Beppe Grillo: I’m mostly a sceptic, but there’s still something worth learning

I’m a bit of a sceptic when people go “Beppe Grillo, internet, revolutionise politics, woo woo”. (Can you guess from that introduction?)

One reason is that populist parties have come from nowhere to dramatic electoral success many times in the past, before social media, before the web, before the internet, before computers and even before electricity came along. In itself, seeing the success of the Beppe Grillo movement in Italy doesn’t tell us that social media has changed anything much regarding politics.

A second reason is that, so far, Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement has had just one impressive election result. It’s impressive – but it’s only one.

If you want to weave lots of social media woo woo into a plausible case about changing politics as we know it, you need more than a one-off hit to make the case. Indeed, compared even just to Italy’s relatively recent political past, the Five-Star Movement’s impact hasn’t been the most dramatic. The collapse of the previous political system in the wake of the Tangentopol bribery scandal in the 1990s was much greater (and didn’t involve any social media).

Plenty of populist parties, whether of the left or the right, whether with or without the internet, have soared once and then fallen back, leaving in the end historians to write an interesting chapter in their books but not leaving political scientists with any need to rewrite their textbooks on how their country’s political system is structured and works.

What does interest me rather more is the tactical woo woo. Even if in broad form the Five-Star Movement is not that different from populist uprising parties of the past, the means by which it has gone about organising are different – and so provide lessons applicable to other campaigns too.

In that respect, the Five-Star Movement illustrates what is now becoming a traditional lesson about digital campaigning – the big impact comes from the offline activity that is generated by online organising. It’s a point echoed in Duncan McDonnell’s recent piece:

Although the idea that Grillo deploys social media in new and exciting ways in order to bypass traditional communication channels makes a good story, in reality he is not so different in this respect to other politicians. If we look, for example, at his Twitter account, we see that Grillo uses it fundamentally in the same ways as other Italian politicians: to tweet links to articles or statements that he has made elsewhere or details about his latest public rally. Simply having more followers than other politicians does not equate to a revolutionary use of social media.

So what is new then? In my view, the really innovative aspect of how the movement has used the Internet has been organisational, especially at the local level. In part through Grillo’s blog itself as a form of ‘shop window’ to recruit interested passers-by, but mostly via the use of meetup.com to create the Beppe Grillo meet-up groups which have formed the cornerstone of the movement’s presence across the country. In fact, Grillo has constantly encouraged his supporters to discuss – both on the Internet and in physical locations – the general issues he raises as they pertain to local questions in people’s own cities and towns.

On this point, it is worth noting that those activists I have spoken to all tell the same story of how they became involved: they began reading Grillo’s blog, then they checked the site of the local meet-up, then they started posting comments and participating in discussions on the meet-up’s forum. Sooner or later, they decided to go to a meeting – organised via the Internet, but held in a real physical location in their town – and thereupon joined in the local offline activities of the movement. For M5S activists, the Internet therefore does not simply replace face-to-face contact: it facilitates and complements it.

You can read his full piece here.

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