The World

The Party Is the Platform

The cyberutopian promise, and sinister reality, of Italy’s ascendant Five Star Movement.

Luigi Di Maio and Beppe Grillo wave at the crowd.
Five Star Movement party leader Luigi Di Maio and Beppe Grillo at the March 2 rally in Piazza del Popolo in Rome.
Marco Ravagli/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

It was the last day of Italy’s earthshaking electoral campaign. Rome’s Piazza del Popolo was crowded, and balloons were hovering over the heads of thousands of MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) supporters as their 31-year-old leader, Luigi Di Maio, took the stage. The anti-establishment party, born a decade earlier from the mind and blog of comedian Beppe Grillo, is no stranger to rallies. And yet, the tone on March 2 was entirely different from the gatherings the party was known for. Gone were the obscene insults to the Italian political establishment that used to gather disenfranchised, voiceless citizens by the thousands to hear the party’s message.

Di Maio chose to tell a different story instead. It was an exemplary tale of redemption and hope. That of a generation that grew up with the broken promise of a society in which “a degree would have been enough to get a job, make money, get a mortgage, and raise a family” and that instead had to face the nightmarish instability of “a world which we haven’t been prepared to tackle.” It is a generation, he said, that has a chance to finally gain power and change things for the better.

How? By voting for him, of course. And beyond that, by adopting the unique political stance that the Cinque Stelle represents. Di Maio touched upon it in his last words, accompanied by startup-like musical theme and scenery reminiscent of a TV show: “Connection is strength is our motto. Collective wisdom is our solace. And participation our stimulus.”

Two days after the rally, Italians finally got out to vote. For the Cinque Stelle it was no less than a triumph: a stunning 32.7 percent. More than the whole center-left coalition, previously in government, and just 4 percent shy of the center right. In Southern Italy, it was a landslide, with 50 percent voting for the upstarts. In recent days, it has appeared more likely that the upstart, difficult-to-categorize political movement will form an alliance with the far-right League to govern the country, bringing an end to decades of rule by the center left or center right. In a world first, a movement borne out of the internet, whose central tenet is the prospect of a “platform” government based on digital, direct democracy, could rule a country.

Ultimately, what M5S is selling is a peculiar variant of populism that hinges on techno-utopianism. Profoundly post-ideological at its core, the party has mastered both online and offline propaganda, seducing progressives with quasi-Obamian messages on social welfare and stoking the right’s sense of insecurity with a strong rhetoric on migrants.

But that’s not how it started out.

One night in April 2004, a man approached Italy’s most prominent comedian, Beppe Grillo.
Grillo had just finished a performance at the Goldoni Theater in Livorno. The stranger was tall and lean, with a hawkish face hidden behind round glasses. He introduced himself as Gianroberto Casaleggio, a programmer and owner of an e-commerce company from Milan. He wanted to talk about a plan he had, which included Grillo. It was about new forms of power, about building community, about the internet.

Grillo’s and Casaleggio’s own versions of that meeting differ—each claiming the other made contact first—but the comedian recalls a man with no doubts in his mind, explaining notions such as “webcasting,” “direct democracy,” “chatterbot,” “wiki,” “social network,” and “copyleft,” and more generally resembling “either a wicked genius or a sort of St. Francis who, instead of speaking to wolves and birds, spoke to the internet.”

A comedian and TV fixture, Grillo’s act had been getting more political throughout the 1990s, and by the time of the meeting between the two men, he was about to transform from satirizing Italy’s politics to participating in them.

But Grillo wasn’t an obvious audience for Casaleggio’s pitch. In 2000, right when the burst of the dot-com bubble seemed inevitable, Grillo famously used computers onstage as part of his act. With a hammer in his hand, dressed in black and speaking like a combination jester and prophet, he would invite members of the audience onstage to join him in this neo-Luddite redemption. Behind the internet there’s nothing, he had said, “this is an absurd technology that only fools us.” Grillo was clearly as disillusioned about the internet’s early promises as his new friend was euphoric.

Casaleggio had just published a book titled Web Ergo Sum in which he envisioned the future role of the internet for society. He admired the entrepreneur and thinker Adriano Olivetti for whose company he had been building operating systems, and shared Olivetti’s ambition of using innovation to foster “Community.”

