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Tweets from the Campaign Trail

Researching Candidates’ Use of Twitter During the European Parliamentary Elections


Edited By Alex Frame, Arnaud Mercier, Gilles Brachotte and Caja Thimm

Hailed by many as a game-changer in political communication, Twitter has made its way into election campaigns all around the world. The European Parliamentary elections, taking place simultaneously in 28 countries, give us a unique comparative vision of the way the tool is used by candidates in different national contexts. This volume is the fruit of a research project bringing together scholars from 6 countries, specialised in communication science, media studies, linguistics and computer science. It seeks to characterise the way Twitter was used during the 2014 European election campaign, providing insights into communication styles and strategies observed in different languages and outlining methodological solutions for collecting and analysing political tweets in an electoral context.

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10. Twitter and double screen in Italy during the 2014 European elections (Cobianchi, Vittorio / Murru, Maria Francesca / Villa, Marina)

Vittorio Cobianchi, Maria Francesca Murru & Marina Villa, UniCatt (Milan)108

10. Twitter and double screen in Italy during the 2014 European elections


The chapter analyses the mutual hybridization between Twitter and television during European Elections 2014, paying attention to the ways in which the traditional role of gatekeeping played by television has been reframed by the networked connectivity made available by Twitter. A multi-method approach, consisting of content analysis (qualitative and lexical) and network analysis, has been applied to tweets published by political candidates and referred to television debates, and to tweets produced during the broadcasting of a popular Italian talk-show that hosted one of the main political actors of EP 2014.

10.1 Introduction

Hybridity offers a powerful way of thinking about politics and society, a means of seeing the world that highlights complexity, interdependence, and transition. (…) It eschews simple dichotomies and it alerts us to the unusual things that happen when the new has continuities with the old (Chadwick 2013, p. 8)

In line with what has been argued by Chadwick, the present contribution considers the hybridization of the current system of political communication as a key and a matter of inescapable reality. The hybridization we are seeing is rooted in the process of media convergence that has affected the size of the economic and technological infrastructure. But what interests us more is the way it looks in the dimension of languages and expressive forms of political communication. More specifically, our attention will focus on the cross-fertilization between the flow of conversations taking place on Twitter and the television format of political talk shows. There are two main reasons why we are interested in this object of research. First of all, the linguistic and expressive contamination between Twitter and television is linked to the growing phenomenon of the practices of “second screen-communication” (Colombo, 2015). According to the recent Global Survey of the Digital Landscape by Nielsen (Nielsen, 2015), in Europe 44 % of the popu←223 | 224→lation goes online while watching television and 36 % follow live TV shows: By doing so, they have the chance to take part in conversations on social media. Data from Nielsen Italy (Nielsen Italy, 2015) say that the number of Twitter users who posted at least one comment on a television program has reached the number of 594,500 in 2015, increasing by 25 % over the previous year. The second reason is that both contexts of communication – the talk shows and the conversation on Twitter – host public debates that are extremely focused on – more or less – public characters or political issues. In the cases that we will consider as examples, the political talk shows – namely the TV debates in the European Elections in 2014 – have been the driving conversation on Twitter. Although it is difficult to evaluate the democratic quality of these conversations, we are confident that they represent an essential place for the formation of public opinion, on which civic cultures feed (Dahlgren, 2009). While it is now clear that the discussions that take place in the public spheres online are never or almost never approximate to the communicative inclusiveness and equality that are typical of deliberation (Habermas, 2006), it is equally undeniable that conversation in the media represents one of the most common communication patterns of the network society (van Dijk, 2005). As a matter of fact, this is an increasingly important site for public elaboration of symbols and meanings.

Social TV, which is the main subject of this chapter, highlights the mutual hybridization between two different conversational contexts: on the one hand, the talk show, the emblem of the traditional media which stages a political discussion usually limited to professional politicians, to presenters (often journalists) and to selected representatives of the public and civil society; on the other hand, the “networked” proscenium of Twitter, its conversational flows that combine public and private spheres (Papacharissi, 2010) and its relational variable geometry which is apparently scalable through the use of markers of speech as the hashtag (Bruns & Burgess, 2011). The analysis presented here explores the hybridization between television and Twitter starting from the dynamics of intersection between the two communication spaces. The first part of the study is focused on the tweets published by the candidates whose topics concerned TV shows. The second part of the analysis examines the tweets commenting on a popular Italian TV talk show, “Porta a Porta”, that has played an important role in the national campaign for the European Elections. Content analysis is applied both to the text of the television program and to the tweets that comment on the program: this procedure makes it possible to explore the interdependencies and the reciprocal hybridization between the two discursive spaces.←224 | 225→

10.2 Social Television

As the long tradition of audience research has amply demonstrated, the social dimension of television viewing is not an invention of social media. The television content has always triggered informal conversations, becoming an object of discussion and also a symbolic marker of cultures and tastes. However, if in the pre-digital era the “discursivization” of digital content was done in limited physical spaces, not necessarily domestic but definitely not mediated by other technologies, with the spread of social media, this social dimension has started to become visible in the half-public contexts of Twitter and Facebook, taking on new connotations and opening the way for new expressive styles. Often television programs invite the public to comment via Twitter on the show in progress; this practice is often encouraged through publication of comments in subtitles or as integration into the content of the program itself, for example by including interviews conducted in studio, adding questions or suggestions from the public. Although this is a relatively new phenomenon, there are already many studies that have examined the forms of using Twitter as a real-time back-channel for sharing comments and ratings on television programs.

