On 27th February 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Rome to protest against their Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi and his continuous attacks on Italian magistrates, who he described as “subversive”, “politically biased”, and “worse than the Taliban”.

Berlusconi Protest

Two months before, on the 5th December 2009, the protest was even bigger: 250,000 citizens gathered in Rome, tired of the endless scandals which surround Berlusconi, accounts of corruption and excess, allegations of sordid affairs with prostitutes.

On the same day, further demonstrations took place in major capital cities around the world: New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Paris, Berlin, and London.

What makes these two protests especially noteworthy is that both were planned and organised entirely on the web, on Facebook in particular, and were orchestrated by the online social movement, Popolo Viola (Purple People).

The Popolo Viola movement was established in response to one of Berlusconi’s most controversial reform proposals. The Alfano Law, aimed to grant immunity to four of Italy’s highest political offices.

The law has been seen by many as just one of numerous attempts by Berlusconi to get rid of the many judicial trials in which he was, and still is, involved.

When the Italian Constitutional Court rejected the law as unconstitutional on the 6th October 2009[1], a few bloggers believed that the moment was right to mobilise as many citizens as possible to demonstrate against the Berlusconi administration.

The bloggers opened a Facebook group calling on a “national mobilization to demand Berlusconi’s resignation” and immediately reached a huge and unexpected consensus among the Facebook community.

By simple word of mouth, spread by a vast online network, the movement reached tens of thousands of concerned citizens and continued to grow. Countless local groups have been created all across Italy and around the world. In London alone, the movement consists of 1,800 members.

Why did the Italian cyber-protest reach peaks not seen elsewhere in Europe? To understand this we need to look turn to the socio-political situation in Italy, a highly developed western nation, where economic, political, and media power experience the biggest concentrations, outstripping that of other European countries.

Silvio Berlusconi owns three national television channels, with a share of 50% of the national audience[2] and, being the leader of the Italian government, he also has control of RAI, the national public television broadcaster, through which he has access to 80% of the national audience[3].

As well as holding the majority of the advertising and publishing market, Berlusconi’s huge corporate monopoly includes business interests in such diverse areas as cinema, insurance, banking and football, including ownership of AC Milan.

Forbes ranks him as the 12th most powerful person in the world and the 90th richest, with an estimated fortune of 9.4$ billion[4]. Now Prime Minister for the 3rd time, Berlusconi has been involved in numerous trials but has never been convicted.

This potent mixture of media ownership and political power has reached astonishing levels in Italy. American organization, Freedom House have downgraded the Italian press from ‘free’ to ‘partly-free’, a unique case in the European Union[5].

It would be misleading to state that there is no press freedom in Italy, as many newspapers, including the influential “La Repubblica”, are notoriously against Berlusconi.

However, if we consider that 77.8% of Italians regard television as their main source of information, with only 5.4% of people relying on newspapers[6], we can understand the dominant role that television plays in the formation of political ideas amongst the Italian population.

Pehaps this dominant media influence explains why, in spite of mass protests, Silvio Berlusconi remains popular; his broad appeal based on his rise from anonymity to becoming the owner of a vast business empire.

Berlusconi’s introduction of marketing techniques into electoral campaigns has affected the form and content of the political message on a massive scale. Marketing professionals replaced spin doctors as the main protagonists of electoral campaigns.

As Pezzini commented, “the credibility he was seeking through the imagery he used was not grounded in reality but was more akin to that of the fiction serials, soap operas and game shows that had been the daily fare of his television channels for years” (Cheles and Sponza, 2001, p.188).

There are many reasons why the Berlusconi phenomenon is not confined to the Italian borders but has a wider social impact.

Paul Ginsborg, Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Florence, considers ‘the relationship between the media system and political power’ to be connected to ‘consumerism, families, and politics’.

He sees this connection as being exacerbated by what he describes as ‘the ongoing weakness of the Left…its failure to identify and combat dangers, its incapacity to arouse enthusiasm for credible alternatives”[7].

One of the effects of Berlusconi’s presence is the polarization of political views. The Internet gives us a clear idea of the situation, with hundreds of thousands of online users engaged in the ongoing task of attacking the Italian prime minister’s seemingly unshakeable grip on power and influence.

If Berlusconi owns the majority of the Italian media, where can his objectors voice their protest? So far, dissent has come from the Internet and social media, Facebook in particular, which is prooving to be one of the most effective places for the dissmination of political ideas.

Berlusconi and his government are well aware of the power of the Internet (Facebook has a strong appeal in Italy with more than 12 million members[8]) as are social movements; each, with opposing aims and objectives, seeking to take maximum advantage of new technologies and social media.

The Internet and Facebook have always been seen by Berlusconi as a threat to his power; his worries over internet freedom and the mobilizing power of Facebook being echoed by his closest collaborators. Italian Senate speaker, Renato Schifani described Facebook as more dangerous than the terrorist groups of the 1970s[9].

