Changes in the way we communicate—from the Gutenberg printing press to the first televised US presidential debate—always have an effect on political parties and movements. Social media is no different. New social movements are emerging using social media, and challenging existing parties in a way unthinkable a decade ago. The English Defence League in the UK, the Pirate Party in Germany, and the Occupy movement are all examples of movements that have employed social media to grow rapidly and create a significant political and social impact—all in the last three years.
Today, I’ve launched a new report about the Italian politician Beppe Grillo and his Facebook followers. Grillo is one of the first politicians who has made social media a central part of his political vision rather than just a handy add-on (Grillo refuses to speak to Italian media, and is in many respects a genuine anti-establishment politician). He insists that he does not want to create a political party, but rather a new movement that changes the party political system in Italy, one that gives more power to ordinary people—a new version of direct democracy with social media at its core.
Grillo has an enormous social media following: over 1m people have liked his Facebook page. He tweets regularly and has 880,000 followers. Grillo’s is by far the most widely read blog in Italy. It’s a rate of growth that even UKIP can’t match.
He uses this internet presence to raise issues, arrange and advertise offline events, and foster discussion and mobilise activity at grassroots level—arranging local meet-ups, demonstrations and getting the vote out. Grillo has been able to transform this online following and support into real world political impact. By using social media as the primary medium of communication, recruitment and organisation, his Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) has grown from practically nothing to a major political force in Italy in the space of three years. Nationally, the M5S has consistently been placed second or third in opinion polls since mid-2012.
Grillo has identified political themes that chime with the concerns of many Italians and brought them into the mainstream: corruption, bribery, sexual scandals, and the politics of privileges and favours that he argues has created the so called casta (caste). But it is his use of modern media to communicate these issues and mobilise a movement that makes him unique. It is not just North African politics that is being shaken by social media. Grillo is a glimpse of how social media might change European politics too.
Next week, if recent polls are accurate, Grillo may pull in 40 or more of the 315 seats on offer in the Italian Senate election. In a political landscape where two major parties, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right the People of Freedom party and the Democratic Party led by Pier Luigi Bersani, are fighting to secure coalition majorities, a third place showing for M5S could have significant influence. Italy’s closed political class will have to listen to the upstart.