Report: Proof Russians Trying To Influence Italy Elections

Five Russian-linked Twitter accounts are clearly favoring anti-establishment Italian parties Five-Star Movement and Northern League ahead of March 4 national elections.

Pro-Salvini rally in Turin on Feb. 1
Pro-Salvini rally in Turin on Feb. 1
Paolo Mastrolilli

TURIN — A social media operation to influence the Italian general election on March 4 is well underway, according to a report obtained by La Stampa from an international expert on Russian interference in elections around the world. The report links this campaign to Russian operatives and identifies five Twitter accounts used to spread political propaganda ahead of the elections: @DoctorWho744, @CorryLoddo, @lucamedico, @Outis2000, and @Franco SuSarellu.

All five accounts shared pro-Russian content, as well as posts that strongly backed the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and the right-wing Northern League, two Italian parties previously suspected of having links to the Kremlin. The accounts stand out because they do not behave like those of real Twitter users. They send tweets at all times of the day, posting constantly from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. One account went from an average of 15 tweets a day in 2015 to 105 in 2016, reaching a high of 125 a day last year.

In that account's 65,000 tweets, the word Russia appears over 4,700 times, followed by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi with over 4,000 mentions; Vladimir Putin with 1,465; Five-Star leader Beppe Grillo with 966; Northern League leader Matteo Salvini with 570; and conservative former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with 475. The user also interacts with media outlets, tweeting 13,000 times at the Kremlin-backed Sputnik news agency, 1,100 times at WikiLeaks, and 735 times at the anti-establishment Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

The account's political leanings show in its communication with pro-Five Star and pro-Northern League users, posting almost 4,000 tweets and retweets of notable Twitter accounts favorable to both parties. The person behind this account — whose identity La Stampa has chosen not to reveal — has two Facebook accounts with two different purposes: One automatically reposts his tweets, while the other republishes propaganda found on pro-Five Star Facebook groups. He also claims to have a Russian girlfriend.

These patterns lend the idea more credibility.

According to an anonymous source who conducted further research on the account's pattern of social media use, the activity log for the posts has been deleted. This points to a careful attention to detail, eliminating all traces of where the posts were published and which devices they were sent from. The source also reported that the user's email account mainly receives spam emails and sends out only a few messages a year, while the Facebook and Twitter accounts combined have only sent messages to ten people in the last four years.

Five-Star leader Beppe Grillo — Photo: Antonella Beccaria

While the user may have just been deleting all his messages, the evidence points to the fact that he is not simply a political activist but a professional who spends hours a day on digital propaganda. Another one of the Twitter users, who frequently masks his IP address and claims to be based on the Italian island of Sardinia, more closely resembles a classic Internet troll. Instead, his IP often marks him in Turin or in other locations, indicating that he either travels a lot or is using a VPN to mask his location and protect his privacy — a tactic frequently used by Russian trolls based in St. Petersburg, as reported by several intelligence agencies and The Guardian newspaper.

While there is no definitive evidence to prove a direct relationship between these accounts and a Russian operation to influence the Italian elections, these patterns lend that idea more credibility. At 160,000 posts published by five accounts, this may appear small, but there have been operations of similar size undertaken in other countries.

Impartial data reveals that Russian-linked accounts tweeted over 450 million times during the 2016 U.S. presidential election — and that's not counting Facebook, where pro-Russian posts reached millions of Americans. It is important to look into whether a foreign power is trying to interfere with Italian elections at any level.

As citizens of a democratic country, Italians have the right to choose between political parties and their election manifestos. But if these parties collaborate with foreign countries, or if they intend to shift the country's alliances, voters have a right to know about it and express their opposition in a public debate.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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