Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo drew the largest vote for a single party in Italy’s election last month – despite shunning traditional campaign platforms such as TV, in favor of using social media like Facebook to spread his message. Analysts say it’s the latest example of how new media and social media are changing politics – building on recent phenomena like the Arab Spring.
By his own admission, Beppe Grillo tries hard not to look like a politician. But his ‘5-star Movement’ took 25 percent of the vote at the Italian elections last month – the highest share for a single party.
Addressing his supporters, he said: “We have entered another phase; I don’t know what it will lead to. It is incredible,” he said. “We have changed. We are not only a movement but we are a community.”
Analysts say it is a community built in cyberspace. Grillo shunned traditional campaign platforms such as television and newspapers – instead relying on social media like Facebook and Twitter, where he has over a million followers.
Graham Meikle is professor of social media at the University of Westminster in London.
“Where social media have become implicated in high profile political events in the last few years such as the Italian elections, such as the Iranian elections in 2009, such as Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, what we’re often seeing is not just dissatisfaction and rebellion against politics as usual, but also against the way politics is covered,” he said.
Meikle said Beppe Grillo’s success is the most high profile example of the power of new media in politics.
“People are using social media to express points of view which aren’t getting onto TV, which aren’t being aired in the newspaper, to share those ideas with others and to connect with others who they can then see through networks, and share their point of view,” he added.
The difference with social media is that it is a two-way conversation, said Matt Freckelton. He is the founder of the website Yatterbox, which follows the social media activity of every lawmaker in Britain – giving the electorate a real-time commentary on politicians’ activities in Parliament, and even often in private. Freckleton cited what happened during the recent parliamentary debate on legalizing gay marriage.
“What we saw were lots of politicians in the chambers or outside the chambers during the debate tweeting about it,” he said. “And during that we saw many policymakers and people who would like to influence those people, and the general public getting in on that debate and trying to influence how those politicians would vote, which would directly affect the laws that are passed in this country.”
Douglas Carswell is a Conservative Party lawmaker with an active online presence. He’s author of the book ‘The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy’. “The Internet is changing politics. It’s changing the way we do democracy fairly profoundly,” he said.
“It’s allowing us to aggregate opinion; it’s allowing us to bring ideas together,” said Carswell. “It’s allowing us to do many of the things that previously political parties did. And I think this is a challenge both for the people in the building behind me, but I think it’s a challenge also for citizens because they’re discovering new ways that they can get things done.”
Whether on the streets of the Arab world – or in the corridors of Western parliaments – observers say social media is shaking up the established political order.