Alto’s team of data scientists performed an analysis of 1,055,774 comments generated by 98,191 users who participated in the public digital discussion about immigration in Italy from February 1st to July 31st, 2017. Data acquisition was restricted to the Italian language. Using our proprietary software, Alto Analyzer, our data scientists identified key communities, top narratives and which media played the strongest role in constructing opinion trends about immigration in Italy.

A highly polarized debate

The public debate about immigration showed a high concentration on Twitter, with 85.2 % of total users in the core digital discussion coming from that social network. Users showed high-levels of interactions around immigration, creating a highly interconnected and dense network.

Largest community of 98,191 interconnected users who posted 1,055,774 contents.
Network topology visualization of Twitter largest community.

Our data scientists applied clustering algorithms to identify distinct communities of opinions and measure their level of polarization, resulting in two key communities driving the debate: anti-immigration and pro-immigration.

Largest community of 98,191 interconnected users who posted 1,055,774 contents.
Twitter network topology analysis showed active controversy between opposing communities:
Pro and anti-Immigration with a reduced set of users “undecided” in the center.

The below data visualization represents different groups of opinions, two in the anti-immigration community, two in the pro-immigration community and a small community of users, representing less than 15% of all users and 5% of all messages, emerging from the debate as “undecided” .

Algorithmic clustering of the Twitter network topology
Algorithmic clustering of the Twitter network topology enabled Alto’s data scientists to identify five key distinct groups of opinion.

Pro-immigration community

The core pro-immigration community was formed by 35.017 users – almost double the size of the core anti-immigration community – however, users from this community posted 187.665 tweets, 2.5 times less activity than the core anti-immigration community. This community is closely related to an adjacent community of users defending immigration mostly from religious values and formed by 7.478 users who posted 31.522 tweets. The core pro-immigration and those adjacent defending immigration represented 53% of all users however, only generated 27% of all tweets.

Alto’s data scientists identified how users within the pro-immigration communities focused their discussions on immigration´s legal framework such as right of asylum, the role of NGO’s to support new immigrants and the moral obligation to help immigrants in critical situations. Their narratives connect humanitarian aid with the idea of basic human rights and anti-immigration opinions are labelled as racist. These communities supported their narratives using mostly local Italian sites such as Redatorre Social, Open Migration, Famiglia Cristiana, Radio Vaticana, Rai or sites from NGO’s working locally in the immigration issue in Italy. Foreign media with high affinity for this community included The Guardian, Euronews and VICE.

Anti-immigration community

The core anti-immigration community is formed by 17,748 users who posted 469,881 tweets. This community is closely related to an adjacent community of users critical of the role of NGOs, whose community consists of 7,577 users who posted 92,287 tweets.

Both anti-immigration communities account for 32% of all users in the core discussion about immigration, however they produced a staggering volume of tweets accounting for 68% of all tweets connected with the largest public discussion about immigration. This represents an abnormal ratio of activity over the long period of six months of analysis. The more detailed analysis of the most active users, powering the anti-immigration community, indicates these users maintain high levels of activity which could be considered outlier behavior if compared with other users within the public debate, including those with anti-immigration positions.

Alto’s data scientists analyzed how the most active and influential users from the anti-immigration communities argued that Italy was suffering an “invasion” resulting in negative economic and social implications for Italians. They also criticized how Italian government and politicians had poorly managed the immigration issue with an underlying anti-European narrative based on discrediting the EU or raising doubts about its role and Italy’s fit within EU. The anti-immigration narratives in this community are closely associating immigration with insecurity, crime and terrorism and in some cases, with conspiracy theories that the immigration crisis is part of a larger strategy to destabilize the country. The core anti-immigration community was powered by a very active, small number of ideologically aligned users, influenced by political preferences empathizing with Lega Nord, Forza Italia and Casa Pound.

The role of Russian news agency Sputnik to create anti-immigration narratives

To determine which media site is most influential, Alto’s algorithms take into account the number of users and the intensity of links from media sites being shared across social media sources to determines how influential the site is within the context of the analysis. Alto´s software ranks content´s influence similar to Google’s algorithms for web page ranking: the content from more relevant sites are likely to receive more attention from more users over a continued period of time.

