Beppe Grillo & Italian Internet Politics

How has the internet changed Italian politics?

“Beppe Grillo, is the clown prince of Italian politics,” wrote ABC News in 2012. “The best-known comic in Italy, he has the manic banter of Robin Williams and the populist media savvy of activist filmmaker Michael Moore.”  Before Grillo, Italian politics was almost exclusively played out on TV and there was no tradition of decent newspaper journalism. Now it has made the paradigm shift online.

The rise of Five Star Movement (M5S) can be interpreted as a result of a deep international social and political crisis. Its founder, Grillo, was able to exploit the dissatisfaction with old political parties which supported the austerity measures requested by the European Union. Yet the rapid diffusion of M5S would not have been possible without the internet.

The internet has played a key role in Grillo’s career since he worked as a comedian. Back in July 2005 he suggested using the social network Meetup as a basis for the coordination of other concerned citizens. Whilst on June 14, 2007 Beppe Grillo launched the V-Day, a mass action day to support the “Clean Parliament” initiative. This was the first political initiative in Italy which focused on the internet as the main means of communication.

Over the last six years things moved rapidly. After the fall of the Prodi Government in 2008, Beppe Grillo announced that he would begin to engage in political activities through his blog. That year, The Guardian listed Beppe Grillo’s blog [Italian] as one of the 50 most “powerful” ones in the world. Finally, in October 2009 the Five Star Movement was born and launched its political agenda.

On October 29, 2012 Grillo issued rules to compile electoral rolls through a YouTube video, titled “Online Political Elections” [Italian YouTube video]. Grillo wanted to distance himself from old politics and deliberately chose not to appear TV. This ban was extended to all M5S candidates who started to use YouTube to send out their electoral messages. A massive use of the internet and a tour of Italian cities, called the “Tsunami Tour”, led to a result that exceeded expectations: the Five Star Movement became the major single party in the Chamber of Deputies with 26% of votes and 24% in the Senate [Italian].

The role of the M5S co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio is also essential. Owner of Casaleggio Associati, a networking strategies company, he’s the Movement’s “guru”. A leading expert of new means of communication, in 2007 he published a YouTube video called Prometeos – Media Revolution (295,311 views), which states that “collective knowledge is the new politic”.

A year later, he published another equally popular video (269,416 views) called Gaia: the Future of Politics. In this he underlined the importance of the internet and circulation of information. Casaleggio manages Grillo’s Blog, but he is much more than an internet expert. He is the strategist of the Movement, even if some critics deem him as a mere puppeteer controlling Grillo: a dictator hidden behind a web democracy façade.

The M5S has introduced the internet as a true innovation in Italian politics. Before Grillo, Silvio Berlusconi used his own TV stations to engage millions of viewers and turn them into constituents. He created the concept of “politics on television”, based on his frequent appearances on his three television networks. Now, thanks to Grillo and Casaleggio, Italian politics is going through a post-Berlusconi revolution. Despite the criticism it has attracted, the M5S has been experimenting a form of eDemocracy: this anti-party Movement is completely organized through Grillo’s blog.

Through this blog one can contribute to the Movement, take part in the law writing process, create local community via Meetup. Registered people can vote on everything. They have the option to agree, disagree or abstain and here “each one is worth one” [“Uno vale uno”]. The internet as a means of communication encourages the expression of people’s needs: we are facing a “many to many” communication model, contrasting the “one to many” communication employed by televisions and newspapers.

Grillo has encouraged a new political approach which only those who can keep up with the times can successfully oppose. It has attracted high profile support. Young Italian Premier Matteo Renzi knows how to exploit the power of new technologies. 2014 European elections saw M5S and Italian Democratic Party, led by Renzi, fighting each other using hashtags on Twitter.

Both leaders are very popular on this social media platform: Grillo has 1.49 million followers, Matteo Renzi 1.19 million. And this hashtag war didn’t end with the electoral campaign. Almost every politician works with a smartphone and tweets in real time, answers people’s questions, and launches new political challenges online. The M5S supports the streaming of political debate, as conferences and meetings, in the interests of transparency. On Grillo’s website there is a web channel dedicated to streaming called "La cosa" (Italian: The Thing), its slogan is “turn off TV and turn on The Thing”.

With his 2014 campaign Grillo broke his ban on television appearance and appeared on Rai 1, Italian public television. His was probably a final attempt to convince undecided voters and build for himself a more moderate image, to appease an older constituency. The candidates of the M5S are the youngest in Italy, with an average age of 39 years-old, and according to a survey done in July 2014 by IPR Marketing, M5S typical voters are mainly young people (35%), living in the center (36%) or the south of Italy (29%), earning less than €20,000 ($26,737) per year (49%).

None of this should be a surprise as young people tend to use the internet more. Yet despite this, Grillo believes that his followers are mostly young, unemployed or people with a precarious position in society. This is because they tend to take a position against the part of society which doesn’t want to give up its privileges. They come both from the Left and the Right, but many of them are just apolitical and tired of the old system they are living in.

The M5S experiment has highlighted how the internet can be an effective way to create direct political participation and closer contact between people and its representatives. It’s a seemingly irreversible process. Today the internet brings not only a breath of fresh air to old politics, but it also represents a break with traditional methods of propaganda. This helps the ascent of a power group which is not based on economic power or on mainstream communication.


Mariangela Sapere is an Italian writer and expert in communications and cultural marketing