Casaleggio was thinking in much grander terms, however. In a 2008 video for his web strategy firm, Casaleggio Associati, he predicted a “Third World War” beginning in 2020 among the “two main areas” that by then would have already dominated the globe: “the West, with direct democracy and free access to the internet” on one side and “China, Russia, and the Middle East, with Orwellian dictatorship and controlled access to the internet” on the other. The war would last 20 years, reduce the world population to 1 billion, and ultimately result in the triumph of “Net democracies,” the birth of “grassroots movements” linked through the web to solve local problems, and in 2054, the rise of a world government called Gaia elected through the “first world elections on the net.” It’s not quite clear how serious he was.

At the time of their meeting, Italy was sliding toward a much less futuristic dystopia, with media baron and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owning or influencing most TV channels and the press. To actually enter the political arena and make some noise, Grillo needed a way to be louder than the ruling populist. To Casaleggio, the answer was obvious: the internet.

In his books, Casaleggio predicts a world with no political parties, in which newspapers and other traditional media would have soon died at the hands of “online disintermediation.” In his “hyperdemocracy,” no one would need to delegate anymore: Consensus on efficient, “smart” solutions would have been brought about through the wisdom of online crowds.

In a world without media companies to fact-check, there would be no “fake news”: “The first time you are wrong or say something incorrect, you’re out of the net,” he stated repeatedly. Traditional political leaders? Obsolete, a nonsensical remnant of the past. In the networked age, elected representatives would be nothing more than speakers collecting the voice of popular will, as expressed through the internet.

In January 2005, in a spectacular intellectual U-turn, internet skeptic Grillo was convinced by Casaleggio to start a blog, beppegrillo.it. It was the beginning of the end of Italian politics as we knew it.

For four years, the blog served as the hub of a new wave of internet political activism. One million emails were sent to the head of state through the “Via dall’Iraq!” mail-bombing campaign, aimed at stopping Italy’s intervention in the Iraq war. More than 350,000 signatures were collected for an event called V-Day, where the V stands for vaffanculo, or “fuck off.” Through it, Grillo advanced his “Parlamento pulito” campaign, which advocated a law prohibiting convicted politicians from running for office again. The blog also established what would later become one of the core policy proposals of the Cinque Stelle: a two-term limit for each elected official.

Local groups of activists also emerged, organizing through the use of meetups, a technique inspired by Howard Dean’s 2004 U.S. presidential campaign. Some of these activists went on to run for office in Civic Lists called Amici di Beppe Grillo, or “Grillo’s friends.”

In 2009, the time was ripe for a transition into a nationwide, all-out political movement. On Oct. 4—chosen because it is the feast day of the “anti-capitalist” St. Francis—the Five Star Movement was born.

The Cinque Stelle movement was unimaginable without the internet. In the beginning, it had no official physical headquarters, just a website. The only way to subscribe was through an online form. Even expulsions from the party were regulated through online consultations that, critics charged, more closely resembled plebiscites to confirm the will of the founders than actual exercise of digital democracy.

As for the rules, there was only a brief online “non-Statute” with a handful of core principles to be strictly respected by all activists, on pain of exclusion. Grillo would be the “Garante,” the only officially recognized authority overseeing that operations were fairly conducted within the movement. Endless debates and quarrels ensued as his role, together with that of Casaleggio’s shadowy “staff,” operating from his own company’s Milan headquarters, soon clashed with the self-organizing method of the beginnings. After all, if “one counts as one,” why should anyone count more than one?

And yet, nothing could slow the movement’s seemingly unstoppable rise. In its first general election, on Feb. 24–25, 2013, the Cinque Stelle gained a spectacular victory, with almost 9 million votes. Before the 2018 election, it counted 2,200 elected representatives at all levels of government, from the local to the national, to the European Parliament. The party also governs important cities like Rome, Turin, and Livorno.

Its digital operations evolved, too, according to the needs of such a gigantic and ambitious enterprise. Some 150,000 online subscribers can interact daily on a dedicated online platform—in reality, a sum of web applications, each with a precise function—called “Rousseau,” on which new candidates are selected, laws can be proposed by anyone, amendments can be discussed and made to proposals from elected MPs.

But is Cinque Stelle’s digital deliberation system really as nonhierarchical and democratic as it claims?

In 2016, after a long sickness, Casaleggio passed away. His company was taken over by his son, Davide, a longtime employee. By this point, the company and the M5S political movement were inextricably entwined, and the dynastic passage, one that no activist voted on, profoundly changed the very functioning of the movement.

