The technological revolution has determined the transition from an old elitist, top-down, and inaccessible structure of power in the political space to a new more participatory, and open one. The spread of business models that link web applications and self-employed workers represents the affirmation of a networked, informal, and unrestrained structure. This is an epochal change in which people are in control of their time and can make money, do activities, organize themselves in movements like #metoo, #Blacklivesmatter, and Occupy. Ideas spread easily and globally, and everyone is aware of being able to fulfil their wishes (Stapledon, 1927). From a pyramidal and vertical power structure to another horizontal and fluid, the new influence circulates, information runs fast, and connects users through social media platforms. Online media consumers can participate and affect the global course of events. This is the power of the web that eclipses the old-school power. It is certainly a more inclusive perspective.
The media paradigm of the past is definitely in crisis, and other ways of producing news have been finding space. On social networks and websites, user-generated content is posted by the public and disseminated as a source of information (Johnston, 2016). These contributors are ordinary people who share injustices and inequalities through their own voices, and their content is easily produced and immediately available. Journalists are no longer the only ones telling stories. It is eventually a deviation from dominance (Wall, 2017).
This study aims to analyse political communication and the new power, therefore how the role of the journalist has been changing, paying special attention to two relevant case studies in Italy: Beppe Grillo’s leader of the Five-Star Movement and Matteo Salvini. Due to their ubiquity, social media platforms are used by political leaders for communicating and civic engagement. The essay also examines the disintermediated political talk in the online “third-spaces” (Graham et al., 2016), the communal space where people can interact and participate asynchronously or simultaneously, and how journalists relate to political power.
Online social platforms base their business on traffic, which reaches the maximum peak levels if generated by divisive, hateful, and discriminatory comments. The reason is that social media are information systems based on algorithms, which are a series of mathematical rules, applied to engage the public globally through relevant content and with the aim of monetizing. Until now, the algorithms have rewarded more polarizing content capable of evoking high-arousal emotions.
Before the advent of the internet, the newspapers had in hand the determination of the public debate. Following the spread of social media, they have lost their specific weight and journalistic mediation is no longer there. Political leaders can actually speak directly to their followers through alternative means. This leads to a competitive struggle for the audience, in the age of clickbait practices and polarized media space, no longer between political factions, but between traditional media and anti-establishment information. The populist leaders have taken advantage of these new media features, riding the citizen’s political powerlessness. This political stance is the signal of a democratic crisis, in which people move away from the political and cultural sphere, from the party system, from the institutions. The new third generation of populism, which coincides with the Trump period, Brexit, and migration stories, is plural because it can range a wide of different experiences under the same umbrella (Revelli, 2019). An entire system consisting of plots and connections falls because people feel unrepresented.
The study by Vox Diritti – Osservatorio Italiano sui Diritti (2020), conducted with four Italian universities, aims to figure out the extent of hate online from March to September 2020. The hate speech mapping, developed through a Social Network Analytics & Sentiment Analysis platform and the use of artificial intelligence in order to extract the semantics of selected contents, analyses the geolocation and therefore the diffusion of tweets containing words considered sensitive, such as women, migrants, homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, and the disabled. During the year of the pandemic, social networks have pointed out tensions and polarization of conflicts. Considering Twitter, there were 565,526 negative comments out of a total of 1,304,537 tweets. Negative comments belonging to the considered clusters are distributed in percentage as follows: women (49.91%), followed by Jews (18.45%), migrants (14.40%), Muslims (12.01%), homosexuals (3.28%), and disabled (1.95%). Online hatred is often a direct consequence of news events, such as terrorist attacks, laws on civil unions, migrant landings. The research project by London School of Economics and Political Science, Ca’ Foscari, and Corriere della Sera (2019, pp. 1-14) also shows how comments on Facebook Corriere becomes increasingly negative and xenophobic when touching on immigration topics. Stories of human interest definitely engage more and obtain strong negative comments, also aimed at journalists, directors, newspapers. The situation is different if we consider the medium of the video that, due to its tangibility, is more credible in the eyes of the viewer.
Social media has ultimately become a means of exercising the right to freedom of speech and the right of access to information (Valeriani, A.), but their regulation is still arbitrary. Two days after the January 6th Capitol Hill attack, the 45th President of the United States of America Donald Trump tweeted (2021) two posts that resulted in the permanent deletion of his account @realDonaldTrump, in order to prevent the risk of further incitement to violence. These tweets were part of the “Glorification of Violence policy”. Trump’s May 29 post “[..] when the looting starts, the shooting starts [..]” (2020) during the clashes after the African American George Floyd’s death, was hidden from Twitter due to the same reason. Facebook, on the other hand, did not delete the same content, to protect the right to free speech. Different channels, different policies.