After Berlusconi’s attack by Massimo Tartaglia on 13th December 2009[10], Roberto Maroni, Italian Ministry of Interior, warned that certain Facebook groups could inspire “psychologically unbalanced individuals to commit acts of violence”[11], implicating Facebook with an isolated act of aggression.

Berlusconi is keen to take control of the Internet, but how? Article 8 of the press regulation law[12], still in force after more than 60 years, states that if the chief editor of a newspaper is found responsible for publishing articles or comments which damage the image of another party, they will be forced to rectify the injurious statements within 2 days of the request. Failure to comply could incur a fine of up to 13,000 Euros[13].

On the 30th of June 2008, the Italian Minister of Justice, Antonino Alfano presented a bill which equated internet-based publications such as blogs, online newspapers and social networks, to print-press newspapers.

Article 15 of the bill modifies article 8 of the press freedom law, specifying that on the Internet, statements or rectifications must be published within 48 hours of the request, with the same visibility as would be expected of a mainstream news outlet[14].

The bill has been approved in the ‘Camera dei deputati’ (the Italian equivalent of the House of Commons in the UK) and is in discussion in the ‘Senato’ (roughly, the Italian equivalent of the House of Lords in UK).

If the bill passes the second approval and becomes law, anyone will be able to request the rectification of online statements. Moreover, the fine is not the only consequence of the bill: the Ministry of Interior can order Internet service providers to block access to the content.

Such liability would even apply to comments posted on blogs by other users, opening up the doors for the unscrupulous to engage in bogus smear campaigns and sabotage tactics such as deliberately posting statements in order to scupper online content sources.

For example, if any content on the 300 million-strong Facebook were to be considered offensive by the Ministry of Interior they would be able cripple the entire network with legally claims sueing to rectifiy any purportedly offensive content.

The reactions from the blogosphere have been furious; Beppe Grillo, who, according to the Observer runs the 9th most influential blog in Italy[15], has described the bill as “senseless”, claiming he would need to “employ 10 people simply to be able to comply with correction requests within 48 hours, and even these may not be enough”[16].

Beppe, a popular comedian and political commentator, depicts the bill as “conceived to screw any chance there was of freedom of expression. If this law goes through, it will mean the death of the Italian blogosphere” [17] (his emphasis).

Stefano Quintarelli, founder of the first Italian service provider I.net, was one of the first and most authorative Italian bloggers. He portrays the bill as an intolerable form of control: “Australia has taken a step to filter the Internet, France a different step, Ireland another and even the United States another, but what is worrying is that Italy is adding them all together, and that leads to a very restrictive environment”[18].

According to Giorgio Simonelli , a professor at the Catholic University in Milan, “if you try to block content preventively, you limit freedom of expression [which is] an important attribute that any free society must have”[19].

Cases such as these are a worrying indicator of how the state, combined with the power weilded by corporate monopolies, can be used to suppress the very people who are excercising their democratic right to criticise the limited self-interests and zeal for capitalist accumulation demonstrated by an increasingly dominant ruling class.

Lorenzo Coretti is a member of ‘Popolo Viola’ the anti-Berlusconi campaign.

Demonstration to defend Italian Democracy Saturday 13th March, Opposite Downing Street, 2pm – 6pm


[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/oct/07/silvio-berlusconi-immunity-law-uncontitutional

[2] http://www.fininvest.it/_eng/gruppo/mediaset.shtml

[3] http://mavise.obs.coe.int/country?id=18

[4] http://www.forbes.com/lists/2009/20/power-09_Silvio-Berlusconi_9SKC.html

[5] http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=811

[6] http://www.webmasterpoint.org/news/trovare-informazioni-in-italia-Internet-secondo-dopo-la-tv_p32246.html

[7] (Ginsborg, 2005, p.3)

[8] http://www.checkfacebook.com/

[9] http://www.adnkronos.com/AKI/English/CultureAndMedia/?id=3.0.4124535783

[10] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6958069.ece

[11] http://www.lifeinitaly.com/node/15088

[12] (8th February 1948, n.47)

[13] http://www.interlex.it/testi/l48_47.htm#8

[14] http://www.camera.it/_dati/leg16/lavori/stampati/pdf/16PDL0005770.pdf

[15] http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/mar/09/blogs

[16] http://www.beppegrillo.it/en/2009/06/the_web_rectified.html

[17] http://www.beppegrillo.it/en/2009/06/the_web_rectified.html

[18] http://blog.quintarelli.it/quintas_weblog_in_english/2009/03/20090309-international-herald-tribune-italy-moves-to-control-Internet-comment-and-speech.html

[19] http://www.mydigitalfc.com/news/italy-moves-control-Internet-comment-and-speech-878