Web guru Pierandrea Casaleggio and comedian Beppe Grillo’s M5S, winning almost a quarter of votes in Italy’s general election, is no traditional political party. It’s a horizontal web-based network whose spending on offline media advertising was zero.
Unlike the mega budgets spent on political campaigning in the UK, USA and other democracies, Italy's Five Star Movement is all built using the "MeetUp" internet platform as the vehicle for information exchange and for a decision-making process based on online voting. The result is a peer-to-peer, purely horizontal network. It's the opposite of the standard political parties as they are today. The movement has a base without a leadership, traditional parties have a leadership without a base.
Casaleggio said his long-term aim was to bring the M5S to power on its own. Until then, it would not make agreements with any other political group. He said observers had been wrong to see the huge vote for M5S purely as a reaction to the economic crisis or austerity policies. Though the crisis had accelerated the movement's progress, it was essentially a product of the internet, he said, as it enabled the direct democracy that the movement espoused and practised. "What is happening in Italy is just the beginning of a much more radical change that is going to touch all democracies."
But this new party is less revolutionary in the political sense. The offices of Casaleggio's internet consultancy are in the most fashionable, and expensive, part of Milan. Grillo himself trained as an accountant, and has long been a critic of corporate corruption. He has been sued several times for libel by many people and organizations which he had exposed, such as Telecom Italia. When Italian judges were investigating the Parmalat scandal, which was then the world's largest corporate bankruptcy scandal, Grillo was called to testify as he anticipated the imminent collapse of the dairy conglomerate in one of his TV shows. When he was asked by judges how he had been able to discover that, he simply said that Parmalat's financial holes were so evident that anybody who had enough ability to see them would see them, since the corporate accounting was easily accessible.
After the success of online campaigning groups like Avaaz and 38Degrees, does the new process initiated by Grillo and Casaleggio represent the true political coming of age of the internet?.