“All things considered, disinformation sites don’t reach that many readers, compared to established media,” Frediani said. “It’s more complex when the news is not so easy to verify.”

Person-to-person transmission

But if fake news has little power of persuasion on websites and social media, it still has some hold on person-to-person channels like WhatsApp. The app is very popular in Italy, where people often discuss and access news through distributed lists.

“WhatsApp is where the fake news is,” said Pierri, adding that messages among more intimate groups benefit from what he calls a “halo of trust.” He points to a social media hype machine designed to amplify Salvini’s populist brand. The group, led by a team of digital experts who curate Salvini’s messaging across Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram messages, is informally known as “The Beast.”

Via WhatsApp, Italians have been sharing numerous coronavirus falsities, like claims by a spurious doctor that holding your breath can cure Covid-19, or that ibuprofen aggravates the virus and should be avoided (the World Health Organization says there’s no evidence supporting this).

But data from Facebook, which owns all three platforms, isn’t publicly available. That’s left researchers at a loss for cracking what goes on behind the scenes of WhatsApp groups.

“We are maybe missing the big picture, these other attacks are these small messages, sometimes three, four lines, on WhatsApp,” Pierri said. “We have no idea how to monitor that kind of stuff.”

Annalisa Merelli is a Quartz geopolitics reporter. Luca Powell is part of an investigative reporting class collaborating with Quartz at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. 

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