The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Stefano Stortone, Fiorella de Cindio: Online practices challenging traditional politics: real-life exercises in Italy

Stefano Stortone, University of Milan

Fiorella de Cindio


The MoVimento Cinque Stelle (M5S, Five Star MoVement) co-founded in 2009 by the comic actor Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio, an entrepreneur owner of a consultancy agency that sells “net strategies” to business companies, earned in the last years an electoral success that can be summarized by the following data: in few years it went from the 4% and 7% of votes in two regional elections (respectively, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna) in 2010, to the 14.9% at the Sicily regional elections in October 2012 (the most voted party); finally, in occasion of the Italian national elections held in February 2013, it obtained the 25,55% of votes at the Chamber of Deputies (again the most voted party) and the 23,8% of votes at the Senate (second party). It challenges the whole Italian political class, aiming at “deposing” it and reforming the political institutions towards a more direct democracy. 

The M5S mainly developed online: the blog of Beppe Grillo, which has been followed by hundreds of thousands citizens, played as aggregator and source of news and mobilization directives; the MeetUp software, introduced in 2006, allowed those citizens to know each other, to become activists and to organize gradually local point of presence. These local groups played a major role for the interplay between online and offline activities, especially for the transition from civic towards political activism. The so called M5S Operating System is the up to date platform to involve the rank and files to the national political choices. The reasons of the rise of the M5S as well as the challenges it put forward to the Italian politics are matter of lively discussions (with daily comments on the media) and growing research attention (see, e.g., Lanfrey, 2011; Biorcio and Natale, 2013; Bordignon and Ceccarini 2013; De Rosa, 2013; Sæbø, Braccini, and Federici, 2014). 

At the same, political parties, the main channel of political participation in the liberal-democratic systems, suffer from a major difficulty in renewing themselves - see. e.g., (Coleman and Blumler, 2009), (Revelli, 2012) - and coping with the new demands coming from grassroots movements that, all over the world, profit “of an internet culture, made up of bloggers, social networks and cyberactivism” (Castells, 2012) to mobilize, raise social causes, and demand “Democracia real, ya!” (“actual democracy, now”), one of the slogan of the Spanish Indignados movement. 
The need for a radical reshaping of politics and democracy (Gallino, 2013), together with the pressure exerted by the M5S, is somehow forcing the Italian political parties and politicians to experiment forms of online interactions with citizens and electors, more interesting than websites and blogs, Twitter channels and Facebook pages, that finally do not substantially change the one-to-many interaction pattern to spread information from the centre to the periphery in a more or less viral way. 

We refer to plenty of online initiatives flourished in Italy in the last couple of years aiming at collecting ideas, proposals, suggestions, projects from the crowd of citizens and electors, and develop them in a collaborative way, through a more or less structured deliberative process. Some of these initiatives use more or less well-known software like IdeaScale ( or LiquidFeedback (, while others use dedicated software for online deliberation, either quite well established, such as openDCN (De Cindio and Schuler, 2012) or newer, such as BiPart, developed to support Participatory Budgeting (Stortone and De Cindio, forthcoming). Not all these experiences are successful, in terms of the reached citizens’ participation and of their political impact. But most of them are in some way worth of attention to draw lessons about what can be done, and what should not be done, for changing politics and renewing democracy in the era of the web. 

In the paper, we will provide the reader with a picture of some of these experiences, derived from primary sources, online content analysis, and data collected through direct observation or questionnaires administered online to citizens who participated. The goal is to describe “by examples”, emerging online practices affecting the way in which more traditional parties – namely the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) the largest “traditional” left-wing party, and its political area, i.e. the left-coalitions – behave.

The description of the experiences will present in (almost) each case: 

- which was the “participatory contract” (De Cindio, 2012) initially declared to motivate people’ participation;
- to which extend it was fulfilled;
- which has been citizens’ participation and evaluation of the initiative;
The list of initiatives that we will consider (but for some change while writing the paper) will be:
- idea gathering from citizens, promoted by Umberto Ambrosoli, candidate President of the Lombardy Region for the left-coalition in the 2013 regional elections, to refine and detail his political program;
- idea gathering from citizens, promoted by Laura Puppato (PD), member of the Senate, and other ten MPs of the center-left coalition, to let citizens influence the activity of these MPs in the parliamentary committee where they seat;
-,,, initiatives promoted from the bottom of the PD to innovate it and change the interaction style with its members and constituency;
- one of the Participatory Budget initiatives carried on by left-coalitions, in Canegrate (, Faenza (, or Monza (forthcoming soon). 

Finally, we will try to relate these initiatives and their outcomes with the challenge the M5S poses to the traditional parties, especially to their “bodies” in the territories, where militants have to compete with the M5S activists in the recurring electoral campaigns (for any election: municipal, regional, national, European) and in the daily activity for supporting, challenging or contrasting local governments. 


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Stefano Stortone, Fiorella de Cindio