Online Communities and Crowds in the Rise of the Five Star Movement

Citation: Bailo, F. (In preparation). Online Communities and Crowds in the Rise of the Five Star Movement. London: Palgrave Macmillan

As the Internet, almost everywhere, turns into the primary medium for political engagement, it also becomes the symbol of what is wrong with politics. Internet users experience unprecedented, instantaneous and personalised access to information and communication and, by comparison, they feel a much stronger level of irrelevance in the existing political system. If new information and communication technologies placed them at the centre, old political technologies keep them at the periphery of decision making, which they see as out of (their) control.

This book reflects on the political capacity of citizen users to dramatically impact traditional electoral balances when a political actor successfully infuses them with a sense of community. But it also points to the dangers of assuming an unconditional democratising potential of mass online participation. The book focuses on the case of Italy’s Five Star Movement to argue that Internet participation is naturally unequal and without strong top-down normative efforts, online platforms tend to generate noisy and undemocratic crowds instead of self-reflexive, norm bounded communities. And the democratising assumption of the Internet can easily be exploited by those who manage these platforms to sell crowds as deliberating publics.

This book describes the role of Internet-enabled citizens in the political trajectory of the Five Star Movement, from a blog to the most popular political party in Italy and supported by a third of the electorate. Several books have already examined success cases of Internet mobilisation efforts. This book offers an original approach. Thanks to a sizeable effort in data collection and data scraping, this book offers a detailed description of the 10-year trajectory of the Movement from the perspective of thousands of users active on multiple platforms.

The book argues that the Movement successfully created a sense of community around thousands of dispersed users and coordinated their actions — online and onsite — to obtain national political relevance. The purpose of the book is to not only offer an international readership insights into an exceptional case of an Internet-based party, which after the last general election is a credible contender for the Italian premiership, but also to provide evidence of the emergence of a new political identity defined by a sense of political disempowerment coupled with intensive use of empowering Internet services: the citizen user.

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