Collecting the tweets produced during the airing of the final episode of five successful American TV series (Bones, Castle, Law & Order SVU, The Mentalist, NCIS), Hart and Taylor (2012) observe that 76 % of the profiles included in the sample (composed of 13000 tweets sent 30 minutes before the start, 30 minutes after the start and 30 minutes after the conclusion) had only produced one tweet, while 1.4 % tweeted more than 11 times. Although the sampling strategies may be considered less sophisticated than those applied by other research that will be presented soon, we can see emerge the presence of a leading group which produces most of the tweets collected. The study of the type of tweets highlights that interactive dynamics represent a minor part of the overall communication flow. Only 11 % of the sample consists of direct messages to others; the remainder is made up of 28 % other tweets and 61 % of retweets with no obvious interactive dynamics. Other research shows how the patterns of communication change with different types of television programs. Doughty et al. (2012) found that conversations on entertainment programs show a lower level of reciprocity than those in which current affairs programs are discussed. In the first case, tweets often consist of messages addressed to celebrities on the program and show a configuration of vertical and centralized communication patterns; on the contrary, the conversations on current affairs programs appear more transversal and often tend to coagulate around small groups of contacts mutually connected.←225 | 226→

What motivates users to participate in live-tweeting has been carefully investigated by Schirra, Sun and Bentley (2014). Their empirical research made use of 11 semi-structured interviews conducted on a sample of spectators of Downton Abbey who were used to comment on Twitter during the broadcast. The results highlighted that live-tweeting is a complex social process which is gradually consolidating a set of social conventions and shared habits. In addition, the research investigated whether there is a link between social and personal feelings and what kind of label is gradually emerging in the audience of the known television series. For all participants, there are times when tweeting becomes a priority, which usually coincide with plot twists or arcs between two episodes. The reasons justifying the choice to participate in the live-tweeting can be grouped into three main categories:

From the interviews it emerged that participation in live-tweeting is motivated by three kinds of personal benefits. The first is about being part of a collective experience. Participating on Twitter is like the pleasure that you experience while going to the theatre or cinema with many other people who you don’t know, but with whom you share the same interest. Many point out that this sense of belonging is strengthened by a constant presence on Twitter. Respondents perceive that the attention of others is not taken for granted or automatically received but must be won by personal participation and a timely experience of collective vision. For others, the involvement in live-tweeting is a substitute for the shared domestic habit of watching TV together, an experience they fail to have in real life for various reasons. Finally, for many respondents it is a way to assert their views and understand that they are shared by other spectators.

Although it does not relate exclusively to live-tweeting, the analysis of Macek (2013) on the reasons that lead the public to participate in a more or less active creation and redistribution of media content via web offers important insights for understanding the symbolic and cultural dynamics involved in social television. The specific practices on which his research is based are: the publication of user-generated-content, the consumption of products and content posted by others (both professional and amateur), the selection and redistribution of the content posted by others. While recognizing the importance of the size and power of its balance (or imbalance) in evaluating these textual practices of participatory nature, Macek emphasizes that not all cultural and symbolic dynamics can be explained by the logic of democratization. The decisive factor is rather the interest in the performance of themselves and their culture of taste and consumption. The object to share is not the content itself but rather a representation of their identity and their life worlds. So, if the author agrees with the Jenkins (2006) who says←226 | 227→ that these participatory practices are explained by the pleasure of consuming or challenging the discursive closure of a production, at the same time he suggests a broader perspective to seize two more orders of motivation. In light of his ethnographic research, Macek (2013) argues that the practices of selection, production and circulation of content can be attributed to three main logics: the desire for text, the desire for conformity, the desire to show off.

A large proportion of the current literature has focused on the communication patterns observed during live-tweeting. “Live-tweeting”, or the publication of tweets during television programming, emerges as the majority declination of Social TV. Among the various intersections between Twitter and live broadcasting, Harrington et al. (2012) argue that the most relevant dimension corresponds to the possibility to have a space for a “live” discussion, relatively non-mediated, in relation with programs broadcast television. Users are able to offer their comments transmitted simultaneously, to interact with other viewers who are engaged in the same activity and, in some cases, to see their own comments becoming part of the program itself.

