FEMFACTS
19 Apr 2019

Was the World Congress of Families in Verona really a target of fake news?

When the World Congress of Families meeting in Verona, Italy was publicly criticized, the organizers claimed that feminists and other “élites” were spreading “fake news” to discredit them.

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Was the World Congress of Families in Verona really a target of fake news? - NewsMavens

Between March 29-31, Verona hosted the World Congress of Families (WCF), an international event which, according to its official website, “seeks to unite and equip leaders, organizations, and families to affirm, celebrate, and defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society”. According to its organizers, the event was nothing but a celebration of love and family, which should have been welcomed by the general public.  However, the WCF faced harsh criticism and a huge backlash in Italy and beyond in response.

The WCF is a fundamentalist organization and its real agenda is focused on curbing women’s reproductive rights and the rights of LGBT+ people. The event’s most recognizable prop became a rubber fetus wrapped in a plastic bag, handed out during the conference with the inscription: "Abortion stops a beating heart."  The feminist platform Non Una Di Meno (Not One Less) organized a three-day-long protest of the event; more than 100,000 people protested against the event on March 30.

The organizers and their associated partners portrayed the criticism as planned hostility aiming to discredit the event, and themselves as victims of “persecution”. Antonio Brandi, the current president of the WCF and and his deputy Jacopo Coghe, went so far as to compare their situation to that of black people during the time of segregation laws. Provita Onlus -- one of the pro-life associations supporting the congress -- even used the claims of “persecution” as a PR tool,  describing the WCF event as “THE MOST DANGEROUS EVENT OF THE YEAR; HINDERED BY EMMA BONINO; HATED BY THE FEMINISTS FROM ALL OVER THE WHOLE WORLD; FEARED BY THE ELITES; BLACKLISTED BY THE RADICAL CHIC!” in a “save the date” post on Facebook.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the event was far from being “feared by the elites”, as it was supported by the Veneto Region and the Province of Verona, and hosted very influential figures like Deputy prime minister of Italy Matteo Salvini; Minister for family and disability, Lorenzo Fontana; Governor of the Veneto Region, Luca Zaia; and the Mayor of Verona, Federico Sboarina.

One of the accusations against the WCF critics was also that they are spreading “fake news” about the event, appearing all over social media profiles connected with WCF, as well as in the right wing and religious press.

WHAT’S THE CLAIM?

On March 20, the event’s official Twitter profile published an image showing two pictures, one labeled “Fake news” and the other “Fact checking”. The tweet read:

#WCFVerona, #FakeNews continue spreading. #factchecking doesn't look so hard to us though   As a courtesy, here's a hint!

Both pictures show the WCF’s official theme -- a girl in a pilot costume holding her fist in the air -- but offer different texts. The one labeled “FAKE” also has a stamp of Stati Generali delle Donne (“States General of Women” a Verona-based feminist organization) and lists the following points:

  1. Repeal laws on same-sex and civil unions.
  2. Repeal all laws that allow divorce.
  3. Repeal all laws that allow adoption by homosexuals.
  4. Laws against sodomy.
  5. Laws that make divorce more difficult.
  6. Encouraging marriage (taxes and social laws).
  7. Laws to prohibit "homosexual propaganda".
  8. Legalize homeschooling in all countries.
  9. Cancel any funding in favor of LGBT and abortion in Public Assistance Programs.
  10. Review of sex education programs in adherence to the manifesto for the Natural Order.
  11. Support solutions against surrogacy at the level of the European Parliament and Council of Europe.
  12. Emphasize the "choice" aspects of sodomy.Prohibit the sale of all pharmaceutical contraceptives.
  13. Prohibit contracts that include supplies for abortion, contraception and sterilization.
  14. Prohibit prenatal diagnostics.Prohibit in vitro fertilization (IVF).Conscientious objection for doctors and pharmacists (so that the refusal of treatment is a legal right).
  15. Prohibition of abortion in national and international law.International convention to prohibit any use of human stem cells.
  16. International Convention to prohibit euthanasia.In reference to abortion, promote parental rights, restrictive leave and hygiene standards.Introduce pro-life and anti-abortion advice.
  17. Abolition of laws in favor of equality in the European Union, in particular repeal of articles 21 and 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.Abolition of all laws in favor of national equality.
  18. Countering the adoption of the 5th directive on equality of treatment.
  19. Propagate the legal uncertainty and administrative difficulties caused by anti-discrimination laws.
  20. Highlight the cost of anti-discrimination laws for the national economy.
  21. Criticize actions taken by supporters of anti-discrimination laws. 

