‘Digital Europe’ and the Italian elections in the light of growing far-right popularity: A closer look at the M5S.

By Anita Gottlob, Student of Communication Science at the University of Vienna

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*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration Series curated by Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli. 

On the 4th of March 2018, Italian citizens went to the polls to elect a new government. In this election, the formerly governing center-left establishment party ‘Partito Democratico’ (PD) lost its leading position as 32% of Italians opted for the contested 5 star movement (M5S). A majority of votes  went to a party that relies heavily on the internet ‘as the central vehicle of a web-based democracy, as an internal organisational tool, and as its main means of communication’ (Dittrich, 2018: 3). The popularity of the populist M5S party in Italy can be partly explained by the more obvious and commonly known reasons: Italian public and politicians felt that European disinterest and lack of solidarity led to Italy being marginalized, especially when it came to resolving issues brought by the migrant crisis (Debomy, Riviere & Husson, 2018), paired with a long time of economic fragility and numerable scandals by former Italian politicians (example Berlusconi).

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Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

As Marc Lazar points out (blog post) the migration issue in Italy has a priori triggered a reaction of rejection, tension and even xenophobia’  which has provided  an important political resource for the center-right and the Five Star Movement (Marc Lazar, 2018). This becomes apparent in the M5S rhetoric, as the current leader of the M5S, Di Maio, accused Renzi of making Italy the ‘biggest port of Europe’ on his facebook page. In the light of these premises, the M5S recurrently built on anti-immigration sentiment and an accusatory defensive quest for transparency in their political discourse: the M5S representatives portray themselves as morally superior, discriminating against other politicians not on a political basis, but on the basis of individual morality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, some M5S voters would feel that ‘The Italian government has been all based on bribes, mafia and corruption. The M5S is fighting a battle against corruption based on honesty’ (Laura, 28, Italian student and 5 star movement voter). But Ferruccio Pastore points out, in Italy, fear of foreigners is nothing new as migrants have been perceived as a threat throughout the millennium. So beyond these obvious reasons, we have to take a closer look at what the majority of Italians believed to be a  better alternative to an establishment party, that so far was on the way to restoring economy and dealing with immigration policies.

The M5S party was founded as an opposition movement in 2009 by the stand-up comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo and its gatekeeper Davide Casaleggio. Aiming to create transversal alliances between the left and the right, in contrast to other populist parties, it initially did not propose a paradigm shift or take radical right or left positions on key issues such as taxation, the euro or immigration. A Financial Times article underlined how the online platform curated by the Rousseau association, was designed to introduce ‘direct democracy by conducting online primary votes, surveying members on policies and receiving donations’. According to the digital news report by Reuters and Oxford University (2017), Italy’s online media landscape is the second most polarised after the USA, when it comes to political debates. This leads to a particularly high share of users who self-identify with the left or the right only reading media with a corresponding inclination. Studies on recent election campaigns found that populist parties have achieved a large online reach in France and Germany (Digital News report 2017), as well as Italy, mainly using social-media as a communication and debate instrument i.e. ‘Once again it is clear that the decentralised public sphere organized via social media has led to a change in election campaigns, mobilisation tactics, the internal organisation of political parties, and overall political communications.’ (Dittrich, 2018: 2).

The use of social media as a main communication vehicle by populist parties presents a perfect environment for the spreading of the aforementioned anti-immigration and moral superiority rhetoric that is key to the M5S. In a recent blog post following the election, for instance, Beppe Grillo published an article named ‘the perfection of the parasite’, in which he calls the establishment left and right parties ‘the fake left and the fake right’ that suffocate democracy. The ‘web-based democracy’ angle, in which one is given the option (or illusion) of almost instant decision and action taking, might particularly speak to a generation that grew up perceiving individuality and agency and as the key factors of western democratic societies. In this sense, in an anonymous, free world of the internet, populist and extreme right-wing parties might easily sell power from above as power coming from below.

Which approach do establishment parties have to social media use for communication? In Italy, former Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi has a particularly high number of followers on Twitter, which according to Dittrich (2018) tends to be used by rather educated and politically minded people. Twitter is also used by supporters of the PD to voice their opinion. The hashtag ‘#senzadime’ (#withoutme) is currently trending on Italian twitter and social media and has been used by citizens to express their position against a coalition between the M5S and the PD. Massimo Ungaro, PD deputy, also explains that social media messages can be interpreted as political indicator, but not as a main indicator of the vox populi as ‘moods vary very easily’.

In Conclusion, congruent with the commonly known populist rhetoric, the 5 Star Movement (M5S) representatives portray themselves in a robinhood-esque light, milking pre-existing public frustrations and anxieties. This is nothing new, yet the danger of a European souverainist backlash is not to be underestimated; there is a globalist element to this old-fashioned populist strategy, where social fears and xenophobia intertwine with societal transformations engendered by the means of globalisation. Indeed, the success of the M5S is closely linked to the growth in social media. Massimo Ungaro, PD deputy and member of parliament, underlines the consequences the election outcome in Italy could have for European Integration: A clear setback for pro-European forces and the victory of M5S could leave Italy behind on any talk about reforming the EU especially on issues which are vital like immigration and the Dublin treaty’. If alternatives want to be proposed for pro-EU establishment and left-wing movements to counter this phenomenon on a European level, it is thus necessary to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, to create an encompassing understanding, beyond the more obvious socio-economic factors leading to far-right voting. Marco Tarchi underlines that populist and extreme right parties are structurally distinct in their outlook of how society and how power should be gained, yet both have been increasingly using the same tool: social media, in order to gain authority. Perhaps, then, the complex role of globalization impacts on how societies and individuals´ political opinions are shaped and it should not be underestimated neither in scholarly analysis, nor in opposition parties and movements.

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