Climate change deniers accusing a dam of a devastating, deadly flood in Italy could be sued for spreading panic on social media in what would be a milestone trial against online conspiracy theorists.
Last May, torrential rains flooded Emilia-Romagna, a central region of Italy, leaving a hundred villages and towns under water for days.
The flood killed 15 and 36,000 people were forced to leave their homes. The extreme rains hit in two phases, between May 2-3 and May 15-17, causing nearly $10 billion in damages.
But amid the tragedy, conspiracy theorists settled on a scapegoat that wasn’t a massive weather event. They blamed the local dam, the Ridracoli, pushing a WhatsApp audio that attributed the flood to an uncontrolled water discharge.
The audio went viral on YouTube, TikTok and Twitter, furthering the conspiratorial claim.
@cr_76rita1 #alluvioniemiliaromagna#DIGA#DI#RIDRACOLI#alluvioniemiliaromagna #allagamenti#piogge#anomale#viralvideo#alluvioniemiliaromagna ♬ suono originale – @_Rita❤
The accusation, like most conspiracy theories, has a grain of truth mixed into the misinformation.
The Ridracoli dam released some water because of the torrential rains, but the operation prevented worse flooding, as the dam managed to resist the extreme weather conditions. Moreover, the river the dam emptied into was one of the few to remain contained within its banks, official data shows.
On social media, people falling for the fake news asked public authorities to prosecute the water company for manslaughter.
The company operating the dam, Romagna Acque, vowed to put conspiracy theorists on the stand, accusing them of disrespecting the victims of the flood and exploiting their suffering.
Red Ronnie, a former TV host in the 1980s prone to conspiracy theories, uploaded the audio to his YouTube channel, where he has over 240,000 subscribers, demanding answers from the regional government. The video has since been removed, but he is accused of profiting off the tragedy.
If the case goes to trial, it could send a message to conspiracy theorists that climate change denial claims can have legal consequences.
In the past, other Italian conspiracy theorists found themselves facing trial, though for different reasons.
In 2018, Italy’s most famous chemtrail blogger, Rosario Marcianò, was sentenced to eight months in jail as a part of a trial for threatening and defaming the journalist Silvia Bencivelli, who had debunked Marcianò’s theories in an article.
Tonino Bernabé, Romagna Acque’s president, told La Repubblica newspaper that they were taking legal action for “procured alarm and defamation on the internet.”
“No-vaxxers have become climate change deniers during this flood,” he said. “They sent us text messages calling us murders.”
The company declined to comment on the story to the Daily Dot, though during a shareholder meeting in June, its president confirmed it was hiring “two criminal lawyers to build the case” against the people who pushed the misleading audio.
A legal expert explained to the Daily Dot that Italian law allows people to sue for spreading fake news online under the charge of “procured alarm.”
“Spreading false information to generate panic is punishable whether you write it online or shout in the town square,” the expert, who asked not to be named, said.
This law has been in place since 1999, though a previous version of it dated back to Italy’s fascist era.
Perpetrators can be fined up to €516 ($580) or given six months in prison, and the crime can be paired with even more severe charges if the fake news put people in danger.
Since the audio about the dam circulated mostly on WhatsApp, it is impossible to calculate how many people received or listened to it. But the track was also uploaded on TikTok, where it totaled millions of views.
In the two-minute audio, a man choked with emotions claims the dam “dumped on us an avalanche of water causing death, incredible damage… this was provoked, this was no climate disaster, you need to know what they are capable of doing to us.”
The audio circulated in another version as well, pasted into a video from an official press conference to make it appear as a statement from the president of the region, Stefano Bonaccini.
The video has the watermark of Clideo, an online editing tool, still on it.
Before going viral, the Ridracoli audio appears to have circulated in the flood-hit areas, as the mayor of a local town reportedly spoke against “an uncontrolled rumor.”
Suspicions about the dam date back even earlier, to the summer of 2022, when climate deniers claimed the government was causing droughts as part of a plan to impose water restrictions on its citizens.
“Conspiracy theorists relentlessly posted random pictures of dams full of water to say that the drought was a scam to impose the energy transition and destroy the economy,” Leonardo Bianchi, an expert in Italian conspiracy theories, told the Daily Dot.
But scapegoating public infrastructure during extreme weather events is not new.
“These theories often connect with fears about chemtrails and the HAARP,” a U.S. military research program that studies the atmosphere, Bianchi explained.
In Italy, the case could prove interesting, as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s ruling coalition is rife with climate deniers. They’re backed by extreme right newspapers, like La Verità (The Truth), and the theories are even pushed by Meloni’s life partner Andrea Giambruno, who hosts a popular talk show.
Extreme weather events have hit the country in recent years. There were never-seen-before tornadoes and hurricanes in Milan, near Venice, and even in the Alps, as well as record rainfalls, mega-fires, and heat waves all over the peninsula.
“Mediterranean Europe is a climate hotspot. Here the frequency of the two signs of climate change, extreme heat, and extreme flooding, is indeed intensifying,” Carlo Cacciamani, president of the Italian Agency for Meteorology and Climatology, told the Daily Dot.
Cacciamani pointed out that during the flood in Emilia-Romagna, some areas were hit by more than 23 inches of rainwater in a few days, and “almost every river overflowed in a matter of hours.”
That’s the same as the average U.S. location sees in a year.
But to climate deniers, it was the dam. And a court will see if they were allowed to blame it.