Although the exchange of comments on television programs is not limited to the time of broadcast, there is no doubt that the peak of conversations recorded during the transmission represents a highly significant phenomenon, showing that multiple dynamic enhancements converge. For spectators, connecting to Twitter during a program means sharing real-time experience and therefore recreating forms of collective sociability and synchronization of individual temporalities, similar to what existed in the pre-digital era. The multiplication of devices and distribution channels for television content is normally associated with a growing individualisation of television time; the ability to customize in an ever more consistent way their “media diet” means that the schedule no longer poses a collective calendar capable of tuning practices and routines of daily life. Against this backdrop of fragmentation and dispersion of television consumption, Twitter seems to offer an opportunity for a turnaround. In fact, the platform of micro-blogging promises to reassign to the synchronized TV consumption the added value of a social dimension where experience can be shared and content can be discursively enjoyed. On the other hand, this practice is strongly encouraged by the broadcasters that, in a period of highly dispersed TV usage, feel a strong need to create opportunities for convergence in order to make the public more easily monitored and immediately translatable into more profit. In their study on live-tweeting about the Eurovision Song Contest, Highfield et al (2012) point out the differences in the patterns of activity, interaction and interconnection between users that are members of the fan community and those that are attributable to←227 | 228→ a general audience. According to the authors, the strategies and television productions planning live-tweeting must take into account the fact that the greater internal cohesion seen in the fan community can potentially result in a different symbolic power to the detriment of the general public. The multiple connections between individual fans, combined with the determination to influence the production decisions, for example, can lead to a strategic and exclusive use of the hashtags by which the rest of the public is excluded from live-tweeting. Shamma et al. (2009) studied the use of Twitter during the presidential debates of 2008 and found that the structure of live-tweeting can be used to predict the structure of the program. However, the messages rarely summarize or discuss the content of the debate; rather they describe the emotional reactions or the personal feedback on the performance of the studio’s guests. On the contrary, the quantitative research on live-tweeting about X Factor created by Lochrie and Coulton (2012) showed a stronger connection between the content of the program and the themes of the tweets. According to the research by McPherson et al (2012), the comments posted on Twitter by viewers of Glee offered live coverage of the storyline, and their comments were expressions of appreciation or condemnation of what was seen on the screen.

Research by Wohn and Na (2011) analyzed live-tweets associated with two big media events: The speech in which Obama announced that he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, on October 9th, 2009 and an episode of the ABC talent show “So You Think You Can Dance”, on air two days earlier. Inspired by the “uses and gratifications approach”, the analysis classified the messages into two main categories: objectivity/subjectivity of the message (in the form of fact or opinion) and inbound/outbound (concerning something that happened to the author of the tweet or within the context of the program/live-tweeting). The intersections of these two categories are four types of messages: attention-seeking (an objective message through which the author of the tweet calls for public attention), information (an objective message on the program without any subjective reference), emotion (a subjective message about the author of the tweet) and opinion (a subjective message on the program).

In both the monitored live-tweeted events, the majority of messages collected were opinions, immediately followed by emotional ones. Differences emerge between the other two categories; within the live-tweeting that accompanied the broadcasting of Obama’s speech, informational tweets took precedence over attention-seeking, while in the case of the talent show the proportion was reversed. This suggests that, in both cases, the prevailing frame is subjective and relates as much to the program as to the author of the tweet. When the tone becomes objec←228 | 229→tive, the tendency is focused on research rather than on providing information: this is clearly seen in live-tweeting around the talent show.

Despite the diversity of practices, the research presented here registers a common line in the relationship between the observed spontaneous creativity on Twitter and the matrix of the text that is typical for a television program. We have seen how, in conversational dynamics, the content of comments reflects the structure of the television text; grassroots inventiveness still moves within the binary symbolic text dictated by the quality of the product broadcast. Although the lack of comparative analyses between different cultural contexts doesn’t allow us to consider the results reviewed here as representative of a wider phenomenon. The data collected are sufficient to show that Twitter is emerging as a complementary platform to other media, and that its symbolic value arises in a relationship of interdependence with more consolidated media, like the television platform.

10.3 Television in the tweets of EU candidates

In order to explore the possibility of contamination between Twitter and television, following on from the previous discussion, this chapter looks at the tweets produced by all candidates of the six parties that elected members of the European Parliament: the Democratic Party (Democratic Party), Forza Italia, Lista Tsipras, NCD (New Centre-Right), M5S (5 Stars Movement), and Lega Nord. Content analysis will indicate how important the topic “television” is in the tweets of the candidates during the election campaign, and what kind of programs were being talked about. Furthermore, we will see how this issue is handled and which functions the tweets about TV have.

We catalogued all the tweets of candidates who: invited people to follow a program in which a politician talks (before or during the program); participated in and invited others to participate in live-tweeting during a political information program; reported the words said by a politician during a TV broadcasting (tweeting live or after the program); commented the TV speech of a politician: directly or through the retweet of another person; spoke about a program of political information in which candidates were featured; commented on themes, guests, presenter’s style, performance of the actors; cited and mentioned a TV program (often using a retweet from the program account, sometimes with a hashtag or a quote).

10.3.1 The presence of the topic “television”

Many tweets about TV are related firstly to the activities of live-tweeting of the party and its members when their leader talks on television (the leader’s most←229 | 230→ significant sentences are tweeted and retweeted); candidates comment on the issues, the performance of politicians, the presenter’s attitude. In some cases, they support their leader against their opponents.