The other image (offered as a “fact check”) comes from WCF promo material where the official themes of this year’s event are listed:

  • BEAUTY OF MARRIAGE
  • CHILDREN’S RIGHTS
  • INTEGRAL HUMAN ECOLOGY
  • THE WOMAN IN HISTORY
  • GROWTH AND DEMOGRAPHIC DECLINE
  • DIGNITY AND HEALTH OF WOMEN
  • LEGAL DEFENSE OF LIFE AND FAMILY
  • POLICIES PROMOTING NATALITY AND FAMILIES

What the post implies is that the image which originated from “Stati Generali delle Donne” is either a fake poster for the event, or an attempt to misrepresent the true goals of WCF. It was certainly right about one thing -- fact checking that statement really wasn’t that hard.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

For a start, the picture labeled as “fake” clearly doesn’t come from the WCF, nor was it presented as such. The 28 points appearing on the image in the WCF tweet were properly sourced by Stati Generali delle Donne and were never presented as WCF’s real poster. The Stati Generali delle Donne image notes that it displays “Goals to implement in 'Agenda Europe" and that these points were taken from the report “Restoring the natural order: The religious extremists’ vision to mobilize European societies against human rights on sexuality and reproduction”. The report was published by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) in 2018 and it documents the strategy to overturn the existing laws on basic human rights related to sexuality and reproduction Europe-wide.

The image was published in “Stati Generali delle Donne” Facebook album, with a statement that the slogans of WCF are not a true representation of their real goals, which are linked to “Agenda Europe” a group which is described in the EPF’s report:

Agenda Europa is the international network that has planned and made explicit the political objectives of the reactionary movements in Europe. All human rights concerning sexuality and reproduction are touched by the prohibition to any contraceptive and abortion, by the abolition of civil unions and divorce and do not stop there: they also want to undermine the anti-discrimination legislation.

Through the #smascheriamoli operation and this album we want to list the Agenda Europe objectives point by point, as many of its participants are part of the Steering Committee of the World Congress of Families.

The EPF report is focused on a 2014 document titled “Restoring the natural order: An agenda for Europe”, which is considered to be a handbook of the aforementioned Agenda Europe -- a network linked to the Vatican, and the Christian right groups and initiatives in the United states of America and Latin America. The 28 points come from that document, which was never officially published -- it was leaked and presented to the public in a documentary aired on TV Arte. The document has also appeared on the 2017 reading-list of Pro-Vita Bucharesti, a Romanian anti-abortion organization, indicating that it was in informal circulation well before the EPF report came out.

Image: A page attributed to the “Restoring natural order” document. Screenshot by TV ARTE’s documentary “Avortement, les croisés contre-attaquent”, by Alexandra Jousset & Andrea Rawlins-Gaston

According to the report, “Restoring the Natural Order is not merely an aspirational to-do list, but very much a living action plan which Agenda Europe members have actively pursued at the EU and PACE and in various national settings.” Agenda Europe has been engaging people in active participation through petitions and organizing in their respective states, so far managing to stop the progress of LGBT rights in Croatia (2013) and Slovenia (2015). Several attempts have been tried to ban abortion, but they have all failed.

When EPF published their report, an anonymous blog called “Agenda Europe” reacted by ridiculing its author Neil Datta, but it did not contest the authenticity of the document on “restoring the natural order”. Quite the contrary -- they announced that the whole document will soon be published on their blog and even created a “stay tuned” post, but never followed up on the promise.

However, another anonymous website titled “Agenda Europe”, registered in 2014, but largely inactive until 2017,  has since denied AE’s connection with both the blog and the “Restoring natural order” document. This refutal remains the only content published on the website to this date. Interestingly enough, while the AE website denies any relations to the blog, it basically reaffirms the same points -- that “Agenda Europe is an informal network with no official structure, that the document was obtained through an illegal hack and that it’s not a “manifesto”, but a paper created by a few “individuals”.

A screenshot from “Agenda Europe” blog

While the website itself provides no information on its owners, it was registered on the name of Sophia Kuby from ADF International (ADF stands for “Alliance Defending Freedom”, formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund), a US-based Christian-right advocacy group. Both Kuby and ADF are listed in EPF report as key figures in “Agenda Europe”. The address of Kuby’s organization European Dignity Watch in Brussels was listed as the registrant address for “Agenda Europe” website.

