Allegations over fake Twitter followers stir Italian political storm

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

By Philip Willan, IDG News Service |  Networking, Twitter

Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

Image credit: Wikipedia

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."

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