Some leaders frequently comment on TV programs in which they are involved (then they are retweeted). For example, Matteo Salvini (leader of Lega Nord) is very active: among the 699 tweets by candidates of Lega Nord about TV, 121 are written by him and 85 are retweets of his tweets. Even a leader who is not used to taking part in TV programs, such as Beppe Grillo, leader of M5S, often comments TV on Twitter: among his tweets, 196 are about TV out of a total of 435 by all the Movement.

Many candidates also anticipate, comment and retweet their TV speeches. They often retweet messages of supporters, especially tweets of encouragement/appreciation. Even M5S candidates like to comment TV speeches, but in this case dominant messages deal with critical views about the presenter and about the partiality of journalists (so called “newsagents”), sarcasm and attacks on opponents, according to the political style of movement. Finally, the habit of retweeting tweets of others – especially of the leaders and the party, but also of ordinary people –increases the number of total tweets.

Table 10.1: Number of tweets about television (and percentage of total tweets).


* The total tweets and the percentage of the total tweets referred to all the tweets made by all candidates in the party list

Among the tweets that talk about television, the percentage of retweets is: 75.2 % for Forza Italia; 69.7 % for M5S; 49.9 % for Lega Nord; 40.6 % for Tsipras; 32.7 % for NDC; 27.8 % for the Democratic Party.←230 | 231→

10.3.2 The content of the tweets about TV

To examine the contents of the TV related tweets, we can give an example of the two most productive on social media: Forza Italia and the Democratic Party. They differ in the importance given to television, because Forza Italia is the second party for the space dedicated to TV (7.15 %), while the Democratic Party is the one that publishes the least tweets about it (3.34 %). First of all, we distinguish the programs mentioned by typology:

Table 10.2: The typology of the programs mentioned in the tweets


Talk show programs are the most cited, with similar percentages for the two parties (around 42 %). Those programs are very popular and broadcast on national television in prime time (“Announo”, “Ballarò”, “Piazza Pulita ”, “ Virus”, “La Gabbia”) and the well-known talk show, “Porta a Porta”, is broadcast in the late evening on RAI 1. All the shows talk about news and often host politicians. During the European campaign, the coverage about politics was extensive and the participation of the leaders wide, which inspired many tweets (in particular Silvio Berlusconi’s appearances on TV).←231 | 232→

Table 10.3: The contents of the tweets about TV


If we consider the contents, most of the tweets of the Democratic Party on TV are about the announcement of a TV speech of a politician (“tomorrow at 21, follow me at Ballarò”) and the quote, by the candidate, of the text of a politician’s intervention in a program (the politician can be the candidate himself or a main personality←232 | 233→ of the same party or of another party). These tweets are quite often produced by the candidate. Also the third most present content, the comment of the candidate on a TV program, was due to him, without retweets.

The first two topics present in the tweets of Forza Italia on TV are the result of retweets: comments by a viewer of the program (example: “RT @coachjoetod: @comilara always polite in her speeches #SkyTG24”) and quotes of the text of a politician’s intervention in a program – by the party or its leaders. Also the third topic stated, the announcement of a TV speech, contains more than a half of the total number of retweets (134). Therefore the candidates of Forza Italia retweet frequently, especially the comments of the viewers: retweets of sympathizers, ordinary people, journalistic friends of politicians. The effect is “giving voice to the people” and promoting the image of the candidate (many of the tweets are accolades). When Forza Italia politicians pronounce speeches on TV, they are tweeted by official accounts of the party and Silvio Berlusconi, and retweeted a lot by the candidates, with an amplifying effect. There are candidates who do nothing more than this type of RT.

10.4 Case analysis: interview with Beppe Grillo, leader of the M5S

10.4.1 The argumentative plan

The second part of the analysis examined, in parallel, the discursive dynamics of the content of a TV current affairs program, and the content of the live-tweeting generated by the program itself. In particular, the episode of “Porta a Porta” broadcast on 19th May 2014, which hosted the leader of the M5S, Beppe Grillo, was analyzed. The content analysis took into account, on the one hand, the spectrum of the topics; on the other hand, the argumentative functions of each interaction between the anchorman and the politician. Content analysis was applied both to the text of the show, and to the tweets produced before, after and during the show: the tweets collected as part of the project (namely those with the hashtag #portaaporta) were integrated by tweets collected by the Osservatorio di Pavia using, as search keys, some specific hashtags from the interview (in particular, #vespachiedi and #grilloinvespa), and those addressing the Twitter account of Beppe Grillo (@BeppeGrillo). While not directly a candidate in the European Elections, Beppe Grillo was, in fact, the only member of the Movement who had national exposure during the election period, due to the lack of fame of the official candidates of M5S running for the European Elections. Despite a lack of national debates between the main political leaders on European issues, the television←233 | 234→ campaign in Italy featured individually-hosted interviews with the leaders of the main parties.

The content analysis and the argumentative flow of the interview highlighted the following dynamics:

The functional, argumentative and teleological perspective of the interaction (in essence, the communicative purpose pursued by the political actor through his/her arguments).

The thematic perspective of the argument: the subject of each interaction was detected, and a macro-theme was associated with each subject (in particular, the traditional distinction between Policy, Political, and Personal Campaign, applied by Patterson (1980), among others), in order to contextualize the data about the quality of the argumentative flow.

