A new research report by IRIAD and EFAD Member Rete Disarmo shows widespread opposition of the general public against the use of armed drones. The research surveyed Italian citizens about their approval of the use of military drones by the government. The report, titled: “The Drone: Supporting Actor or Protagonist? The perception of unmanned aircraft in the mass media and in Italian public opinion” provides new insights in how the use of armed drones are perceived among the population and raises questions about the need of government to be transparent and accountable about their policies.
The research consists of three parts. The first is a content analysis of major Italian newspapers (2015-2017), to see whether they feature the word ‘drone’ or ‘drones’. The results showed that when articles mention military drones, they rarely take into account the ethical, legal, and strategic issues. They are described as simple tools used to carry out operations, and as a result Italian media largely fails to inform a wide audience on the implications of the use of armed drones.
The second part of the research is based on interviews with five focus-group spread throughout several Italian cities, who were asked where they get their information on drones, and how they perceive their use. The internet and social media proved to be a larger source of information on this subject, and participants were rather positive over the use of drones for civil purposes, but decidedly less so on their use in military operations.
Finally, a major poll was held among 1000 respondents which were representative of Italy’s population by gender, age, and geographic distribution. The results showed that only a small percentage were unfamiliar with ‘drones’, and a majority assigned themselves a ‘fair’ level of knowledge. When asked about drones performing military tasks, without specifying that this might include attacks carried out by the Italian government through drones, a majority still approved .
However, once drone strikes and the Italian government were specified, the results drastically changed. Younger, male, and politically right-leaning respondents were generally more likely to approve of the use of force through armed drones, but they are a minority: Only 18 percent of the respondents would be in favor of the use of drones for armed attacks. The largest group only supports the use of military drones for gathering intelligence. This opposition is present despite the fact that the Italian media has largely avoided discussing the issues of armed drones.
These results also raise questions for other states seeking to deploy armed drones. The lack of approval signals a potential disconnect between what governments do and what the public would support. It also shows that concerns over the use of armed drones are not just shared by drone strike victims, lawyers, and human rights activists, but are also shared by a broad, possibly even a majority, of society. It is therefore essential that governments clarify their positions and provide data on the use of armed drones in order to foster oversight, accountability, and transparency.