Using Alto Analyzer, a total of 3,164 distinct sources of content including newspaper articles to blog posts, images and videos were analyzed as distributed within the public discussion around immigration.

While the majority of content was from local Italian media, foreign media also played a key role. For example, Russia Today and Sputnik ranked within the top 100 most influential sites in the debate. The Italian version of Sputnik News ranked 40th, ahead of Russia Today at position 58, that means, both sites were within the top 3% most influential media in the debate. Filtering influence by international media showed the Italian version of Sputnik News site ranking in 2nd position, after the Huffington Post Italy in the number one position.

When identifying which communities more actively shared Russia Today and Sputnik News content, our analysis revealed 90.4% of Russia Today and Sputnik content distribution came from anti-immigration communities. Content mostly from Sputnik showed very strong affinity within the anti-immigration community who used it to support its public discourse. Below there are some examples of the most viral Sputnik content identified within the anti-immigration community as part of Alto’s analysis:

In 2065 quota immigrants in Italy could exceed 40%
“In 2065 quota immigrants in Italy could exceed 40% of the total population”
View Source
Immigration, it is better to be without
“Immigration, it is better to be without a heart than to lose your country”
View Source
In 2065 quota immigrants in Italy could exceed 40%
“Migrants chaos, the beginning of a social war”
View Source
In 2065 quota immigrants in Italy could exceed 40%
“We close the ports or we will drown under the wave of migrants (and hypocrisy)”
View Source
In 2065 quota immigrants in Italy could exceed 40%
“The EU as Pontius Pilate. Italy alone to tackle the crossroads of migratory flows”
View Source
In 2065 quota immigrants in Italy could exceed 40%
“Bill Gates urges to save Europe from immigrants”
View Source

Other sites with high affinity within the anti-immigration users included: Tutti I Crimini degli Immigrati, IL Populista, Italia Patriamia, Vox News and websites from political parties or political figures such as Movimiento 5 Stelle or Beppe Grillo.

Tutti I Crimini degli Immigrati site indicates its purpose on its homepage: “All Crimes of Immigrants – Hic sunt leones – The others talk about integration, we show it to you”. This site links from its latest news section to Vox News, another site with a high affinity and influence among anti-immigration users that ranked at the 24th position in our media network analysis. Vox News includes a Fact Checking section for users to verify its news. Vox states that “each post has at least one source beyond our identifiable directly by clicking on the button.” After using the service, our analysts observed how this fact checking service linked, in multiple cases, to sites similar to Vox News or Facebook Pages such as the one from neo-fascist political party, Casa Pound or back to other sites strongly connected with the ant-immigration community such as Tutti I Crimini degli Immigrati.

What does this all point to?

  • Alto’s analysis shows how foreign media plays in some cases a polarizing role in the social debates by reinforcing local media narratives and supporting communities with abnormal levels of engagement, creating an imbalance in narratives being published and therefore consumed by the public.
  • Alto’s data scientists confirm by analyzing historical data from more than one year before the Italian 2018 general elections that narratives were constructed long before the electoral process and systematically disseminated.
  • Alto’s data indicates how polarizing narratives are premeditated and maintained over time, and in some cases show evidences of efforts to demonstrate narrative legitimacy with diverse strategies: references to other prominent media sources, individuals identified as experts, references to public figures’ declarations and the concept of fact checking.
  • By recently visiting these sites, we confirm narratives continue after our period of analysis:

Sputnik Example: British press: Italian territory at risk of tribalization

Largest community of 98,191 interconnected users who posted 1,055,774 contents.
“According to the English press, Italian territory would be at great risk of tribalization.”

Vox News Example (Fact checked news, image and text from original article below): Humanitarian workers: “Africans lack logical thinking”


“The problem is that we are approaching with our European way of thinking that is light years away from the African way of thinking.”

Conduct your analysis with us

Interested in our work? For questions or a presentation of the complete analysis, please contact us at info@alto-analytics.com. To learn more about Alto Data Analytics and our proprietary software subscribe to our newsletter below.