Big Read, The Financial Times
By Hannah Roberts and James Politi
When Davide Casaleggio took the stage at a former Olivetti typewriter factory in Ivrea, north-west Italy, in early April, his audience had already been subjected to an apocalyptic, 10-minute film. The internet, it warned, was “like atomic energy” that could be used for good or evil, including the creation of “Orwellian dictatorships”.
“We’ve had some of the best minds of the country here today to talk about the future, so we can understand what awaits us,” said Mr Casaleggio, referring to participants in the day-long affair that included Fabio Vaccarono, the chief executive of Google Italy. “The future is already present, you just have to know where to see it.”
An uncharismatic 41-year-old management consultant and extreme sports aficionado, Mr Casaleggio was able to host such a high-profile event because he has placed himself directly at the intersection of the internet and politics in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
He is president of the Rousseau Association, which runs a pioneering internet platform designed to introduce direct democracy into the anti-establishment Five Star Movement by conducting online primary votes, surveying members on policies and receiving donations. This has made Mr Casaleggio the gatekeeper and most important force behind Five Star, a political party founded in 2009 and fronted by comedian Beppe Grillo, which is aiming to take control of the country’s parliament in the general election scheduled for early next year.
For supporters, Mr Casaleggio — whose small Milan-based company also runs a blog by Mr Grillo that is Five Star’s primary vehicle for communicating with Italian voters — is a trailblazer in adapting the tools of the internet to give citizens a direct voice in modern politics and to shatter the mould of backroom deals. “We brought the digital revolution to politics,” says Carla Ruocco, a Five Star lawmaker. “We are the closest to the piazzas, to the people.”
But the complicated fusion of Mr Casaleggio’s public and private functions has raised questions about accountability gaps and potential conflicts of interests within Five Star at a critical juncture. Critics question whether a single individual should play such a significant role while having no official position in the party and while his business is so central to Five Star’s activities.
“Casaleggio is the head of the Five Star structure, which puts him at the centre of the movement. It all goes through him,” says Piero Ignazi, a professor of political science at the University of Bologna.
“Transparency is one of their battle horses, but it is entirely partial transparency,” says Fabio Bordignon, a professor of political science at Urbino university and a specialist on Five Star.
Even some of the membership are calling for more internal democracy. “There is a democratic deficit here,” said one Five Star insider. “It’s like a sect.”
Heading into the heat of the election campaign, Five Star is trying to convince an anxious, dissatisfied electorate that its purported honesty and independence can wipe out corruption from the country’s politics and snatch economic sovereignty back from the EU. Given it is currently neck-and-neck in the polls with the ruling centre-left Democratic party, it has a realistic shot at gaining power in the elections. At a party conference next weekend in Rimini and with Mr Casaleggio’s blessing, party members are expected to choose Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old Neapolitan and vice-president of the lower house of parliament, to be its candidate for prime minister in an online vote run by Rousseau.
With Five Star possibly approaching power, Mr Casaleggio’s presence as a businessman at the heart of the party has brought echoes of the debate surrounding the reign of Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and former three-time prime minister, who dominated Italian politics for two decades. “The scale is different but the principle is the same,” says Mr Ignazi.
Most of all, Mr Casaleggio’s low-profile means that little is known of his deeper political views and the agenda he might push were Five Star to win the election. In the past he has at least flirted with ideas about how to use technology to manipulate public opinion — in an echo of the semi-authoritarian path he vowed to exorcise in the opening film in Ivrea.
In a book called Tu Sei Rete, or You Are Network, Mr Casaleggio wrote that people, like “ant colonies”, could be easily conditioned through the diffusion of simple messages.
“It’s necessary that the components are many in number, that they meet casually and they are not aware of the characteristics of the system in its complexity,” he wrote. “An ant must not know how the formicary works, otherwise all the ants would take on the best and least tiring roles, creating a co-ordination problem.”
Mr Casaleggio’s pivotal role in Italian politics is essentially inherited. His father, Gianroberto Casaleggio, co-founded Five Star in 2009 alongside Mr Grillo, and was himself seen as the éminence grise behind the party. When Gianroberto died in April last year, he passed the reins of his company — called Casaleggio Associati — to Davide. With it came the keys to one of the strongest political parties in Europe.
A child chess prodigy, Mr Casaleggio graduated in economics at Milan’s Bocconi University. He lives with his long-term girlfriend, Paola Gianotti, a champion cyclist, and practises ice diving in frozen alpine lakes, according to a friend in his diving club. His mother, Elizabeth Birks, is British, but his English is “not perfect”, she points out, noting a detectable Italian accent.
Five Star colleagues paint a picture of a reserved, target-driven man rather than a political visionary, making him unlike his father. “He is distant, a man of few words,” says one. Max Bugani, one of Davide’s closest allies, adds: “He is a workaholic, a bit manic, very focused.” One former Five Star parliamentarian told the FT that “Casaleggio has only one objective, to become the leader in the world at developing algorithms that determine web behaviour and then sell that information to clients.”
