Facebook Spiderman entangles Italian politicians

Revelations raise questions about social media's role in political change

As Italian politicians call on their fellow countrymen to dig deep into their pockets to avoid following Greece into a financial freefall, someone has been leaking embarrassing details of the lawmakers' perks and privileges on the Internet.

The author of the revelations, calling himself Spider Truman and claiming to be a disgruntled former temporary employee of Parliament, has rapidly found himself being followed on Facebook by almost 400,000 friends.

On Monday, "Truman" published details of the discounts offered to lawmakers on the purchase of Fiat cars, which he claimed could top 30 percent. "Many people can't afford to buy a new car, but that certainly doesn't include members of parliament," he wrote on a Facebook page called "The secrets of the caste of Montecitorio (the parliament building)."

Previous allegations published by Spider Truman include the claim that lawmakers had written themselves threatening letters in order to obtain a police bodyguard, had made false insurance claims for stolen property and had accumulated air miles while traveling free on the national carrier, Alitalia.

With politicians of all parties embroiled in financial scandal and the perception that lawmakers have shouldered only a tiny portion of the economic sacrifices being demanded of Italian society, commentators have been comparing the political climate to that of 1993, when a large swathe of the political establishment was swept away by the "Clean Hands" corruption probe.

And they have been suggesting that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter could play an important role in a new "Clean Hands" revolution, similar to the part played by the Internet in this year's North African revolts.

Arturo Di Corinto, an Internet specialist at Rome's La Sapienza University, is however cautious about claims that the government's recent defeats in local elections and a referendum was a victory for the social networks harnessed by the opposition to counter Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's dominance of the traditional media.

"I don't think the social networks can beat television, radio and newspapers in the formation of public opinion," Di Corinto said in a telephone interview. "The government party lost control of Milan because they had governed badly and people had noticed it."

Italy was far from the intolerable economic conditions prevailing in North Africa and, even there, the Arabic satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera had played a vital role in uprisings by amplifying the expressions of discontent that were circulating over the Internet, Di Corinto said.

In an article published by L'Espresso magazine last month, Di Corinto cited research by Human Highway that found that of the 25 million Italians who use the Internet at least once a week, 58 percent identified TV, radio and newspapers as their primary source of information.

The real novelty, he pointed out, was that when Italians wanted more in-depth information 63 percent of them turned to Internet search engines and websites.

"Internet is a supplementary factor in determining change. We can say it is contributing, but for the moment we don't know either the ways or the numbers," Di Corinto said.

The other novelty, Di Corinto said, is that the Internet is drawing young people into political debate and activism, with forums, comments and blogs giving people the opportunity to vent their anger and stir the anger of others.

Spider Truman's blog contains reams of often unprintable comments. In response to his latest posting on Monday, one commenter named "Bellerofonte" wrote: "The truth is these PIGS have ruined Italy... What you write, dear Spider Truman, is confirmation of what we imagined, but which had never been published because of the Mafia code of silence of the politicians and the media."

"The information he publishes is available in dozens of books, some of which have had tens of thousands of readers, but the numbers are limited. A post by Spider Truman can be seen by 50,000 people," Di Corinto said.

His message would not be so effective if the ground had not been prepared by the traditional media and by the politicians, whose conduct was producing a fresh scandal every week, Di Corinto observed.

Renato Mannheimer, a professor of sociology at Milan's Bicocca University and one of Italy's most respected opinion pollsters, is convinced that the Internet is already playing a crucial role in shaping the political life of the nation.

"A recent poll found that people had more confidence in information they obtained from the Web than in what they got from TV and newspapers," Mannheimer said in a telephone interview.

"The Internet has become central in orienting the votes of citizens. In the past, political debates took place in the bar, with one person stoking the fury of the other. Now that has transferred onto Internet and at a national level," Mannheimer said.

The pollster, who heads the Institute for the Study of Public Opinion (ISPO), said the Web was also providing a forum for positive proposals and serious academic debate, on topics such as electoral law reform. Politicians appreciated its usefulness, often reserving important declarations for their own blogs.

"I'm sure the outcome of the next national elections, in one or two years' time, will be determined on the Web," Mannheimer said.

Berlusconi, whose family owns the largest commercial television enterprise as well as newspapers and magazines, has been urging his own supporters to make more use of the Web, while at the same time, according to Di Corinto, trying to restrict it as a forum for the free circulation of ideas.

"The government parties are investing a lot of money in it, but it is easier to use Internet to criticize and organize against things than as a vehicle for favorable propaganda," Di Corinto said.

In short, Spider Truman rules the Web.

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Philip Willan

IDG News Service
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