Allegations over fake Twitter followers stir Italian political storm

Beppe Grillo Credit: Image credit: Wikipedia

A comedian-turned-politican has turned to the Web to create the country's second biggest party

A communications expert claimed last week that more than half of the Twitter followers of the rising star of Italian politics were fake, sparking a fierce controversy over the use of Internet as a political instrument.

Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned politician who uses a rasping voice and satirical humor to tear strips off Italy's discredited political elite, has a personal blog that features among the 10 most visited blogs in the world and has harnessed the Internet to promote his three-year-old Five Star Movement, the fastest-growing formation on the Italian political scene.

Grillo was understandably indignant when Marco Camisani Calzolari, a professor of corporate communications at Milan's IULM University, published a study claiming that more than half of the bearded comic's followers on Twitter were not real human beings but computer-generated bots.

Grillo used Twitter to deny the allegation and warn that he was considering legal action against the professor, who has founded several web startups in the U.K., including Digital Evaluations, a company that measures the usefulness of social media for companies and celebrities.

In another response on his website, Grillo accused Calzolari of spreading false information about his Twitter account and suggested he was politically motivated since he had created the official website of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and worked as a digital communications consultant for the center-right politician.

Grillo's supporters the web were quick to pounce on a link revealing the professor's connection to Berlusconi, which had been removed from Calzolari's website but was available in a Google cache.

Calzolari replied with a post admitting that his Italian company Speakage had provided the platform used by Berlusconi's party to create the website, but insisting that he had nothing to do with the content.

In another post Calzolari complained: "I am receiving a large number of threats of every type, physical, insults, incitement to email bombing, telephone spam, personal defamation of every kind, and the diffusion of my personal contact details. I have two small children and I'm worried."

In his study, published July 19, Calzolari explained that many businesses were creating corporate Twitter accounts to promote their products and sometimes acquired fake "followers" in order to boost their statistics in relation to those of their competitors.

He had developed an algorithm capable of distinguishing between real followers and computer bots, he claimed, and had applied the program to a random sample of 20,000 of Grillo's Twitter followers.

Human followers could be identified because they themselves had at least 30 followers, used punctuation in their posts and had submitted them via other sites such as Instagram, Calzolari explained in the study.

Grillo's admirers were particularly infuriated because the study focused only on the leader of the Five Stars Movement, whose use of the Internet mirrors that of Barack Obama, whose journey to the White House was in part propelled by "likes" and followers on social media.

Calzolari remedied the oversight with a new study published Wednesday. In it he claimed 59% of Grillo's 637,000 followers were bots, 24% human, with a further 11% uncertain and 6% inaccessible behind privacy screens. This time, however, he provided information on other leading politicians, which showed center-left leaders with the largest number of Twitter followers but still at least 400,000 behind Grillo, and with correspondingly high levels of bot followers -- in the 45% to 48% range.

The center-right lagged behind, with Angelino Alfano, secretary of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, notching a miserly 30,000 followers, 25% of them bots, and the 76-year-old Berlusconi not present on Twitter at all.

Advised by Gianroberto Casaleggio, a fuzzy-haired Internet guru whose Casaleggio Associati looks after his blog, Grillo has used the Internet to organize his movement and communicate its eclectic mix of environmentalist and futurist policies to the outside world. Commentators have described the movement as an autocratic version of Germany's Pirate Party.

The newly elected Five Star Movement mayor of Parma, Federico Pizzarotti, has introduced live streaming for council meetings and regular YouTube messages to keep citizens informed, bypassing the filters of the mainstream media.

Having been banned from television as a comedian because his corrosive satirical attacks embarrassed the country's leaders, Grillo has turned his absence from the nation's talk shows from a weakness into a strength.

"Grillo has cancelled television and he asks his supporters not to go on it, excluding them from the principal platform of political discourse. He has cut out television and substituted it with Internet," said Gianni Barbacetto, a Milan-based journalist who has followed Grillo's astonishing rise.

Grillo has also done away with the mechanisms of traditional parties, such as membership, conferences, and an administrative hierarchy, leading to accusations that he has become as autocratic as Berlusconi, who financed his party from his personal fortune and owned three national TV channels.

"There are conflicts in politics. He resolves them with the innovative methods of the Web. Does that introduce a risk of authoritarianism? perhaps," said Barbacetto.

Opinion polls currently give the Five Star Movement about 20% of the national vote, making it the country's second largest party. Grillo's savage rhetoric -- he has called for a "Nuremberg trial" for the country's corrupt politicians -- plays well at a time of economic hardship and with the traditional parties mired in bribery and sex scandals.

The comedian, who was banned from TV and can't stand for elected office because of a conviction for dangerous driving, could have the last word on the formation of the government after national elections next year.

"A lot will depend on how the alliances between the traditional parties shape up," said Barbacetto. "We could be on the eve of an explosion of the party system, and the Five Star Movement will do very well from it."

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