Italian MP amplifies debunked COVID-19 conspiracy theories on the floor of Parliament

MP Sara Cunial referenced COVID-19 disinfo

Italian MP amplifies debunked COVID-19 conspiracy theories on the floor of Parliament

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MP Sara Cunial referenced COVID-19 disinfo in a speech at the Chamber of Deputies

(Source: AnnaPellegatta/DFRLab, Noi stiamo con la Russia di Putin/archive; ITALEXIT fuga dall’Euro/archive; EuroExit/archive; Italexit 3.0/archive; NO5G Milano/archive)

On May 14, Italian MP Sara Cunial created a public stir across the country after giving a speech at the Chamber of Deputies riddled with COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Seeking to criticize the Italian government for its measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis, Cunial spent seven minutes amplifying some of the most popular conspiracy theories in Italy and around the world about COVID-19 and the so-called deep state. In doing so, Cunial’s speech amplified conspiracy theories and disinformation narratives that have been circulating for years among fringe groups and anti-establishment communities online, which in turn have offered her their strong support on social media.

In her speech, Cunial accused Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who is often placed at the center of many COVID-19 conspiracy theories, of a litany of wrongdoing, including planning to depopulate the world — even wishing for a genocide; creating a dictatorial monopoly over the global economy; causing a polio epidemic in India; and creating vaccines that “sterilized millions of women in Africa.” Along with Gates, Cunial also targeted the World Economic Forum in Davos, the World Health Organization, the global financial system, and an “Italian deep state” cabal involving the current and previous prime minister, the pharmaceutical industry and high-tech companies, for profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of citizens.

Screenshot of MP Cunial’s speech. (Source: Youtube, Corriere della Sera/archive)

Elected at the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 2018 representing the party known as the Five Star Movement, Cunial was expelled from it in April 2019 for her extreme stances, including her opposition to vaccines. She remains in parliament, albeit no longer connected to the party.

Several Italian fact-checkers released timely and accurate debunking of Cunial’s May 14 remarks. This, however, did not prevent conspirators from amplifying the video of her speech online, praising her and calling citizens to sign a petition titled #LiberiSempre (#FreeAlways).

(Source: DFRLab via Crowdtangle. Claudio Messora/archived; Morris San/archived)

Within 48 hours, different videos of her speech posted on Youtube collected millions of views and social media engagements on other platforms. A search for her name using the social media monitoring tool Buzzsumo found that social media users engaged the most with content coming from Youtube.

BuzzSumo search results for“Sara Cunial” returned an overwhelming majority of results being housed on Youtube. (Source: DFRLab, via BuzzSumo)

The top results returned by BuzzSumo regarding the number of engagements are videos and articles shared by Youtube-based conspiracy theory channels and outlets, all expressing support for Cunial and accusing mainstream media and official sources for not telling “the real truth” to Italian citizens. Four of these videos gained almost 1,730,000 views on Youtube in only two days, while the top three received nearly 600,000 engagements on Facebook.

The videos received high levels of views and engagement on Youtube. (Source: DFRLab via Buzzsumo. (Sources: Val/archive; 2. Morris San/archive; 3. Byoblu/archive; 5. Marcello Pamio/archive; 6. Oggi 24 Ore/archive)
Top six Youtube videos and articles returned by BuzzSumo for engagement volume. The fourth result links to a video that was removed from Youtube. (Source: DFRLab via Buzzsumo. 1. Val/archive; 2. Morris San/archive; 3. Byoblu/archive; 5. Marcello Pamio/archive; 6. Oggi 24 Ore/archive.)

Since the beginning of the pandemic, one of these Youtube channels, Byoblu, has become a notorious source of disinformation and ill-founded news about COVID-19, giving voice to questionably reputable medical experts and conspiracy theorists. A self-described video blog for “free information” with 450,000 subscribers, Byoblu was created in 2007 by Claudio Messora, a former communications consultant for the Five Star Movement. It has been part of an Italian fact-checkers’ black list of disinformation sources since 2014.

Within 48 hours of her parliamentary speech, Facebook users had created 13 groups in support of her, comprised of more than 32,000 users. Across these groups, users praised Cunial as the new “voice of the people” and applaud her for opposing to mainstream media and “strong powers.”

Facebook groups created between May 14–16 in support of MP Sara Cunial after her public speech at the Italian Chamber of Deputies. (Source: Sara Cunial (la voce del popolo)/archive; Sara Cunial, Io Sottoscrivo!/archive; Sara Cunial for president!/archive; Noi con Sara Cunial/archive; #_IoAffiancoSaraCunial/archive; Sara Cunial Teniamoci aggiornati/archive; Organizzati con Sara Cunial/archive; Sostenitori dell’Onorevole Sara Cunial — I Cittadini Italiani/archive; On. Sara Cunial — Una di noi/archive; Appoggio a Sara Cunial/archive; Sara Cunial — Fuochi di Resistenza/archive; Sara Cunial Puglia/archive; Sara Cunial/archive).

