Beppe Grillo's Five Star revolution

There is no telling what the outcome of today's remarkably uncertain Italian elections will be. But the real story might just be Beppe Grillo's Movimento 5 Stelle, which could become the third political force in the country, and set a model for others in Europe to follow.

Comedian turned activist Beppe Grillo at a campaign rally in Livorno. Demotix/Giacomo Quilici. All rights reserved.Comedian turned activist Beppe Grillo at a campaign rally in Livorno. Demotix/Giacomo Quilici. All rights reserved.

According to the latest polls from two weeks ago (there is now a poll 'blackout' until after the election), 'M5S' would secure over fifteen per cent of the national vote, putting it into third place, behind Bersani's centre-left and Berlusconi's centre right coalitions, but ahead of former PM Monti's group. Some internal polling suggests M5S might do even better. 

Grillo’s movement translates to the ‘Five Star Movement’ in English. The five ‘stars’ represent its main themes: public water, transportation, development, internet connection and availability, and the environment.  Running on a simple manifesto based on these themes, he has enjoyed a rise in popularity perhaps unrivalled in post-War Western Europe: one year ago, he was polling at around five per cent. This is despite the party doing the precise reverse of what a political campaign strategist would advise: none of its members had been interviewed in the Italian media until last weekend, and its most famous member, Grillo himself, refuses to stand.

What accounts for his meteoric rise? Last week, we released a new report based on a survey of almost 2,000 Facebook fans of Grillo and the M5S. The answer is a fascinating and powerful mix of anti-establishment rhetoric, new technology and old fashioned rallies and local action. If Grillo does as well as polls suggest, perhaps even so well to become kingmaker, then the whole of Europe should take note. I suspect there are plenty of other European countries where another Grillo might explode onto the scene and cause a similar political tremor: including the UK.

Grillo is a truly anti-establishment politician, in the way Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party could never be. In 2007, he held a series of wildly popular rallies, which he called ‘f*ck you day’, aimed at the entire Italian political establishment. He calls Silvio Berlusconi a ‘psycho-dwarf’. On many measures, his supporters are unremarkable. They tend to be male (around two-thirds) and over 30 (again, around two-thirds). Although they are slightly better educated than the average Italian, they are more likely to be unemployed. They are worried about jobs and the economy, but on the whole see immigration as a good thing. But Grillo’s core narrative – that Italian politics is corrupt, elitist, and closed – is striking a powerful chord.

M5S supporters are angry about the state of democracy in Italy and Europe: 83 per cent stated that they were ‘not at all satisfied’ with Italian democracy and only eight per cent said they trusted Mario Monti’s technocratic government. His supporters display rock-bottom levels of trust in political and commercial institutions: only three per cent trust political parties, two per cent trust parliament, two per cent trust banks and financial institutions and six per cent trust big companies – lower, on every measure, than the Italian general public. The same is true of the Italian media, which Grillo regularly rails against. Only eleven per cent trust the press (against 34 per cent of Italians overall) and less than four per cent trust TV (against 40 per cent of Italians). In stark contrast to this, 76 per cent of Grillo Facebook fans trust the internet.

But Grillo’s real skill has been to channel this frustration into a political movement capable of affecting the political system he criticises.  To do that, Grillo has a radical way of organising his party, and uses new technology to make it happen.  The conditions for joining the M5S were (and still are) based on a simple ‘Non-Statute’, a document produced in December 2009 and published on Grillo’s website, which contains seven articles setting out some of the main rules of the movement and basic information. Anyone can join if they agree with these articles. (Of course, there are some problems with this franchise model – the label ‘Movimento Cinque Stelle’ remains the property of Grillo alone and only he can decide – on a case-by-case basis – who may use it for political (or any other) purposes).

Grillo uses social media more effectively than any other European politician. The online social media following of political parties all across Europe is now larger than the formal membership, and they can be a powerful force. Grillo’s support base dwarfs them all. Over 1 million people have liked his Facebook page. He tweets regularly and has almost 1 million followers (David Cameron’s dry and informative account is followed by a quarter of that). Grillo’s is by far the most widely read political blog in Italy.

But – and this is perhaps the real lesson – Grillo uses his social media as a platform and amplifier for real world activism. He uses his huge social media profile to actually make things happen. Online and offline activities complement one another. Grillo has constantly encouraged his supporters to discuss – both on the internet and in physical locations – the issues he raises on the blog as they relate to local questions in their cities and towns. This has been done through the creation of Beppe Grillo meet-up groups which have formed the nucleus of the movement’s presence all over the country.

As of 8 November 2012, there were officially 532 Grillo meet-up groups, containing 87,895 members and spanning 446 cities and 12 countries (although they were mainly based in Italy). Feeling part of something, his supporters are motivated: while 51 per cent of  Italians said they would ‘never’ participate in a boycott, only nice per cent of Beppe Grillo's Facebook fans expressed the same view. His rallies leading up to this election have been wildly popular, the most well attended and vibrant of all the candidates. 

So is Grillo the first of a new wave of social media politicians, ready to sweep Europe? Perhaps. Grillo’s mélange of virtual and real-world political activity is the way millions of people — especially young people — relate to politics in the twenty-first century. This nascent, messy and more ephemeral form of politics is becoming the norm for a younger, digital generation: the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics found that 41 per cent of young Americans engaged in at least one political act through social media during the last twelve months. My hunch is similar figures apply to Europe too.

But more importantly, many of the concerns of Grillo’s supporters are shared by citizens across Europe. Over the last decade, trust in the EU and national governments and parliament has been on a downward trend across the continent. In 2002, 39 per cent of Europeans trusted national government and 42 per cent Parliament while in 2012 only 28 do so. Grillo’s main target is what he views as a corrupt, out of touch, elite political establishment and an untrustworthy media. It is possible to see why he emerged in Italy. Grillo has a big pool of discontent in which to fish: 54 per cent of Italians do not trust the media, 88 per cent tend not to trust political parties, 77 per cent tend not to trust the government. There is another country in Europe where the public is every bit as pessimistic, where 75 per cent do not trust the media, 80 per cent don’t trust political parties, and 70 per cent don’t trust the government. There probably won’t be a ‘f*ck off day’ here in the UK any time soon – but the Beppe Grillo phenomenon might be coming soon to a constituency near you. 

About the author

Jamie Bartlett is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. He tweets @JamieJBartlett.