Internet killed the TV star?
After a night of stomach-ache following the exit polls from the latest political elections in Italy, I want to share some thoughts about the dramatic and in many ways surprising results, and answer to the questions I get from astonished non-Italian friends and colleagues in Sweden. I won’t write about Italian politics, since it’s not my competence field, but I will analyse what is happening in Italy in a cultural and media-perspective, focusing on the alternative communication strategy that won in these last elections.
Since 2009 I have been following with interest Beppe Grillo, former comedian and leader of the protest grass-root movement Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S (here a blog post I wrote 2009). The fact that Mr Grillo had been censured from Italian TV in the last decade (and note, not only from Berlusconi’s private channels but even from the public service RAI), and systematically ignored or boycotted by Italian mass media (well, let´s talk about press freedom, Italy was recently ranked at number 57, after Botswana and Niger in a chart by Reporter Without Borders), made him obliged to choose other channels to let his protesting voice heard.
In a country where TV is the primary source of information for 97% of the citizens, and where in the last decades TV has changed the culture of the nation (see Erik Gandini's awarded documentary Videocracy to have a deeper understanding of this nation-wide brain washing campaign), where the major papers belongs to the two main blocks and internet penetration is not as clear as in other countries, it´s a great challenge to reach out to citizens. Especially if you have a message that is inconvenient for the traditional political elite in power. In Sicily, where M5S was the biggest party in regional elections 2012, Grillini, as the followers of Grillo are called, cut bloated council wages from €15,000 to €2,500 and plan to use the excess to find microcredit schemes. Revolutionary, in a country where politicians from the right to the left have lost their credibility due to their unethical, if not criminal, behavior.
Mr Grillo started already in the 80’s, as a caustic comedian, to contest the wide corruption of Italian politicians from every party, and this led to his ban from Italian public and mediatic scene. But Mr Grillo is a fighter, and in many way an innovator. Only after many Italians asked him to enter into politics to save Italy, he did it. In a revolutionary way for Italy, which under many aspects is still an old and bureaucracy paralyzed country.
Mr Grillo used the only channel he had left at his disposal: the web. He started his own blog, which soon became one of the 10 most read blogs in the world. He started to blog in Italian, English and Japanese (another interesting distinction mark from the majority of Italians who can´t communicate in other languages than their mother tongue, and are not so interested in what is going on outside Italy).
He used the power of the web to reach a large number of citizens who didn´t feel they were represented by the politicians in charge, and were frustrated by the lack of credibility, ideology and integrity of the corrupted and immune political caste. He created, together with an handful of young and driven Italians, The Five Stars Movement (Movimento 5 stelle) a simple but understandable program focusing on health, environment, public transport, connectivity and education. The movement succeeded in expressing the frustration shared by many Italians, and in only 3 years grow huge.
Mr Grillo learnt from Obama’s grassroot strategy campaign, talked to the people in a direct and straightforward way and organized meetings in the biggest Italian cities. Thanks to word of mouth and to the engagement of a great number of volunteers, this was achieved while not spending 1 Euro from the public finances to promote its party. M5S, in contrast to all the other parties, selects its spokespersons on the internet, through a safe and credible process. Thereby avoiding to overload the already broken Italian financial situation. Using citizens' tax money would have been a further burden in a country suffering a severe crisis.
M5S’s meetings in the Italian squares attracts huge masses: it´s estimated that there were 800 000 people in Rome, and 400 000 in Milan, something that has not happened in ages. Grillo likes to stress the fact that everything, from technique, logistic, transfers, are done by idealists and volunteers who believe it´s still possible to change Italy, and they haven´t used public funding (government funded subsidies to political parties is something M5S wants to remove). M5S slogan became "Honesty will become trendy again".
Mr Grillo has a fiery temper, a fighter and a caustic and charismatic speaker. He´s not a diplomat, and this has caused criticism against his leadership, especially when he decided to welcome foreign press, but not Italian, backstage to M5S’s meetings in the Italian squares. Another clear and strong sign of protest against the current situation, and a complaint to the lack of credibility and freedom of press in the country, according to Mr Grillo.
Today, when the results reveal that M5S got 25 % of the votes, I think it´s going to be more interesting and exciting than ever to follow the development of this grassroot movement, and of the Italian political scene. Let´s see if the internet has become stronger than the TV when it comes to change the Italian mentality and identity. Good luck Italy, and remember: "Yes, You Can"!