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Social Networks and Voting in Italy: New Evidence?

19. June 2011 – 12:28 by Francesco Molinari

In the aftermath of the three consecutive election rounds held between mid-May and mid-June this year – two administrative ballots and a referendum day – which have been unanimously seen as a defeat for the ruling center-right majority and particularly for the Prime Minister Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, many political commentators have strongly made the point that social networks (particularly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) played a major role in determining the new prevailing orientation of Italian voters.

To be honest, the argument is not new. Already in the 2006 general election, a survey of electoral flows showed that the citizens embedded in homogeneous partisan networks were comparatively more influenced than those who discussed politics within heterogeneous networks that do not uniformly support a single political position. In both cases, the effects of interpersonal networks on voting behavior turned out to be stronger than those of TV news programs and generalist talk shows.

However, the big difference this time – particularly in the case of the referendum, since the administrative ballots were involving only part of the Italian population, though also including important cities like Milan, Turin, Bologna and Naples – is that almost all nationwide TV channels did not provide any coverage of the election day till the very last week of campaign. Critics attributed this lack of transparency to the fact that 5 out of 7 channels (three private and two public) are controlled by the media tycoon and elected PM Silvio Berlusconi, and that the referendum was putting into question the building blocks of his government’s policy stance: from privatization of a public service like tap water supply to the rebuilding of nuclear power plants in Italy, not to forget the controversial law that had suspended de facto the numerous ongoing trial hearings of the Prime Minister till the end of his mandate.

Knowing that the majority of voters would have repelled these acts – the argument continues – the Government’s unspoken strategy was aimed to prevent the 50,001% quorum (percentage of population going to the polls) that is required to make a referendum’s results effective, according to the Italian Constitution, differently from any normal election. Parts of that strategy were reportedly: the decision taken by the Ministry of Interior to postpone the referendum day till the beginning of school holidays in Italy, the slow start-up of the usual TV video clips instructing citizens how to vote as well as of the electoral talk shows in the national TV channels (a delay that was formally blamed by the National Telecommunication Authority), and other hilarious happenings like TV news speakers making mistakes on the actual election date, or fake weather forecasts announcing the sunshine and inviting people to go off on leisure trips… The same appeal, by the way, which was indirectly made to the electorate by key members of the incumbent majority.

Thus, while the impact of television on voting was being sterilized somehow, Italy registered an explosion of political discussions and particularly word of mouth spreading on social networks, with hundreds of Facebook groups created ad hoc and Twitter messages sent around to promote participation of friends and relatives in the referendum day (the assumption being that once reached the quorum, there would be no doubt on the results; in fact, the “aye’s” to abrogation ultimately won 95-5). Statistics available from Google Insights clearly show how the public’s interest on making web searches on the word “referendum” was steadily growing in the two weeks before. Here again, some humorous peaks were reached: for instance, Madonna’s latest hit being forced to change from “Vogue” to “Vote!“, or the TV information service for the hearing impaired becoming a pretext for mockery of Government censorship on how to vote.

Most of these video clips have relied on YouTube and other similar repositories to support viral distribution to peers and reach the top headlines of printed – as well as Internet – press. Yet, it remains fairly undemonstrated that a decisive push to voters orientation has been a direct consequence of this exposure. For instance, according to an instant poll realized by IPR Marketing on the aftermath of referendum day, 81% of former Berlusconi’s party voters and 64% of “Terzo Polo” (the main center opposition party) did actually stay at home on the referendum day, compared with 10% of left party supporters and a surprising 49% of the Northern League followers (the biggest ally in the Prime Minister’s coalition).

To conclude, while the political effects of social networks seem to have been enhanced by a partisan, purposeful reaction to a Government’s instrumental exploitation of traditional media and particularly TV, real impact seems to have more likely occurred within the center-left opinion area – by the way, the 2006 general election also saw the victory of a leftist majority, and part of the Northern League’s electorate is said to be made of former center-left voters – while the persistent power of television on electoral behavior is not decisively disconfirmed. Further research is needed to assess whether this election round marked a real breakthrough in the Italian politics or is simply another step of the long march towards wider engagement of “ordinary” people in the electronic participation arena.

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