Italy looks to combat disinformation by setting up a new national agency

Rome: We missed this earlier: The Italian senator Enrico Borghi tabled a bill to create a national agency against disinformation on March 28, according to a report by Decode39. This bill seeks to safeguard Italy from influence operations, such as the misinformation emerging from Russia. Borghi stated that the latest report from the country’s intelligence agency highlighted how Russia continues to pursue a strategy of disinformation in Europe to undermine citizens’ trust in institutions. The agency will work alongside Italy’s intelligence agency and communications authority to monitor information, identify disinformation operations, and provide tools to counter them.

Why it matters: Borghi’s proposal for a disinformation agency, suggests a trend where governments across the world are trying to set up their own agencies/ bodies to fact-check information. While the intent behind these agencies may be well-meaning, their establishment raises valid concerns about the potential for government overreach and censorship. When the government itself becomes the arbiter of truth, it poses a risk to the principles of free speech and a free press. There is a legitimate question of who will hold these agencies accountable and ensure that they do not abuse their power or engage in selective fact-checking that favors the government’s narrative.

Global context on fact-checking: Similar to Borgi’s proposal, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) notified the Fact Check Unit (FCU) under the Press Information Bureau (PIB) on March 20, 2024. With this, the social media intermediaries will have to take down any content that is labeled as “fake” or “false” by the government. While this fact-check unit has been currently stayed by the Supreme Court, it has previously been criticized for its impact on the freedom of speech.

Besides India, Singapore is yet another nation to attempt to fact-check information. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, empowered an official to deem information, diminishing public information as false and order either its removal or correction. This law has been criticized for its use against members of the opposition, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and activists. In February this year, the law was used against an opposition leader for his comments about the Singaporean government’s public housing policies. It required him to correct the video he posted about the policies.