Who You Gonna Call? Postal Police Is Italy's Fake News Fix

(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s leaning on crime fighters of yesteryear in its battle against fake news: the postal police.

As misinformation campaigns roil electoral processes, from the U.S. 2016 presidential race and the U.K.’s Brexit referendum to Italy’s March general elections, governments around the world are struggling to block the onslaught of fake news.

France’s effort to address the issue with new legislation -- its anti-fake news bill lands in parliament Thursday -- is already raising questions about whether it’s the best answer to a complicated problem.

Italy, for its part, is going down a different route, mixing the new with the old. The country is calling on its once-outdated Polizia Postale, or postal police, to stop the spread of unfounded reports on the web.

Created in 1981 and based in Rome, the postal police originally guarded post offices and supplied armed escorts for cash-in-transit vans as well as fighting cyber-crime of all sorts. Today it counts about 2,000 members, each working within the Italian police force and dividing their time between cybersecurity operations and more traditional legal matters.

‘Red Button’

It still investigates fake postage stamps and related fraud, but its forces in locations across Italy have expanded their expertise to the web, catching pedophilia, hacking, money-laundering, credit-card fraud, copyright violations by monitoring other platforms.

The postal police now regularly issues warnings on its website to users about false news reports. It became extra active ahead of Italy’s March 4 election, when it launched a “red button” on its website for people to denounce fake claims.

Fabricated election polls and false reports about local incidents, often involving immigrants and other minorities, were among the fakes that plagued Italy over the past year. Several news outlets in November reported that an underage Muslim girl had been assaulted by her much older husband in the city of Padua, and was in hospital -- a story that made the rounds on social media and was shared by the likes of politician Matteo Salvini, before being later denied by the police.

Displeasing Europe

The then-interior minister, Marco Minniti, described the types of reports that would be flagged as “news which is clearly baseless”. “The police doesn’t take part in the political debate,” he said.

But Italy’s efforts to utilize the old guard, or France’s decision to create news laws, may not please Europe at large. The region has coordinated on privacy protection, such as with the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, but member nations have so far gone their own way to fight fake news.

“There have been several legislative initiatives to stop the spread of false information since the beginning of the 19th century,” either because those fakes could impact merchandise prices or politics, said Nathalie Mallet-Poujol, a member of the Montpellier University law faculty and a director of research at French public laboratory CNRS. “With the black hole that is the Internet, these old debates are taking on a whole other dimension.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.