Meanwhile, Twitter users started amplifying the hashtag #IoStoConSaraCunial (“I Stand With Sara Cunial”). According to an analysis conducted using the social media monitoring tool Meltwater Explore, the hashtag gained five million impressions within 48 hours.

Searching the hashtag #IoStoConSaraCunial (#IStandWithSaraCunial), Meltwater returned 4,550 results that gained five million impressions between May 14 and May 16. (Source: DFRLab via Meltwater)

Some of the most followed users who shared Cunial’s videos on Twitter include populist Lega party politician Patrizia Rametta; recently expelled Five Star Movement politician Davide Barillari; and Alessandro Meluzzi, a regular guest in Byoblu videos and interviews.

Posts that amplified Cunial’s speech on Twitter between May 14–16. (Source: Patrizia Rametta/archive; Davide Barillari/archive; Byoblu via Meltwater/archive; Byoblu via Meltwater/archive; Alessandro Meluzzi/archive; Twitter/archive)

The “about” section of the Facebook group Sostenitori dell’Onorevole Sara Cunial — I Cittadini Italiani (Supporters on MP Sara Cunial — The Italian Citizens) unveils a similar network of social media users. In fact, in the description of the group, the page admins list all the things their community opposes, including 5G antennas, facial recognition, public funds given to WHO and pharmaceutical companies, restrictive measures against the spread of COVID-19 that limit citizens’ rights of movement and force them to wear medical masks and gloves, “regime media,” and mandatory vaccines. Facebook also flags the group for discussing vaccines and invited users to get reliable information from the WHO website.

(Source: Sostenitori dell’Onorevole Sara Cunial — I Cittadini Italiani/archive)

In a search conducted using the keywords “Strepitosa Cunial” (“Sensational Cunial”), Crowdtangle returned 125 posts shared on public groups and pages between May 14 and May 16. Almost all the posts returned include the same video with the text “A Sensational Sara Cunial — Deep State, Gates, Agenda 21” and a signature by the Facebook page Politically Incurrect on the top-right corner. A first look at the results returned by Crowdtangle shows that Facebook users shared the video in groups and pages populated by anti-vax, anti-5G, and anti-EU communities, shedding light on some of the shared interests between supporters of these different political stances.

Some of the posts returned by Crowdtangle with the search “Strepitosa Cunial” (Sensational Cunial). (Source: DFRLab via Crowdtangle. From top left, clockwise: Politically incurrect/archive; Vaccini Puliti/archive; Basta Europa — Basta Euro: Salviamo l’Italia/archive; NO5G Milano/archive; Italexit 3.0/archive; EuroExit/archive; ITALEXIT fuga dall’Euro/archive; Noi stiamo con la Russia di Putin/archive)

On the same day of the speech, Cunial’s video also landed on Telegram, both on Byoblu’s and her own channel, gaining thousands of views. Due to its lack of a user code of conduct, Telegram has become an appealing platform for these online communities that share disinformation and conspiracy theories. This trend is also well illustrated by Byuoblu and Cunial themselves in some of their most recent posts.

From left to right: Byoblu posts Sara Cunial’s May 14 speech; Sara Cunial shares the video of her speech; Byoblu shares an article on Trump’s decision to oppose to social media companies; Cunial opened her Telegram channel on April 24, 2020 denouncing Facebook’s increasing censorship. (Source: Byoblu and Cunial’s channels on Telegram)

On May 14, in fact, Byoblu shared an article inviting all users that have been banned and censored “for unjustified reasons” from Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter to report them through what it considered a new a website created by the Trump administration to collect reports of anti-conservative bias on social platforms. The site in question was actually announced in May 2019 and is no longer active. Sara Cunial also claims she opened her Telegram channel on April 24, 2020 to share her work as an Italian parliamentarian, denouncing the “increasingly more pressing censorship and Facebook’s capability to make content not aligning with the ‘official truth’ disappear.”

In the days following her speech at the Italian Parliament, Sara Cunial gained notoriety beyond Italy’s borders. According to an analysis run via Meltwater Explore, her name received 52,000,000 impressions on Twitter between May 14–17, thanks in part to international users who expressed their support through tweets in English, Spanish, French, and other languages, some of which reached thousands of users.

Cunial’s name received 52,000,000 impressions on Twitter between May 14–17. These impressions include news and articles reporting her speech, but also posts from international users expressing their support in English, Spanish, French and other languages. (Source: DFRLab via Meltwater. From top-left, clockwise: @sylviefourcade; @RoseDC11; @consmover; @In_omnia_paratu; @PacioJanse; @PublicGringo.)

Anna Pellegatta is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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