The coding form has been applied to each unit of classification, identified as a continuous flow of interaction characterized by uniformity in functions and thematics.

The content analysis of the program identified the ways in which the argumentative flow in television affects comments on Twitter, both from the point of view of the issues addressed, and from the point of view of quality and methods of argumentation.

Moreover, since the personal point of view of the Twitter users about Beppe Grillo and the M5S was coded for (positive, negative and neutral), we tried to understand how the opinion of those who tweeted about the TV program influenced the passage of the themes and the argumentative methods from the TV flow to the virtual agora.

Below, you will find some results of content analysis applied to the interview.

Table 10.4: Analysis of the content of the program “Porta a Porta” of May 19: functional analysis, and teleological argument (percentages on the total number of words)

Presentation of the program of the Movement

41.1 %

Presentation of values and principles of the Movement

20.9 %

Presentation of the strategies of alliance of the Movement

6.7 %

Opinion about political life (governmental or legislative) of an opponent

5.5 %

Presentation of the experience of civil commitment of Beppe Grillo

5.2 %

Opinion about the program of the opposite parties

4.7 %

Discussion about internal problems in the Movement

4.5 % ←234 | 235→

Presentation of the professional experience of Beppe Grillo

3.6 %

Presentation of the personality of Beppe Grillo

3.2 %

Discussion about the campaign run by Beppe Grillo

1.7 %

Discussion of the relation between Beppe Grillo and the media

1.4 %

Presentation of the personality of an opponent

1.1 %

Presentation of results of the political coalition at the national level

0.5 %


100.0 %

The prevalence of a programmatic point of view is due to the presenter Bruno Vespa, who repeatedly brought the discussion onto the feasibility of policy and political proposals of the M5S. Vespa, therefore, put together an “aggressive” strategy, with topics less favourable to the Movement, such as strategies of alliance (the political struggle of M5S is founded on the rejection of any political or tactical agreement with all the other parties) and relations within the Movement (many expulsions from the Parliamentary group of M5S occurred in the first months of Legislature).

Nevertheless, Grillo was often able to bring the discursive focus into a more advantageous field: the illustration of the identity and of the values of M5S, particularly “honesty”, “participation”, and some proposals concerning the fight against corruption.

Table 10.5: Analysis of the content of the program “Porta a Porta” of May 19th: thematic analysis, micro-themes (percentages of the total number of words)

Euro, European Charts

18.9 %

Industrial policy, industrial development, production problems

12.8 %

Financing of the basic income for each citizens

10.5 %

Ideology, reference values of the party or of the alliance

8.4 %

Fight against corruption

7.1 %

Intra-party relations

4.5 %

Political history of somebody else

4.4 %


3.8 %

The cost of the policy

3.4 %


3.3 %

Welfare (its importance, its defense, its reduction)

3.1 % ←235 | 236→


3.0 %

Institutional Reforms

2.5 %

Quality of the campaign

2.4 %

The media’s role in Italian politics

2.2 %

The values, ideals referred by the interviewee

1.9 %

Environment, energy policy

1.8 %

Other issues

6.0 %


100.0 %

Concerning the macro-themes, we can see how policies have occupied almost three-quarters of the interview, followed by political issues. Strangely, for an interview with a popular character, with a rich TV past (Beppe Grillo was a famous standing comedian, before his political engagement), and for a face-to-face during European Elections campaign, personal topics and topics of the campaign have only been marginally addressed: a confirmation of how Bruno Vespa has tried to keep the interview in the terms of pure political practice: certainly, policies are not the easiest battlefield for the leader of M5S, who is much more comfortable with paradoxical monologues, and with using personal comic skills as polemical weapons against contenders.

Table 10.6: Analysis of the content of the program “Porta a Porta” of May 19th: thematic analysis, macro-themes (percentages on the total number of words)


71.3 %


13.3 %


7.8 %


7.6 %


100.0 %

10.4.2 The flow of tweets

A content analysis was also applied to 1628 tweets randomly chosen from the total flow about the program. The tweet sample was examined on the basis of a coding table similar to the one used to analyze the program, identifying functional and thematic aspects of each tweet. Furthermore, we added an “appraisal variable” to the coding scheme, which collects the explicit position of the author of the tweet about Beppe Grillo or about the M5S.←236 | 237→

Table 10.7: Content analysis of the tweets regarding the “Porta a Porta” talk show of

May 19th: functional analysis (percentages of total tweets analyzed)

Comments on the program, performing analysis of Beppe Grillo

55.7 %

Presentation of the M5S program

19.8 %

Presentation of the personality of the guest

9.2 %

Promoting the values and ideals of M5S

6.4 %

Absent or undetectable

4.2 %

Comments about political life (governmental or legislative) of an opponent

1.7 %

Comments about the program of the opposite alliance

1.6 %

Other functions

1.4 %


100 %

It may be noted that most of the tweets are designed to produce general opinions, sheer evaluations about Beppe Grillo’s performance during the interview (judgments, therefore, not involving evaluations on the Movement and its leader, and not concerning single political proposals), about reviews of the show, about the choices of the questions, or about specific moments of the interview; “break your leg” tweets and mere tweets of encouragement are also massively present: M5S’s militants were aware that their leader would be acting in a hostile communicative context. The first peak of tweets, before the start of the broadcast interview (which was not live but shortly deferred) was inspired by the publication on Twitter of the selfie that Bruno Vespa shot with Beppe Grillo before the-face-to face interview started.

