Online hubs like Rousseau risk to become propaganda machines where political parties systematically try to manipulate public opinion
The Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was accused of kidnapping, dereliction of duty and illegal capture for having prevented last summer the disembarkation of migrants from the Italian military ship Diciotti.
Luigi Di Maio, divided between the need of keeping alive the government alliance with the League and the principle of fighting against privileges and elites on which the Five Star Movement built up a great part of its political belief, found himself in a very difficult position.
That’s the reason why the Rousseau online platform played a crucial role as a political way out. Not knowing how to manage this situation, Di Maio opted to grab on to the excuse of direct democracy to resort to the so-called will of the people.
What is really Rousseau?
Rousseau is an online hub where anyone who register can directly participate to the political debates within the Five Star Movement. The purpose of Rousseau, in theory, is to encourage an increasing discussion about the various pillars of the Movement’s political programme, by referring to a new dimension of the ancient Greek direct democracy. The difference is that, instead of the old agoras, this process should now take place in the new virtual places provided by the web.
However, the Five Star Movement has often used this tool just to endorse decisions that, in reality, had been already taken by the party leaders themselves. Or, alternatively, it has also represented a way of delegating difficult and sometimes awkward choices to the citizens. The most recent case in point was about the parliamentary vote on authorization to proceed for the above mentioned judicial case against Salvini.
Rather than a democratic tool, indeed, these types of online hubs risk to become propaganda machines, where political parties systematically try to manipulate public opinion. Thus it should not be surprising that only one quarter of the total surveys promoted by the Movement on Rousseau led to a different outcome from those desired by the leadership itself.
Furthermore, instead of being active protagonists of such debates, people who take part to these polls become passive actors. They can only react to the inputs of the Movement and are regularly deceived by manipulative questions. Back to the case of the trial of the Interior Minister, the Five Star Movement formulated the question in a misleading way, as activists were required to answer ‘yes’ if they didn’t want to prosecute him and vice versa.
What is the hidden risk behind this version of direct democracy?
So, we can see some huge risks behind this way of understanding politics. First of all, only the few people who accept the internal rules and participate to these polls can take important decisions with enormous repercussions on the whole government, as in the Salvini case. This logic doesn’t seem quite consistent, since the Movement itself has always declared war to anything relying on a caste-made system. From here, it looks more like they want to fight the so-called bureaucrat elites with another “populist elite”.
Second, what kind of control there can there be on these types of popular polls conducted on Rousseau? What about their real validity? While the Spanish party Podemos is constantly supervised by a third body, the Five Star Movement is completely freed up to manage autonomously these votes. This means that there is no authority which can ensure a correct carrying out of the procedures. It’s as if only the members of one party scrutinized the electoral polls. Obviously, this is neither trustworthy nor democratic.
In conclusion, the criticality associated to this concept of politics must not be underestimated. In case such kinds of democratic systems will be further developed in the future, the greatest risk is that of entering a society whose essence would be the perception of being free. However, this perception would be merely a front.