Those who know him describe Davide as a shy, result-oriented, rigorous manager. In interviews, he’s quick to portray himself as a figure devoid of any real political power within the movement.

And yet, a chess champion since he was 12, he knows how to plan his moves. While less ideologically inventive and much less charismatic than the father, the son seems to have gained absolute power over the infrastructure and the trove of data that the party now possesses—far more influence than his father ever wielded.

He’s done this, ironically, by separating Casaleggio Associati from the Cinque Stelle, through the creation of the “Associazione Rousseau,” an association, of which he is now president, that promotes the digital democracy efforts of the movement.

Marco Canestrari, a former Casaleggio Associati member and author of the book Supernova, claims that Davide can now personally access user data contained in the Rousseau platform, which means “all the registries” of what might become Italy’s next ruling party. Also, the platform is where all data on preferences expressed through online consultations and votes is held. This is data that should be encrypted but, notes Canestrari, actually isn’t, as shown by the extensive hacks—a first by white-hat hacker and bug hunter, Evariste Gal0is, and a second by an unknown black-hat hacker that goes by the nickname “r0gue_0”—the platform suffered in the summer of 2017, later confirmed by the Italian Data Protection Authority. There is a possibility, the authority wrote in a long report published in December, of a “constant profiling of subscribers based on every choice or preference expressed through the platform.”

And yet, Rousseau’s creators continue to tout it as “one of the most advanced participatory systems in the world,” in the words of Enrica Sabatini, an academic on digital democracy who was often at Davide’s side to explain the platform, both in Italy and outside the country.
Sabatini has been touring the world in recent months together with Davide, bringing word of the M5S method for digital democracy to academics, activists, and pundits in countries including Brazil, Portugal, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Japan.

And that is just the beginning. “Our objective is not a technological revolution,” she says, “but a cultural one that is able to put the citizen at the heart of society.”

But even as M5S’s electoral success has grown, participation on Rousseau, write political scientists Cristian Vaccari and Lorenzo Mosca, has “severely diminished” over time, possibly due to the “dissatisfaction” of participants “for the practical results” obtained through it.

On Dec. 30, 2017, without any prior warning and to the surprise even of core members of Cinque Stelle, a post on Grillo’s blog announced a complete overhaul of the fundamental rules of the movement, suddenly turning it into something much more similar to a traditional party than before. The party’s new statutes—no anti-political non- prefix, this time—were missing one key sentence from the previous one: “The Five Star Movement is not a political party, nor is it even intended to become one in the future.”

Di Maio—a former vice president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies who had long been the moderate face of the Cinque Stelle in the media—was suddenly assigned whole new powers, typical of a normal, hierarchical “capo politico,” or political boss. These include the rights to simultaneously run for prime minister, be in charge as political leader for 10 years, vet candidate selection, and even obtain the consensus of all the elected representatives of the movement, were he ever to ask for a vote of confidence to a hypothetical government. This is precisely the sort of top-down leadership that was supposed to be left behind in the elder Casaleggio’s post-political future.

But there’s more. Control over Cinque Stelle members’ behavior has become nearly absolute. To risk sanctions, a member now needs only to be accused of “omissions that caused or risked to cause harm to the image” of the Cinque Stelle. This can mean “a loss of consensus,” or even just “hindering its political action.”

Not that all of this seemed to matter to voters, who in the latest election actually seemed to appreciate the more moderate tones the party had adopted and its abandonment of flat-out insults to the political establishment.

Davide Casaleggio has continued to sell the myth of direct democracy to outsiders. In a Washington Post op-ed written after the party’s election triumph, he wrote, “Direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations. Representative democracy—politics by proxy—is gradually losing meaning.“ This message seems a lot less compelling when you realize that deconstruction he has in mind is one that gives him and the party’s leaders ultimate power over the movement.

Cinque Stelle promised a new way of organizing online participation, translating consensus into real-world action, and ultimately providing a method to take power from a corrupt political class and give the voiceless a voice.

But there’s a more sinister way of looking at it: as a secretive, closed political power center sustained by the resemblance of participation through insecure and ultimately pointless constant online deliberations, and more and more with self-imposed rules that cement the power of the center over the margins.

As Grillo himself used to say, this absurd technology only fools us.