Even if its activists strive to maintain its “informal” character, Agenda Europe is the gravitational point of the European anti sexual and reproductive rights community, which is represented, among others, by the World Congress of Families, to which several Agenda Europe members have participated over the years (Luca Volontè from Italy being one of them), as Stati Generali delle Donne pointed out in their post.

But even without such ties, although the points presented in the SGD are not explicitly stated in WCF official materials, those themes can be presumed from the positions and statements of the event’s speakers.

WHAT IS THE “WORLD CONGRESS OF FAMILIES”?

Stemming from the work by historian Alan Carlson, the foundation of the WCF can be traced back to the nineties, when Carlson started meeting and building a rapport with international conservative scholars, as widely reported by Yadad De Guerre in his blog Playing the Gender Card.

These scholars were interested in Carlson’s book Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis, which connected the declining marriage and birth rates in the US to specific structural changes in western society, such as the wider distribution of contraception and the legalization of abortion. He also blamed the public’s changed perception of marriage, which was no longer seen as the only requirement for human reproduction, and married women who -- instead of looking after their offspring -- looked for jobs and demanded equal pay (how dare they?!).

Although not politically active at the beginning, nowadays the WCF is a US-based coalition of international organisations that promote Christian right values: the majority of its member partners are pro-life campaigners with strong Christian views on marriage and sexuality, proactively opposing same-sex marriage, pornography, and abortion. In Italy, the WCF partners with Generazione Famiglia, Comitato Difendiamo I Nostri Figli and ProVita, the organizations that inspired the “Family Day” campaign in 2016, together with the AE-related platform “CitizenGO”.

Alberto Zelger, a Northern League politician and a proponent of the anti-abortion motion proposed, was one of the WCF speakers in Verona. Zelger is infamous for his controversial statements against LGBT communities and abortion, an “abominable crime” as he puts it:

Gays are a disaster for reproduction and for the conservation of the species. Same-sex intercourse is bad for health, as it causes diseases of all kinds, it is a personality disorder.

My example is Putin’s Russia, where abortions dropped from four million to two million a year thanks to maternity grants and benefits.

Lucy Akello, another speaker at this year’s WCF and the Shadow Minister for Gender and Social Development in Uganda, was accused of supporting capital  punishment against gay people. Although she denied all the accusations, one can read Akello’s appreciation for the positions of Nsaba Buturo in a report from the parliamentary session of the April 11, 2018. Discussing Rebecca Kadaga’s intervention against adding gay people on a refugee declaration (Kadaga is a politician who back in 2012 wanted an anti-gay law as a “Christmas gift” for Ugandans), Mr Buturo stated:

“[...] I would also like to appeal to Ugandans, and in particular to the honorable members here, to resolve to reject homosexuality in all its manifestations. All the other similar distasteful practices which we have seen today in Europe and some parts of America, including bestiality and incest, are also being accepted as human rights matters. Before long, they will be putting pressure on Ugandans to do the same.

Similar positions were held by Brian Brown, president of WCF and a co-founder of US-based National Organization for Marriage, who referred to homosexuality as “illogical” and to the LGBT community as “bullies” who prevent anyone from telling “the truth” about homosexuality.

Abortion is also one of the pivotal issues, if not the main one, for the WCF. Hosted in a city that recently voted for an anti-abortion motion, the event features among its speakers, Italy’s Minister for Family and Disability, Lorenzo Fontana. On Twitter, the Northern League minister describes himself as “a Verona citizen and a Catholic” and is a board member of a committee to ban the Italian abortion law, thus sharing the same position as Simone Pillon, Senator, Vice President of the Commission for Children and Adolescents. Pillon recently stated that women need to be convinced to keep their babies and in the event that they wanted an abortion "we’ll offer her enormous sums of money not to do so". What if she still wants it? "We’ll prevent it."

These positions repeat across the “Agenda Europe” and “World Congress of Families” network, both in the statements and lobbying, advocacy and legislative activities of their members and sympathizers.

CONCLUSION

The leaflet which set out the 28 points labeled “fake” by the World Congress of Families, did not contain “fake news” -- a term extensively used by the group to denounce any criticism of their positions. It was an act of counter-information to shed a light on the real motives and connections behind the WCF as well as a response in opposition to the PR points propagated by the event.

The implication that it was a forgery of WCF material, or a slanderous attack on the organization, is therefore a manipulation of facts, due to the omission of the precise positions of its members and the use of a polished rhetoric, that promotes biological determinism and economic inequality. As regards the approach towards feminists, both this claim and the overall activity of WCF can also be described as anti-feminism backlash.

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