ROME — After reading the horrors in Dante’s “Inferno,” Italian students will soon turn to the dangers of the digital age. While juggling math assignments, they’ll also tackle worksheets prepared by reporters from the national broadcaster RAI. And separate from the weekly hour of religion, they will receive a list of what amounts to a new set of Ten Commandments for the digital age.
Among them: Thou shalt not share unverified news; thou shall ask for sources and evidence; thou shall remember that the internet and social networks can be manipulated.
The lessons are part of an extraordinary experiment by the Italian government, in cooperation with leading digital companies including Facebook, to train a generation of students steeped in social media how to recognize fake news and conspiracy theories online.
“Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it,” said Laura Boldrini, the president of the Italian lower house of Parliament, who has spearheaded the project with the Italian Ministry of Education.
“It’s only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies,” said Ms. Boldrini, who is left-leaning but not affiliated with any political party. The initiative will be rolled out in 8,000 high schools across the country starting on Oct. 31.
Pope Francis recently announced that he would dedicate his 2018 World Communications Day address to the topic of fake news, and the United States Congress is investigating how Russian agents manipulated Facebook and Twitter to spread false stories and stoke conspiracy theories to sway the 2016 presidential election.
But ahead of crucial Italian elections early next year, the country has become an especially fertile ground for digital deceit. Frustrated by economic woes, upset by a migrant crisis and fed a steady diet of partisan media, many Italians subscribe to all kinds of conspiracy theories. It is what they call dietrologia, the belief that there is also always something dietro, or behind, the surface.
The Italian passion for seeing intrigue — whether or not it exists — around every corner runs deep, said Alessandro Campi, a professor of political science at Perugia University. “All of this is part of the Italian cultural heritage,” he said.
A history of scheming Borgia cardinals, waves of foreign domination, papal crackdowns and corrupt governments had imbued Italians with an abiding distrust in authority, Mr. Campi said.
In recent years, this background has helped erode the standing of traditional political parties while being expertly exploited by political upstarts, insurgents and outsiders, none more so than the surging Five Star Movement and its founder, Beppe Grillo.
“I’d say that the Five Star Movement believes more than any other political party in conspiracy theories,” said Mr. Campi, an editor of “Conspiracies and Plots — From Machiavelli to Beppe Grillo.”
“It’s not only a tactic,” Mr. Campi said of the movement, which has succeeded in attracting votes from the left and the right with an ideologically ambiguous form of populism. “It’s their political worldview.”
Nicola Biondo, a former chief of communications for the Five Star Movement, said that for the party, spreading conspiracies was akin to a policy.
“They use the term Great Powers, never specifying who those powers are,” said Mr. Biondo, who has recently written a book, “Supernova: How Five Star Was Killed,” with another party defector. “It is a mantra.”
Ms. Boldrini, sponsor of the new student curriculum, asserts that the web cannot be forfeited to the fringes, and that the government must teach the next generation of Italian voters how to defend themselves against falsehoods and conspiracy theories designed to play on their fears.
She said she had included Google and Facebook in the project in an acknowledgment that virtual space is where many young Italians live.
Nevertheless, she expressed skepticism in particular about Facebook’s commitment to reining in fake news and hate speech, and recognized the possibility that the Italian school project provided the embattled giant with a much-needed public relations boon.
Facebook was quick to applaud the program. Laura Bononcini, chief of public policy for Facebook in Italy, Greece and Malta, said on Tuesday that “the program is part of an international effort. Education and media literacy are a crucial part of our effort to curb the spread of false news, and collaboration with schools is pivotal.”
Ms. Boldrini also noted that Facebook was contributing by promoting the initiative through targeted ads to high-school-age users, and she said she hoped that the program, which aimed to show students how their “likes” were monetized and politicized, could become a “pilot program” for Facebook throughout Europe.
But some of the Italian course load seems unrealistic. While some tips are useful, such as keeping an eye out for parody URLs, students are also called upon to reach out to experts to verify news stories, essentially asking the students to re-report articles.
The program seeks to deputize students as fake-news hunters, showing them how to create their own blogs or social accounts to expose false stories and “showing how you uncovered it.”
In Italy, that gives them a lot of ground to cover.
For months here, conspiracy theorists who reject scientific consensus have connected vaccinations to medical conditions including autism in children, often blaming pharmaceutical companies as a dark force behind the medical practice. It was an issue that struck a nerve in Italy and played right into the wheelhouse of the Five Star Movement’s distrust of expertise and authority.
In May, amid a measles outbreak, Italy strengthened its vaccination requirements for school-age children, prompting so-called No-Vax activists to protest outside the Italian Parliament for the right to choose.
The vaccination opponents were especially strong in the Five Star Movement, whose leader, Mr. Grillo, once attacked vaccines as a scam by pharmaceutical companies with the intention of “weakening children’s immune systems.”
His wildly popular blog has alleged that some vaccines “can kill,” and websites, such as La Fucina, run by another party leader, Davide Casaleggio, have published anti-vaccine reports.
(In the past, other sites associated with Mr. Casaleggio or Mr. Grillo have also carried sensational reports by Russian-backed news outlets that were deemed false and damaging to the movement’s political enemies.)
“It’s what the pharmaceutical companies do, and it’s questionable,” said Paola Barile, 65, as she stood with a Five Star Movement flag wrapped around her shoulders at a protest last week in front of Parliament. “The spell has been broken for us also on vaccines.”
At the same rally, Five Star activists screamed “shame” and railed against the political parties, right and left, for joining forces to draft a new electoral law they considered (maybe correctly this time) designed to keep the movement out of power.
But the Five Star Movement is not the only political force to have profited from fake news, and students are not the only ones who can be deceived by it.
Last weekend, Gian Marco Centinaio, a senator from the Northern League, a right-leaning party, acknowledged that he had put on Facebook a post, subsequently shared 18,000 times, of a picture of a man identified as Ms. Boldrini’s brother, and complained how the news programs “don’t cover” the man’s no-show job that paid 47,000 euros, or more than $55,000, a month. The man in the image was not her brother and none of the allegations were true.
Mr. Centinaio called the post a joke and said, “People should be less credulous.”
A healthy dose of skepticism is exactly what the new Italian program hopes students will adopt.
“If people are prepared, educated on digital,” Ms. Boldrini said, “maybe they don’t fall for it.”