Journalists should police the debates with rigor, coming down hard on false information, he said. “In Italy we say that if one person says that you need an umbrella and one says you don’t, then it is up to the journalist to open the window and see if it is raining, not to moderate the debate.”
The consequences of allowing disinformation to pollute the debate are serious, according to Tokariuk. “Amplifying propaganda has played a huge part in the killing of Ukrainians in the invasion.” Ukrainians “have been demonized for years and denied their right to exist. When you don’t ask critical questions you become complicit.”
Russia’s efforts to disorient Italians seem to be working. According to a recent poll, half of Italians think coverage of Ukraine is distorted. And 25 percent say they don’t believe the media on Ukraine.
Italians are also far less supportive of arming Ukrainians than other Western allies, with only around 30 percent in favor of sending more weapons compared to around 60 percent in the U.K. and U.S., according to polls.
But, for now, one concrete result of the outcry against Russian disinformation and the investigation could be a review of Italy’s staple talk show format, at least on public broadcaster Rai, and particularly for serious issues like Ukraine. Head of Rai Carlo Fuortes has suggested it may finally be time to rethink the talk show format, to avoid inflammatory debates at the expense of serious and informed exchanges.
But while reform of the talk show format would be the end of a three-decade-old tradition, it may struggle to offset the legacy of populist sentiment and distrust in institutions and media.
For now, at least, the disinformation on the Russian invasion circulating among Italians on other channels and of course on social media is likely to continue unabated.