I. Overcoming the logic of political currents: the rise of the Five-Star Movement. There are similarities between the use of new power connected with events that took place in America and by the Five-Star Movement in Italy. Both deal with the disappointments and hopes of the population, and gain support among the most vulnerable members of society. The Five-Star Movement was born the year following the Great Recession from the partnership of the comedian and political activist Beppe Grillo and the web entrepreneur and lawyer Gianroberto Casaleggio. The Great Recession of 2008 was an international crisis due to the super-prime mortgage bubble in the housing market that collapsed, hitting banks and investors. Lehman Brothers marked the bankruptcy of large financial institutions. The fall in stock market prices (-40%) almost reached the historical record of the Standard & Poor’s index during the Great Depression of the 1930s (-47.2%) on Wall Street, another great global economic catastrophe (Bianchi, 2020). There were many consequences, such as the rise in unemployment and poverty of the population. This event showed all the limits of the liberal democratic capitalism, based on infinite growth. After the expulsion from RAI, Beppe Grillo began to shape his political views by questioning the behaviour of the individual and the environment, the role of citizenship, the power of entrepreneurship and finance, and also that of the press which did not adequately control and inform.
The Five-Star Movement stems directly from Grillo’s blog, from the start among the most followed in Italy. It is the first major Italian project of pure democracy (Ceccarelli, 2020), a space in which to express one’s opinion, participate, and without the intermediation of journalistic or political editors. News can be reported by anyone and the related multimedia content shared. It definitely represents a radical break with the political class vertical power.
Citizen journalism is a spider web type of information and undomesticated by old power, sharing stories and social crises from ordinary people. This emergent practice is seen as disruptive, fluid, liquid, plural, grassroots, open, and participatory (Moyo, 2015). At the base, there is the duty to inform independently. Civic virtue is connected to one’s moral obligation, unlike the ethics proposed by the journalistic unions and orders. The main responsibilities of this networked-divergent journalism should remain that of not arming people and acting virtuously for the common good. In this fluid disintermediated context, where readers interact with news and online newspaper, a new social identity is shaped: a digital community of users to identify with and who provides opinions to engage with.
The relationship between the Movement and the press has always been controversial. Initially, the movement was the scene of hostility against the journalists, considered as watchdogs of the world leaders. A strong statement was the column “A journalist a day” in the period 2013-2014, in which activists pointed the finger at journalists in opposition to the political force. The first to end up under accusation was Maria Novella Oppo of L’Unità (Table 2 – Appendix A), a newspaper founded by Gramsci. According to Grillo’s blog (2013), she was guilty of being a professional defamer, and to work thanks to public funds that the Movement would like to abolish. After that, it was the turn of Il Fatto Quotidiano and the reporters of Parliament accused of being hack writers who infest the Chamber. The director of la Repubblica Ezio Mauro also ended up in Beppe Grillo’s blog (2014) because of a tweet (Table 2 – Appendix A), which ridicules the leader calling him Grullo, instead of Grillo. It is a play on words that in the Tuscan dialect means foolish. Politicians unanimously showed solidarity for these media professionals (Barone, 2013), and the president of the National Council of the Order of Journalists, Enzo Lacopino, highlighted that the black and white photo of the journalist Oppo was inappropriate, like a wanted fugitive (Androkronos, 2013). Insults aimed at her also appeared under the article, no longer visible, but what remains is the invitation to report the articles of the Oppo-style commentators for this blog column. Journalists thus have been becoming targets of hate speech and violence.
Initially, the typical supporter of the Movement was a citizen mainly of Central and Northern Italy, dissatisfied with the Italian political and ruling class. The Movement attracted many activists equipped with smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and video cameras. Hence, were organized events like the V-Days in the squares and embassies, and the resulting clip uploaded to YouTube (Amici di Beppe Grillo Massafra, 2013). These appointments were characterized by colourful expressions against the parasitism of the privileged clique to be fought. Ultimately, the old traditional parties had not been able to innovate over times after the First Republic. In 2013 the Movement obtained 25.1% of the votes in the Chamber and 23.3% in the Senate.
II. From the crisis of printed journalism to the Salvini phenomenon. Another populist political force has experienced very rapid growth: the Lega party. At the beginning, it brought the matter of the North and the Italian North-South secession to the voters’ attention, composed of small local businesses which felt oppressed by the central power, and workers’ electorate that progressively moved away from the leftist tradition (Innamorati, 2021).
Matteo Salvini was elected federal secretary of this party in 2013, and in 2018 he won the elections together with the Five-Star Movement. The leader, Donald Trump’s supporter in the US Presidential Election 2016, succeeded in transforming the Lega from a secessionist and regional dimension to a national party. His strategy is based on marketing and the use of a political agenda through software called “Bestia”, for microtargeting and big data analysis (Zattin, 2020). Every day around forty people scan trends and topics from social networks, monitor the reactions of published posts, identify the keywords that attract the most attention, analyse the data of the considered pages.
Salvini’s Facebook page has more than four million likes. He appears as an ordinary man who watches football matches (2020), shows himself shirtless on the beach (2020), and for this reason arouses empathy and engages the public. Matteo Salvini is a real case of a pop politician. The mediatized politician leaves the institutional language of politics (Dell’Anna, 2010), becoming both a member of the institution, a political representative, and a media personality. The most covered topics on Facebook are Italy, Immigration, Security, Parties and institutions, Pop politics, Call to action, Economy, Europe, Complaint (Carone et al., 2019). In 2011, he opened a Twitter account, with currently more than one million followers, in which he recalls his broadcast speeches. He has also been present on Instagram since 2014 with almost two million followers. His language is synthetic, generalizing, and provocative, with the use of capital letters, and calls to action for increasing the engagement rate and page ranking (Zattin, 2020).
