Can Italy’s Five Star Movement turn online passions into real-world policies?

If you’ve glanced at the headlines, then you’re already aware of the sprawling mess that is the Italian political landscape in the aftermath of Sunday’s election. You may already have seen the stories about “trouble for Europe” and the “populist victory.”

But before you move on, let me make the story just a tiny bit more complicated. The biggest beneficiary of the election, the eclectic Five Star Movement, is not a standard, anti-immigration, anti-European, “far-right” or “far-left” party at all. It is instead another version, albeit different in its language and attitude, of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party, which swept the board in the last French presidential and parliamentary elections.

Both parties seek to move beyond traditional lines of “left” and “right.” Both are creatures of the Internet, which has made possible virtual-world links between different people in different places who have never met. Both parties won power at the expense of “traditional” center-left parties and “traditional” center-right parties, and no wonder: The former long drew their members from real-world trade unions, and the latter once had a social base in real-world church organizations.  As trade unions, church groups and all kinds of other civic organizations decline in Italy and France, just like everywhere else, it’s hardly surprising that the politicians who emerged from them are in decline as well — or that they have been replaced by people who are adept at reaching people online.

But if they are alike in having a virtual-world base, they are different in what they intend to do with it. En Marche is a pro-European movement that seeks to modernize France, raise the tone of French politics and prepare the French to live in a globalized world. The Five Star Movement’s language was from the beginning darker and more nihilistic. Beppe Grillo, its founder, is a professional comedian who calls the movement a “non-party,” describes politicians as “parasites” and for a long time ran the whole thing through his blog. It advocates new forms of digital democracy, which is exciting; but in practice that means that its activists vote in frequent online referendums and the party line often changes, sometimes quite dramatically. Its views on European integration are muddled, for example, and seem to shift back and forth with time.

Like En Marche, the Five Star Movement brings together people who would not have otherwise known one another in the real world — and this includes thousands of people who believe conspiracy theories. Vaccine skepticism has spread in Italy through Facebook and other forms of social media; some of Five Star’s candidates have taken advantage of the wave and called for the abolition of mandatory vaccines. The Movement has also been linked in the past to a network of conspiracy sites peddling pro-Kremlin disinformation and recycling stories from Sputnik, the Russian state news site. Whereas Grillo started out as a Russia skeptic, Five Star’s politicians made a sharp turn in 2014 and 2015, and began promoting Russian narratives and meeting Russian counterparts. Nobody has successfully explained why.

What would an Italy led by the Movement look like? Nobody knows. So far, suspicion of science, politics and just about everything else — all popular online sentiments — hasn’t proved a great foundation from which to govern. The tenure of the Five Star mayor of Rome has been marked by amateurism, incompetence and nepotism. If the non-party could channel its members’ real desire for reform into a clear ruling philosophy, then it might achieve a great deal. But for that, its leaders will have to turn virtual-world enthusiasms into real-world policies, and it’s not clear yet that they can.

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