Mr Casaleggio declined to comment for this article, but at a press conference in Rome in early August denied any active role at the helm of Five Star. “My role has always been of support to the movement. I do not hold elected office, I do not ask Five Star for a salary. I am one of many activists, many volunteers,” he said.
Mr Casaleggio has, however, been much more than that since his father died. He has participated in most of the big political moves made by Five Star in recent months, including a failed attempt to switch alliances in the European Parliament in January. He has frequently travelled to Rome to huddle with Mr Grillo and other key officials, including Virginia Raggi, the embattled Five Star mayor of the Italian capital. Since Five Star lacks any headquarters, key meetings have been held at the Hotel Forum, a four-star albergo 500m from the Colosseum overlooking the ruins of the ancient city. Just this month, Mr Casaleggio appeared with Mr Grillo in a video to fundraise for the Rimini conference.
If Five Star were to win the premiership, possibly in alliance with other populist parties, it would be unclear who would be calling the shots, and based on whose interests. There are no formal mechanisms for party members to challenge Mr Casaleggio’s leadership — giving him, along with Mr Grillo — virtually unchecked power.
Casaleggio Associati is essentially a small ecommerce consultancy that advises clients on the best strategies to sell more online, both domestically and internationally. Public data suggest it is not a very lucrative business. In 2016 it lost €48,000 on revenues of just under €1m and it has been lossmaking for the past three years.
One of its biggest annual events is the presentation of a report on ecommerce trends in Italy. At the latest one in early May at Milan’s chamber of commerce, Mr Casaleggio gave a 30-minute speech about chatbots and internationalisation, but not once did he mention his role at Five Star. Some of the more than 150 participants said the lines between his business and the politics should be drawn more clearly. “The fact that there is a business behind Five Star which is selling consulting services can lead some companies to pay for consulting work because they hope for some political connection. I don’t know but it does not seem like a very transparent structure,” said Marco Magnocavallo, the chief executive of Tannico, an online wine retailer who was a panellist at the event.
Venerando Monello, a lawyer close to the ruling Democratic party who has mounted a legal challenge over the relationship between Five Star’s leadership and its elected representatives, took it a step further: “We do not know what relationships Casaleggio Associati has with foreign powers or foreign companies. We don’t know whether there can be interference with the political activities of Five Star from Casaleggio’s commercial activities.”
A spokesman for Mr Casaleggio refused to comment on the challenge, but Five Star officials shrug off these concerns. They argue that their digital model — which means they have low overhead costs, no headquarters or offices — means they are less susceptible to money. Any flaws in accountability, they add, pale in comparison with the lobbying ties of Italy’s traditional parties. “How can we be influenced? We do politics without any money,” says Carla Ruocco, the Five Star lawmaker.
The nerve centre of Five Star’s structure is Rousseau — Gianroberto’s brainchild and an internet platform named after the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who championed direct, as opposed to representative, democracy. Through Rousseau, Five Star selects party members, holds online votes for candidates in local, regional and national elections, allows people to propose and comment on legislation, and receives donations. This year, members have also voted on Five Star’s platform for the next election, on everything from energy to banking to foreign affairs. Rousseau is Five Star’s pride and joy, and a system that has attracted interest from other populist movements around Europe. The only possible parallels so far are the “pirate parties” of Germany and Sweden, though they never attained Five Star’s strength and favoured the use of open-source software, which is not the case with Rousseau.
“I say this with great humility, but equally great firmness: there is nothing similar in the world, no one else has ever created such a way of aggregating people and ideas as us”, said Danilo Toninelli, another Five Star lawmaker.
While Mr Casaleggio may dismiss his importance to Five Star as a whole, he cannot do the same when it comes to Rousseau. He is the president of Rousseau and his company shares the same address in Milan, even though they are separate entities legally. The leadership of Rousseau also includes two of Davide’s right-hand men: Mr Bugani, a city councillor in Bologna, and Pietro Dettori, the former social media manager at Casaleggio Associati.
So far, Rousseau only has about 140,000 registered members — out of Five Star’s approximately 9m voters in the 2013 general election — and only those who entered the movement before July 2016 can vote on party issues. Rousseau staffers say they have a target of 1m members, but screening is costly and time-consuming. “We have so many requests, we have to make sure they are real people,” says Mr Bugani.
But critics say that limiting membership helps Mr Casaleggio minimise internal opposition. “We don’t know anything about the internal political debate, and the players at the top have total control,” says Massimiliano Panarari, a professor of communications at Luiss University in Rome. “It’s a lot like the Italian Communist party [during the cold war].”
The most extreme example of aversion to serious dissent within Five Star actually came from Mr Grillo, who scrapped the results of an online vote in which Marika Cassimatis was chosen by Five Star members as the mayoral candidate in Genoa against the founder’s wishes. Five Star officials say this was an isolated case, but Ms Cassimatis says the episode exposed the party’s authoritarian streak.
