The year 2017 will be a big year for elections across the EU. Italians have just had a constitutional referendum and they are expected to vote in an election sometime this year, probably in June.

That's because Matteo Renzi's government fell after backing the losing side in that referendum.

That referendum campaign, like many an electoral process these days, was punctuated with allegations of misinformation and fake news - on both sides.

Italian politics has a big new player, a populist party called the Five Star Movement, which is led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo.

Like other populist movements, Grillo's relies on anti-establishment rhetoric and a strong social media presence.

And when accused of trafficking in fake news, rather than putting its hands up, Grillo's movement prefers to point fingers at the Italian mainstream news media - which is part, Grillo says, of the same establishment his party is out to overthrow.

Top visited website

The Listening Post's Paolo Ganino reports from Rome on the rise of the Five Star Movement, its media machine and Italy's fake news battle.

"Beppe Grillo, the maverick comedian that started the populist movement Five Stars in Italy, simply uses fake news in order to enhance traffic on his blog, his website that is already one of the most popular European websites," says Gianni Riotta, professor, Princeton University.

"They do it on purpose, they do it simply to steer some more revenues. They are sharing them and then that's when they become radioactive."

There's a hostility towards the Five Star Movement that's really more like a gulf of understanding. In other words, the mainstream media simply don't get them. They struggle to understand what they're about.

Enrico Mentana, news presenter, LA7

Grillo started his blog in 2005 and saw it grow into one of the top 10 most visited in the world.

Around that blog, the Five Star Movement has built a sophisticated network of online outlets dealing in news and information.

All those affiliated websites are under the same administrative roof, controlled out of Milan by a digital consulting firm, Casaleggio Associati, which manages the money those sites raise through advertising.

It's an informal news network, the existence of which the Five Star Movement denies.

Manlio Di Stefano, MP, Five Star Movement told Al Jazeera: "I have no evidence of this constellation of websites. Probably there are some online outlets, but they're not significant in terms of reach, and they have no direct link to the Five Star Movement."

Italians are turning to the web for alternative news sources as only four in 10 Italians consider their mainstream media to be independent. They look at their public broadcaster RAI and they see the long-standing influence political parties exert over it.

They look at the major private TV networks and the many channels still associated with four-time prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. And newspapers?

Well, they're known for their overt bias and their links with the economic establishment. It's no wonder that digital outlets, alternative voices, are thriving.

"There's a hostility towards the Five Star Movement that's really more like a gulf of understanding. In other words, the mainstream media simply don't get them," says Enrico Mentana, news presenter at LA7.

"They struggle to understand what they're about. It's the reason why the US media failed to realise that Trump could win the election, and why the Italian media fails to realise that the Five Star Movement could come first or second in our own elections. Traditional media are not equipped to read how reality is evolving."

Italy's antitrust chief suggested independent state agencies should have the mandate to police false information on the internet. The Five Star Movement proposed an alternative plan: a popular jury to decide on whether what's published in the media is true or false.

"Both are unworkable," says Mentana. "A 'people's jury' would, at best, give us the kind of audience juries they have in song contests.

"And unfortunately, the other historical example are the people's juries in Communist countries in Eastern Europe, in which the people had very little to do with it."

With no real solution in sight and with their media caught in the middle of a political battle, Italian news consumers are left to pay the price.

Confused about who to trust, they are retreating to their social media feeds, searching for friendly voices. Whether the stories they find are true, false, or even fake, doesn't seem to matter.

Contributors:

Davide Vecchi, reporter, Il Fatto Quotidiano; Enrico Mentana, news presenter, LA7; Anna Momigliano, editor-in-chief, Rivista Studio; Gianni Riotta, professor, Princeton University, La Stampa; Manlio Di Stefano, MP, Five Star Movement.

Source: Al Jazeera