Matteo Salvini is able to control the media and political agenda, and polarizes the debate on TV, the internet, and locally. His anti-establishment and pre-euro nostalgia views ultimately stand in opposition to strong powers, idealized in the European Union, international finance, and banks (Romeo, 2019). It emerges from social networks that Italy is an unsafe country whose borders (2020) and Italian sovereignty must be defended. Pointing out the fact that priority in Italy must be given first to Italians, he tells stories of social hardship and blames the foreigner who can commit a crime. The immigration question intersects with the phenomenon of globalization, which leads to a progressive industrial relocation from developed countries to China and the Southeast. This also means a great wealth transfer. In this slice of reality, the lower classes see their jobs in danger and fear immigrants more, as they are potential competitors in the labour market (Innamorati, 2021). In a 2016 Facebook post, he complains about the unfair treatment that earthquake victims have suffered compared to irregular migrants (Table 1 – Appendix A), and draws attention to the newscast that does not talk about it for reasons that are difficult to understand but can be supposed (Table 1 – Appendix A). He promises an ameliorative change for the Italian natives when he will rule (Table 1 – Appendix A). Through a careful rebranding, from “First the North!” and “Thieving Rome” of the early Lega (Romeo, 2019), finally arrives at the nationalism of “Italians first!” (Table 1 – Appendix A).
Lega can be defined as a leader-oriented party, in which the leader holds a very strong position (Bordignon et al., 2013) also on social channels. This is a political personalization and politics presidentialization process. Salvini is also adept at remediating the journalists, thus becoming an opinion leader (Ferretti, 2019). In fact, his Instagram account shows that 38.9% of the posts come from media institutions: 10.4% are extracted from the major broadcast networks, 22% are incorporated by other newspapers and presented again in the form of a title plus an image.
Salvini additionally takes the place of journalists if necessary, as on the day of the attacks of 22 March 2016 when he was in a session of the European Parliament in Brussels and began to report this fact on social media (2016), even pointing fingers (Table 1 – Appendix A). As a consequence, the centrality of the institutional media, traditionally acting as a bridge between government and public, is weakened and information no longer belongs to the journalist’s social accountability.
The New York Times’ first female editor, Jill Abramson, delves into journalism and how it can survive. Local newspapers are in full crisis, between staff cuts and definitive closures due to the unsustainable business. In this structural change, democracy has been undermined by losing trusted points of view. While on the one hand there is the decline of printed media and the marginalization of the role of the journalist, on the other hand, the news on online platforms spreads through independent sources, using data science, and seeking virality.
Daily political talk represents the heart of a democratic society and has a citizenship education function. Within the debate, the individual becomes aware that is part of the public sphere (Habermas et al., 1974). Through a process of identification, citizens shape their civic identity and relate to each other, building reasoning, opinions, resources, and rules for deliberative democracy.
According to Habermas’ revised model, each social media platform such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook can be considered as a third online space, whose interactions on and between them take place through hybrid forms (Chadwick, 2013), where public, private, and potential third spaces meet. Taking into account comments of political blogs, trends in Twitter topics, consumption of political information, and online news structure, politics on the internet are polarized rather than stimulating new thinking perspectives (Smith, 2011). It is meant by polarization not just the right-left alignment, but the process of describing opposite binary formulations.
Social media connects people in real-time and globally in the public debate, and brings together all news, the audience, and the public. On the other hand, these channels may lack deliberation, as the critical aspect may fail. The boundary between media and public blurs, as well as that between the content producer, the consumer, and the citizen. Political leaders’ social profiles represent the meeting point between the new and the old power.
In the third space, some critical issues arise, such as the regulation of freedom of speech and pluralism on a reference regulatory framework also at the procedural level. Capitol Hill has brought the issues of social accountability and censorship to light. The biggest challenge is to define a boundary between the public and the private sphere. In summary, if the platform has a private utility, the responsibility would be defined in the contractual conditions, whilst if the service has a scope related to current public affairs and political journalism, the platform would operate as a “judge, jury and executioner”, highlighting a lack of separation of powers expected (Donato, 2020).
Other critical points to be regulated are hate speech, disinformation, and the abuse of political advertisements. For this reason, well-defined roles and responsibilities determine the transparent interactive experience with qualitative content in the political debate on social platforms. As well as on online blogs, which after years could show potentially harmful content. The owner of a website is responsible for what displayed that must not be offensive or defamatory. In plain terms, the right to criticize must not become the freedom to insult. When the alleged content is not removed, the internet service provider can take action if aware of the offence. It is important that the individual interprets the facts correctly, where information overload, disintermediation, and hyperconnection are reshaping the social environment and changing the relationship between communication, information, and knowledge.
A view of disintermediation and the use of social media by political leaders
This section aims to show the communication of political leaders through the use of social networks and blogs.
Table 2 Blog posts by leader Beppe Grillo translated from Italian to English
Table 1 Social media posts by leader Salvini translated from Italian to English
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