When the show went ahead, however, the number of tweets grew expressing doubts about the ability of Beppe Grillo to communicate effectively in a format such as the face-to-face interview, posted by the opponents of the Movement. Supporters of M5S, however, noted how the host, for once, was playing the role of a “true” investigative journalist (Bruno Vespa is often accused of complicity with his political guests).

The first relevant result, then, is that most of the tweets are not directly linked to the content of the program. They are not tied to specific themes or arguments, but they are pure evaluations about the performance of Beppe Grillo, and simple notes about the program.

Nonetheless, we can find a correlation between the other functional aspects targeted by the tweets, and the functional aspects detected in the interview: a prevalence of tweets aimed to highlight aspects of the program of M5S addressed in←237 | 238→ the interview, followed by tweets commenting on Grillo’s personality, and tweets about political values of the Movement.

Table 10.8: Content analysis of tweets related to the talk show “Porta a Porta” of May the 19th: functional analysis crossed with the explicit evaluation expressed on Beppe Grillo or M5S (percentages of total tweets analyzed)


NOTE: The information highlighted indicates the percentages which are furthest away from the distribution of the evaluation, and that, therefore, indicate statistically significant concentrations of positive and negative feedbacks.

Crossing the functional aspect with the commentators’ ratings about Beppe Grillo and about M5S and its political actions, highlights the following points of interest:

Comments on performance and on the program are slightly over-represented among positive commentators.

Tweets about the policy proposals of M5S and about the personality of Beppe Grillo, show a strong over-representation of negative feedback for Beppe Grillo and M5S: 72 % of the tweets that comment the political proposal of M5S bring negative opinions, against 44 % of the total negative opinions. Criticism of the political action of the Movement, therefore, is focused on programmatic aspects and on the personality of the leader. In particular, commenters criticized the political positions of Beppe Grillo about immigration, deemed too vague and ambiguous, especially by right-wing voters, and, in particular, those of the Lega Nord, or deemed too similar to those of the Right by liberal and progressive voters.←238 | 239→

Commenters also strongly criticized European policy and industrial policy of M5S: in particular, these issues, and the paradoxical way Grillo debated them, have massively attracted the sarcasm of detractors. Even tweets aimed to review the personality of Beppe Grillo were negative: mainly, tweets can be found which denounce the heaviness of Grillo’s communication style out of his natural context (the stand-up comedian “one man show”), and tweets that denounce his vulgarity. Conversely, tweets that appreciated his personality underline its “authenticity” and forthrightness, which should be read as variations of his “honesty” and his moral rectitude.

Among the tweets aimed to emphasize the values of M5S, and among those aimed at criticizing the government’s action and the political programs of the opponents, the tweets by M5S supporters prevail. These data tend to confirm the substantial difference between M5S and other movements inspired by populism (as the Lega Nord in Italy): while the latter support their political action on a few specific policy proposals, especially related to immigration and tax system reform, the former bases its identity on the moral issue, claimed as foundational to every political proposal, and on deep criticism of “old politics”, portrayed as being influenced by large lobbies against the interests of citizens. An “ontological difference” proudly claimed by the militants of the Movement, which justifies and dwarfs any possible uncertainty shown by the leader (and even recognized by some militants) about mere programmatic aspects of the policy proposed by M5S.

Table 10.9: Content analysis of tweets related to the talk show “Porta a Porta” of May 19th: thematic analysis (percentages of total tweets analyzed)

Findings on performance in the televised debate

59.6 %

Slogan, voting intentions

6.4 %

Jokes about political opponents

5.8 %

Fight against corruption

5.7 %

Industrial policy, industrial development, production problems

3.3 %

Euro, European Charts

2.8 %

Hypothesis of results

2.2 %

Quality of the campaign

1.5 %


1.4 %

Consequences of the elections on institutional arrangements

1.3 % ←239 | 240→

Financing of basic income

1.3 %

Intra-party relations

0.9 %

Environment, energy policy

0.9 %

Institutional Reforms

0.9 %

Military spending

0.7 %

Other issues

4.4 %


100.0 %

As for the specific issues faced by those who commented on the interview with Beppe Grillo via Twitter, in addition to tweets that contain only a judgment about the quality of the TV debate, we also detected a strong presence of slogans and voting intentions (with a prevalence of endorsement in favor of M5S and Beppe Grillo), and jokes about political opponents: in particular, jokes on Beppe Grillo by opponents of the Movement (the majority), and jokes on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi by militants of M5S.

