August 31, 2018

David Puente has been a debunker for years.

From his home in Udine, Italy, he has investigated misinformation — its origins, authors and distribution methods — in his free time since 2014. (By day, he’s a freelance web developer.)

Because of the nature of his work, Puente has received plenty of threats, including intermittent insults and trolling on social media. It’s not uncommon for fact-checkers around the world to get that kind of feedback. But in December, something changed.

“I have received many death threats, together and from different accounts,” Puente told Poynter in a Skype message. “They were looking for my home address. A person who hates me, a creator of fake news, has found my address and has sent it publicly to these people. I'm scared.”

The threats came after he debunked a hoax by blogger Rosario Marcianò, who’s pushed conspiracy theories about everything from chemtrails to the Bataclan, about a city bus with an expletive written on it.

Puente reported all the threats to the police and used his debunking skills to learn more about the people making them. So far, he has figured out the names and locations of some of the trolls. He also knows the true identity of the fake news writer who published his home address (but didn’t share the name with Poynter on the record due to the ongoing police investigation.)

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Over the summer, the attacks got worse.

Puente discovered a fake account named “Lara Pedroni” that was created in 2017 with modified photos of an English model. After it started publishing viral hoaxes about Roberto Saviano (a journalist who has long investigated the Mafia), Laura Boldrini (the former President of the Chamber of Deputies) and former prime minister Matteo Renzi, he debunked it. Then the death threats escalated.

“One or more people had created fake Facebook accounts. They wrote me private messages on my page, in my profile, my cell phone was constantly vibrating with their messages,” he said. “Last week something else happened. Another group of Twitter accounts published a false report against me: David Puente was arrested for pedophilia.”

A Twitter user named Fabio Varaldi (who has since been restricted on the platform due to “unusual activity”), originally posted the screenshot of a fake article with Puente’s photo. Several Italian media organizations, including La Presse and Udine Today, quickly debunked it. The Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cybercrime (and created a portal for reporting fake news), came to Puente’s defense.

He isn’t the first Italian debunker to be challenged by the people he writes about. In April, was sued by an oncologist promoting holistic medicine. And other journalists have faced similar trolling linked to Marcianò.

The conspiracist was eventually convicted for defaming science journalist Silvia Bencivelli, whom he harassed online after she published an in-depth investigation of chemtrails in 2013. Marcianò and his followers began publishing false articles about Bencivelli and repeatedly sent her threats online — harassment that went on for years.

Giovanni Zagni, director of the fact-checking project Pagella Politica (which International Fact-Checking Network Director Alexios Mantzarlis co-founded), told Poynter that the kind of attacks waged against Puente is indicative of broader partisan tensions in Italy.

“They are mad about the fact that he’s able to debunk their mechanism of producing and spreading false news,” he said. “The atmosphere in Italy is so hot and heated, that you can very well imagine that some people go to personal attacks against people like David, and he’s not actually the only one. He’s one of a dozen other targets.”

Paolo Attivissimo, another Italian debunker, told Poynter in an email that he's received death threats in the past — especially for his work about chemtrails, 9/11 conspiracy theories and political claims. But while being attacked online isn’t unusual for Italian journalists, having your personal information published widely is.

"The abuse is mostly verbal and online," Attivissimo said. "The most violent attacks seem to come from 'chemtrail' believers who not only have resorted to physical violence during peaceful informational events but also have significant political backing."

Puente said he hopes that the police will be able to find the people who created the hoaxes. He’s working with his lawyers to figure out the best way to prosecute those responsible, and he plans to write an in-depth story about the whole ordeal.

In the meantime, he’s being a little more careful about his work, but he’s still debunking fake news stories.

“It is normal to be afraid, it is normal to think if I have to change house or be careful in the street. Who is not afraid is crazy, but I do not want them win,” he said. “I reacted because I have to defend myself and because I want to tell everyone not to give up. There is too much bullying and too many people are silent out of fear.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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