“When Five Star started it was really revolutionary, now it is just vertical,” Ms Cassimatis says. “Direct democracy does not exist any more, in contrast to the original ideals,” she says.
In Rome, Mr Monello is challenging a contract signed by Ms Raggi before her election as mayor of Rome in which she agreed to abide by Five Star standards or face a €150,000 penalty, raising the prospect that even she lacks independence vis-à-vis Mr Grillo and Mr Casaleggio. The suit was dismissed by a civil tribunal but Mr Monello is appealing.
Mr Casaleggio has done little to address such worries, including resisting pressure to have every online vote certified independently, to eliminate concerns about potential manipulation by the leadership. In recent years, DNV, a third party, has been asked to verify two Five Star votes, according to Renato Grottola, director of certification at DNV. In August, Mr Casaleggio said that only “in certain cases” would an external company be involved in certifying votes, depending on how “delicate” the poll was, but he could not say what those instances might be.
Meanwhile, a successful hack in early August against Rousseau, in which troves of members’ data, including emails and passwords, were stolen, has raised worries about the security of the system. “This is a major opposition party in Italy and they are vulnerable,” says David Puente, a former Casaleggio employee.
If Rousseau is Five Star’s nerve centre, Beppe Grillo’s blog — which is also managed by Casaleggio — is its powerful mouthpiece and its main vehicle for communication.
“It’s the tool for recruiting sympathisers and for projection, it is like the constitutional charter of the movement,” says Professor Panarari.
But here, too, there are big gaps in accountability. Mr Grillo’s blog is managed by staff at Casaleggio Associati, though the nature of the commercial relationship is opaque. It is unclear who decides what posts should be published and who edits them, which some Five Star officials have complained about. Meanwhile, Mr Grillo’s blog generates advertising from a number of sources via Google ads and other agencies. There are also other websites — such as TzeTze, which disseminates pro-Five Star and anti-government news — that also generate advertising and are run by Casaleggio.
Large multinationals such as American Express, Sky and Durex, the condom brand owned by Reckitt Benckiser, frequently appear on the blog with ads. “It’s mainstream advertising, it’s the big players in the market economy, and it’s very appetising to them as it’s the voice of one of the main players in Italian politics,” says Mr Panarari. Luca Alagna, a digital marketing consultant, estimates that Mr Grillo’s blog could generate between €220,000 and €690,000 per year, depending on the cost per thousand viewers it charges, though he suspects the number is closer to the lower end of the bracket.
Five Star has, however, refused to say what the annual advertising revenues are from the websites in Casaleggio’s orbit, on the grounds that they are not significant. “Frankly I don’t think you get a lot of revenues from online ads,” says Ms Ruocco.
In response to a question from the FT at a press conference last month, Mr Casaleggio acknowledged that Mr Grillo’s blog was a “commercial enterprise” run by his firm since 2005, but noted that it was separate from Five Star’s official communication, which is now done through a less popular linked website called Blog delle Stelle (Stars Blog).
So far, the Rousseau platform has raised more than €450,000 in donations, including some €30,000 from foreign sources, through deposits at an account at Banca Etica, a financial institution based in Padua dedicated to socially responsible investing.
Though its foreign policy has a clear pro-Kremlin tilt, and senior Five Star officials have met top figures in Vladimir Putin’s party, there is no evidence of Russian donations to Five Star.
Rousseau has published a list of donors, but supplying only their initials. Some say the real source of funding at Five Star is the several million euros in public money it receives for its parliamentary activities each year, but it is unclear whether this could be used for the general election campaign.
Mr Casaleggio’s rise within Five Star has not been greeted uniformally well by the rank-and-file.
There is a more radical, purist faction of Five Star which is displeased and says Mr Casaleggio’s entry on to the scene has not been particularly fruitful — and is upset at his support of Mr Di Maio, who represents the more moderate wing of Five Star. “Since Gianroberto died the whole movement has turned into a campaign to get Di Maio elected,” complains one Five Star ally in Rome.
“Davide Casaleggio is a smart guy but a corporate guy. It’s like being on a Boeing 747 and the pilot dies: you can find someone to direct the plane but no one can land it. And when you run out of fuel you crash,” he adds.
After contributing to the collapse of Matteo Renzi’s government by campaigning for a defeat of his constitutional referendum in December, Five Star’s polling numbers have stalled, amid fears that voters may be starting to drift to the centre-right. The lacklustre poll performance and the internal divisions, combined with the mismanagement of Rome, are driving more soul-searching within the party than at any point since its founding, including pressure for more internal democracy.
“There are too many shadowy areas, too many unresolved problems, too many conflicts of interests,” says Nicola Biondo, a former Five Star communications chief and the author of a book called Supernova: how Five Star was killed. “I have a prophecy: the story of Five Star will end badly.”