Among the programmatic issues, some prevail, like fighting corruption, industrial policy, and European policy. The subjects and feedback cross-distribution confirms that some issues were mainly used to carry negative judgments on the proposed policy of M5S (industrial policy, European policy, immigration and citizen’s income: the latter, in particular, because of the lack of clarity with which Grillo has exposed the covering of his costs).

Conversely, the most frequent topics by supporters of the Movement were fighting corruption and the proposal to reduce military spending, the latter being the key proposal to mobilize funding for the basic citizens’ income. If you compare this distribution with the topics addressed during the TV interview, it is obvious that the agenda of the audience has proved slightly different from the agenda of the presenter: the main theme of the interview, the relation of M5S with Europe, with its Charts and its Institutions, was very scarcely taken into account by commentators on Twitter (the issue of Europe has been addressed by 2.8 % of the tweets of the sample, while occupied nearly one-fifth of the interview: a further proof of the little interest that European issues have for Italians); vice-versa, it has been virtually ignored by the militants and supporters of M5S.

The comments about the proposals of M5S for the fight against corruption, however, was over-represented on Twitter: recognized by the militants as the main theme of identity of their political proposal, it was the most commented policy subject on Twitter, while, during the interview, it occupied less than a tenth of the total space.←240 | 241→

Table 10.10: Analysis of the content of tweets related to the talk show “Porta a Porta” of May 19th: thematic analysis crossed with explicit evaluation expressed on Beppe Grillo or M5S (percentages of total tweets analyzed)


NOTE: The information highlighted indicates the percentages which are furthest away from the marginal distribution of the evaluation, and that, therefore, indicate statistically significant concentrations of positive and negative feedback.

Finally, the analysis of the macro-tweets gives us the following results:

The low incidence of personal issues in the comments: also in this case, through the analysis of the tweets we have the confirmation of the fact that the M5S is an “atypical” charismatic movement, compared, for example, to the first steps of Forza Italia by Berlusconi; it is a movement in which the presence of the leader is secondary in the construction of the identity, which is based, above all, on ideals and values.←241 | 242→

The relevance of the themes of the campaign in contrast with the importance given to them during the interview; in particular, as mentioned, the analysis has detected a large presence of election slogans and forecast polls.

The lack of importance given by commentators to political relations, however, seems natural, given the simplification imposed by the leadership of the movement to the internal relations of M5S itself, and to the relations between parties, which are virtually absent in the political action of the Movement.

Table 10.11: Analysis of the content of tweets related to the program “Porta a Porta” of May 19th: thematic analysis, macro-themes (percentages of total of the tweets analyzed)

Meta debate

60.5 %


19.1 %


17.2 %


3.1 %


0.1 %


100.0 %

Crossing the distribution of macro-themes with the feedback of commentators on M5S, shows an over-representation of negative feedback in tweets about policy and political relations (related, mainly, to issues of dissent within M5S), and an over-representation of positive feedback on the themes of the campaign, because of the number of slogans and voting endorsements by militants present in the sample.

Table 10.12: Analysis of the content of tweets related to the talk show “Porta a Porta” of May 19th: macro-themes analysis crossed with evaluate explicitly expressed on Beppe Grillo or M5S (percentages of total tweets analyzed)

←242 | 243→


NOTE: The information highlighted indicate the percentages which are furthest away from the marginal distribution of the evaluation, and, therefore, indicate statistically significant concentrations of positive and negative feedback.

10.4.3 Thematic trend

Chart 1: the time course of the space devoted to the various macro-themes within the TV-show


With this series of charts, we tried to investigate the relation between the time trend of macro-themes in the debate, and the time course of the same in the comment on Twitter. The Chart 1, in fact, describes diachronically the amount of space dedicated to each of the macro-themes in the course of the program. The initial phase devoted primarily to personal issues and campaign issues (build especially on questions about the possible political consequences at national level of a victory of M5S in the European Elections), has followed by a section mainly devoted to political relations (in particular, to some questions by Vespa on banishment by the parliamentary groups of some members of M5S, following positions or behaviours deemed inconsistent with the regulations of the Movement). Then, the whole central part of the program is dedicated to policy issues. Finally, the last section goes back to personal themes and the themes of the campaign.

Chart 2, on the other hand, describes the diachronic evolution of macro-themes in the debate on Twitter. Chart 3, finally, shows the same data as Chart 2,←243 | 244→ purified, however, by the “noise” made up of the tweets containing jokes or mere comments about the TV debate.

When comparing the different temporal trends, the following considerations become apparent:

The argumentative trend in the show produced an explosion of tweets dedicated to issues of policy by commentators, virtually absent before the show started. The end of the interview resulted – as you can see by reading the charts 2 and 3 – in a visible decline of attention by commentators about economic issues and, more, about the management of public affairs. However, policy issues were significantly present in the tweets related to the program until the end of the survey. Therefore, it can be said that the interview, and, in particular, the care with which Bruno Vespa tried to maintain the focus on concrete proposals, have in part prompted the attention of commentators (especially commentators against M5S) on the policy proposals of the Movement.

Before the show started, the themes of the campaign were prevailing, in particular endorsements and voting intentions; the number of this type of tweets declined sharply during the show, to return to a quite significant level after the end of the show.

