When a popular Italian debunking site was sued, a judge shut it down

Michelangelo Coltelli learned that the website was offline while working at his jewelry shop in Bologna.

The Polizia Postale, which investigates communications crime in Italy, walked into the store about a month ago. They waited in line while Coltelli, whose family has operated the self-named shop since 1834, helped another customer.

When it was the police’s turn, they asked if he wrote a story for Butac.it two and a half years ago about an oncologist promoting holistic medicine. Coltelli said that he didn’t, but he owned the site. The police told him that he was being sued for libel and that he should wait for further communication.

Then, on April 6, they told Coltelli that his popular debunking site, called BufaleUnTantoAlChilo and founded in 2013, had been taken down. While he’s no stranger to legal intervention, that had never happened to him before.

“To deface the entire website just for one article is absurd," he told Poynter.

The Bologna Public Prosecutor’s Office authorized the preventative seizure of the site, which Coltelli said the police restored early Tuesday morning and averages about 600,000 pageviews per month. The article in question, which was still removed as of publication but archived by the Wayback Machine, criticized the medical credentials of Dr. Claudio Pagliara — starting from an interview he gave to the medical news program TG1 Medicina but delving into many other statements he has made over the years.

Pagliara posted on Facebook about the case, saying that Butac’s claims that he has advocated for alternative medicine over traditional treatments for serious illnesses like cancer in the past are unfounded.

“One of the most serious things that emerged when reading the article is that the author asserts that I have made some statements that in reality I have never made,” he said. “I wonder in this regard when I have ever avoided, in my professional activity, prescribing necessary interventions or medicines? Or even to have suggested ‘alternatives’ such as prayer (!), meditation (!!) and the most bizarre diets?”

“It is absolutely absurd to make such serious statements that defame my long and honest professional activity of almost 40 years.”

The oncologist is an active proponent of holistic medicine, writing that it “contains the secret cure for almost every disease, including cancer” and that “inside of you lies a power stronger than that of any pill.”

Poynter reached out to Pagliara on Facebook for additional comment, but he referred us to his original post.

Dave Levitan, a former writer for Scicheck.org and an author of writing on political lies about science, told Poynter in an email that there isn’t much to Pagliara’s holistic medicine claims at all.

“He just seems to be spouting off that a holistic approach will cure diseases, which isn't ‘verifiable’ but also isn't much of a substantive claim in the first place,” he said. “It's not like Pagliara offers any sort of citations or evidence (at least on those two posts) for his claims, so calling that out certainly feels like fair game to me.”

In an article published Tuesday, Coltelli wrote that, while he was certain that his site would come back online, the time off was a good time to reflect on how its content — which can tend toward snark — is perceived.

“The most interesting criticism is that which sees Butac as (an attack dog), and it is the one that hurt me most,” he wrote. “To think that the accusation can affect people and authors … is sad. But we will try to be more careful in the tones.”

Butac seized advantage of the situation and promoted its PayPal and Patreon donation channels.

During the site’s closure, Coltelli said he received an outpouring of support online, amassing 300 friend requests in only eight hours. While the incident sparked celebration among anti-vaxxers, it also gave rise to the creation of a “Free Butac” meme.

So what happened?

In Italy, media outlets are normally protected from incurring penalties during pending lawsuits if they register as journalistic entities.

“If you (register), it’s really very difficult that you incur this kind of total confiscation of the whole website,” said Giovanni Zagni, editor of the fact-checking site Pagella Politica (which International Fact-Checking Network Director Alexios Mantzarlis co-founded). “Actually, it’s almost impossible.”

A 2015 Supreme Court ruling, which addressed the government’s block on the website of Il Giornale, a newspaper pending a defamation trial, stated that, while preventative seizures are permissible under some circumstances, registered online media outlets enjoy the same rights as newspapers.

But since Butac wasn’t registered, it was open to being shut down pending the results of its ongoing lawsuit with Pagliara.

“The seizure of website (also by way of filtering) is quite common, pending litigation,” said Giovanni Battista Gallus, a lawyer with a specialty in the copyright, data protection, IT and new media, in an email to Poynter. “But it has become rarer in present times, and that's what it makes Butac seizure quite anomalous, so anomalous the judge yesterday restricted the seizure only to the allegedly defamatory post.”

Enrico Mentana, one of the country’s most well-known news anchors, posted on Facebook on April 6 that shutting down the whole site preventively was “a very serious measure, almost reminiscent of fascist censorship.”

Why then did the judge order the entire Butac site down in the first place? Coltelli said he still wasn’t sure.

“Our site isn’t a dangerous site — it's a fact-checking site,” Coltelli said. “I’m not an anarchist site that’s teaching you how to make a bomb.”

Not to mention the article in question wasn’t exactly making waves.

“Not more than 1,000 people read the article in the past three years. It was a small thing,” Coltelli said. “In general, this is the kind of thing that can have the Barbra Streisand effect.”

When asked if he regrets running the story that got him sued, Coltelli said no.

“It’s fact-checking — it’s not something to be ashamed of,” he said. “Medical disinformation, together with political disinformation, is the worst. If you follow the wrong doctor, if you follow the wrong people, you can die.”

Now, Coltelli said he’s waiting for further communication about an upcoming court date. But Italian courts move quite slow, he said, so it’s uncertain when the situation will be resolved.

Beyond the results of the individual lawsuit, the case demonstrates the power that the Italian state already has to combat potential misinformation.

“In Italy, there are a lot of politicians that have talked about a new law to fight the fake news,” he said. “What happened today shows that we don’t need any new law if a judge, in one day, can decide to close an entire website because of one article as preventative.”

“I’m still innocent as of now, but they have been able to censor me without any difficulty.”

Correction: Giovanni Zagni's quote was edited to remove the duplication of the words "to incur". We apologize for the editing error.

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