Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo: tv against the internet in Italy?

Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo. Photos: Lorenza & Vincenzo Iaconianni and Giorgio Brida, Creative Commons

Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo. Photos: Lorenza & Vincenzo Iaconianni and Giorgio Brida, Creative Commons

Silvio Berlusconi focused on television and Beppe Grillo on the internet in the 2013 elections in Italy. But were the strategies that different?

The centre-left Democratic Party, Partito Democratico, was predicted as the winner of the 2013 elections long before people went to the polls. The big surprise was that centre-right Silvio Berlusconi and the populist comedian Beppe Grillo managed to become the big winners. Berlusconi and Grillo seemed to have vastly diverging media strategies, with one focused on television and the other on the internet, but were they really that different in the end?

Silvio Berlusconi seemed to continue a traditional political campaign, by focusing on television as the main channel to reach voters. He appeared in numerous talk shows on every channel, including the three tv channels of his own. His main target audience traditionally being senior citizens and housewives, the “Cavaliere” seemed to ignore the internet: Berlusconi sent an official-looking letter to millions of voters, guaranteeing a reimbursement of the housing tax, IMU. The campaign trick even led many old people to go to the post offices to claim the reimbursement the day after.

While seeming to ignore the internet, Berlusconi dominated however discussions on social media. Provocative performances in political talk shows lit up the web, with people sharing with each other how much they hated him (following the motto “any publicity is good publicity”). Internet memes and parodies were made following his outrageous attempt to buy votes with the IMU-letter sent to millions of Italians. In the end, even his own campaign staff made a parody of their own and included a jab against then Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Beppe Grillo’s populist 5-Star Movement concentrated on the internet as its main form of communication. The anti-political party saw traditional media such as television and newspapers as politicised media that would inevitably support the “establishment”. The internet assumed almost messianic qualities in the Movement, becoming the future of democracy itself. This naïve optimism and blind faith in new technology didn’t take into consideration however the 20 million that lack an internet connection in Italy.

The media strategy, dictated by Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio at the top, didn’t allow any interviews to be given to Italian media, only to the foreign press. Grillo forbade his politicians from taking part in the political talk shows that fill the Italian airwaves every night. When politicians of the 5-Star Movement have participated, they have quickly been kicked out from the party.

The internet became a subversive medium that told the “truths” that the establishment didn’t tell you on tv. 5-Star Movement parliamentarian Paolo Bernini even repeated the conspiracy theories of the internet film “Zeitgeist”, claiming that “the US government is planting microchips into its citizens”.

Grillo’s campaign seemed to exclude traditional media, yet he dominated news broadcasts and talk shows in terms of arguments and issues. Grillo forced the media to follow his agenda setting by making them transmit clips from his web-tv and by frequently quoting his blog. This method can be compared to that of Barack Obama in 2008, who used online channels to bypass traditional American media, in order to reach his voters and in order to set the agenda for the media.

These examples show how Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo both had very conscious media strategies for the media they both seemed to ignore. Berlusconi was omnipresent on social media during the election campaign while news broadcasts often transmitted, and still do, clips from Grillo’s blog. All while the Democratic Party seemed weak on social media and whose US-style primary tv debate didn’t ignite the crowds as much as Berlusconi’s tv performances.

Will other political parties, such as the Democratic Party, take after the internet and tv strategies of Beppe Grillo and Berlusconi in the next elections?

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