The tweets about the “meta-debate”, about the whole discourse on the TV face-to-face debate and the type of media, reach a peak just before starting the show (tweets of “break your leg” to the leader), and always remain the most of the total tweets, but another peak appears just after the end, with the final assessments on the “final result” of the face-to-face.

The personal topics in the program were almost entirely absent from the flow of the tweets: they emerge – in a very marginal percentage – only at the end of the interview, with a few comments about the supposed economic benefit that Grillo would gain from the management of the Movement’s official blog, as a direct result of his political commitment.

The tweets about political relations (in particular, as mentioned, those related to the management of internal relations in M5S) experienced a peak at the exact time of the question by the presenter during the interview. After that, the issue regained interest among commentators just after the conclusion of the debate, always accompanied with observations on the mode of administration of internal relations in M5S. Again, you can see a very clear correlation between the development of the topic in the program and the development of the organization of the comments on Twitter.←244 | 245→

Chart 2: the time course of the space dedicated to different macro-themes in the show (number of tweets)


Chart 3: the time course of the space dedicated to different macro-themes in the show without the tweets related to the development of the face-to-face on TV.


←245 | 246→

10.5 Conclusions

TV occupies an important place in the tweets of the candidates during the election campaign. As described in the content analysis of the tweets posted by the candidates of Forza Italia and the Democratic Party, the talk-show programs are among the most commented. When they speak about TV, all six parties examined often reproduce the content of the program (mainly, the statements of politicians) or announce its airing: Twitter therefore has a function of amplification and multiplication of the political message conveyed through the medium of television. This is particularly the case when the party leaders attend the TV show: the accounts of both candidates and the related parties are mobilized to spread the message already broadcast on TV. The television appearances of Silvio Berlusconi, during which we recorded the most significant cases of live-tweeting, are an example of this. The function of propagation/multiplication of the messages delivered on TV becomes clear when we focus on retweet rates: for three out of six parties, retweets represent the majority of the tweets produced (77.2 % for Forza Italia). In order to amplify and disseminate slogans and statements that leaders produce during TV shows, the candidates of the same party often re-tweet what was published during the airing from the broadcaster’s account, from the Twitter profile of their own party and from the account of their leader. This is especially true in cases of leaders who are very present on social media and TV, such as Salvini and Berlusconi, or in the case of Grillo and the M5S. We can say that live-tweeting is linked to the functions of amplification, recovery and retransmission of the message delivered via TV, and of comments about it, rather than as discursive or dialogic enrichment of the contents conveyed through television. In this first part of the analysis, Twitter therefore emerges as a discursive space, complementary and subordinated to the television arena. The communication dynamics that take place here do not differ in some ways from the paradigm of mass media broadcasters; on the contrary, they work to enhance the diffusion capacity of the traditional electronic mass media, bringing each node in the “Twitter-sphere” to act as a megaphone of messages spread through television.

The second part of the analysis has enabled us to focus on the counterpoint of this phenomenon: if the communication strategies activated on Twitter by candidates remain firmly anchored in the mass media paradigm, what happens instead in large conversational flows, powered by spectators and citizens? Are there opposing forces that offset, mitigate, or even reverse the trend? Our data show that, even in this case, the television arena has a decisive dragging capacity of the discursive dynamics taking place on Twitter, in relation to both content and expressive forms. However, when the gaze is extended beyond the strategies←246 | 247→ of the candidates to capture the wider communication flows, the dependence of Twitter on television takes on specific features that are a direct result of the cultural conventions that are established on the micro-blogging platform. The flow of the content published and redistributed on Twitter finds an important filter in the needs of self-representation and self-positioning that arise from the increasingly widespread practice of “curation” and “management” of social profiles (Marwick & Boyd, 2010; p. 2012). In particular, the analysis has shown a correlation between the effectiveness with which the Guest has treated the themes proposed by the Host of the TV show, the resumption of the themes themselves by commentators on Twitter, and their political positioning. In fact, what happened was that the self-declared supporters of the M5S enhanced with their tweets the constitutive issues of the movement – as for political corruption – while abandoning the subject areas of policy and economy (the main issue in the program), with which the Guest had more difficulties. The latter area was on the contrary taken up, revived and highlighted almost exclusively by detractors of the movement, who turned the same weapons against Beppe Grillo that the leader of M5S pointed at political opponents: irony, sarcasm, and accusations of inadequacy and incompetence. At the same time, a large slice of tweets targeted the television performance of the leader, emphasizing some strong and weak points of his communicative effectiveness, instead of focusing on the content of the program or on the covered topics. Only on the ground of this performative assessment did opponents and supporters converge in a direct confrontation. Otherwise, if the thematic focus was prevalent, discursive flows were characterized by a strong polarization: the commentators on Twitter who dealing with the political content of the program, basically, occupied the most useful areas to argue and justify their positions against or in support of the political leader, while avoiding a real dialogue with opponents.


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108 The chapter has been discussed jointly by the three authors. Vittorio Cobianchi has written section 4, Maria Francesca Murru sections 1 and 2, Marina Villa section 3. Section 5 has been written by the three authors.