Page last updated at 22:19 GMT, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Battles over Berlusconi rage in cyberspace

By Mark Duff
BBC News, Milan

Cyberspace has become the latest cockpit for the unseemly exchange of views between fans and detractors of the battered Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

It could also yet prove to be the latest battleground in the debate over freedom of expression in Italy.

Screengrab of Facebook page
Dozens of Facebook pages were created after the attack

Facebook has, as so often, been on the frontline; but Twitter, too, has been busy - with "Berlusconi" for a time one of its most popular words across the globe.

Within minutes of Mr Berlusconi having been laid low by a tourist souvenir of Milan's cathedral at the end of a political rally on Sunday, the social networkers had gone into action.

First out of the blocks were the prime minister's critics: by the following morning more than 20,000 had signed up to one Facebook page giving hero status to the alleged attacker, Massimo Tartaglia. That's now risen to more than 70,000.

Tweets and sympathy

But they didn't have it all their own way. Mr Berlusconi's supporters were quick to hit back with messages of support and sympathy for their bloodied leader.

"Prime minister, I wept for you", wrote one woman.

Often, though, the tone of the debate has been hysterical, even hate-filled.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after being struck in face
Berlusconi - mocked and pitied in almost equal measure after the attack

Two examples - from an enemy of the prime minister: "Death to Berlusconi"; and from one of his defenders: "I'd like to wash my feet in the blood of Communists".

This is not the first time that Italian social networkers have expressed views that would be frowned upon by mainstream media outlets.

In October, the government threatened to shut down a Facebook group called "Let's kill Berlusconi" for inciting hatred.

It is this vitriol that worries the Italian government - and has led Interior Minister Roberto Maroni to threaten to block hate messages posted on social networking sites.

Mr Maroni told a news conference in Milan on Tuesday that he was very worried by the "echo" - as he put it - that Sunday night's events were having on the internet.

In particular, he added, it was wrong that children and those - like Sunday's attacker - with psychiatric problems should be able to read hate-filled messages on the web.

'Unguarded anger'

Other ministers say the laws are already in place to crack down on incitement to violence.

Those who argue that the web is a dangerous place overlook its ability to police itself
Beppe Severgnini, Italian journalist

But that could be easier said than done. One police expert said trying to control the output of thousands of social networkers would be "like trying to empty the sea with a bucket".

One of Italy's most popular bloggers is Beppe Severgnini - who also writes a regular column for Milan's Corriere della Sera newspaper.

He doubts that the government knows what it is dealing with.

"Maroni hasn't said what he's going to do," says Mr Severgnini.

"Frankly, I don't think they realise what the internet has become. They tend to forget that its reach is global. They don't understand the appeal and power of phenomena like Twitter and Facebook.

"And in a Western democracy like Italy they simply can't - even if they could - block access to them like, say, the Chinese would."

Screengrab of Twitter traffic on Berlusconi
Berlusconi has been one of the most oft-tweeted tags in recent days

Seen thus, social networking is the last free-fire zone available to those who feel excluded by mainstream politics in Italy - like supporters of the hard Left or those suspicious of Mr Berlusconi's grip on Italian television.

For Beppe Severgnini, the unguarded anger of social networkers reflects - rather than drives - the deep polarisation of political views in Italy.

It is, after all, easy to forget that the gulf between left and right in Italy remains a chasm rather than a matter of dinner party rhetoric - and one that in the past has been played out with bullets and bombs rather than hate-filled online messages.

But Mr Severgnini argues that social networking contains its own, reassuring equilibrium.

"Those who argue that the web is a dangerous place overlook its ability to police itself," he says.

"Every time some moron posts something extreme, stupid and unacceptable, you get a vast number of people writing back to disagree. It contains its own, in-built balance - and that's what its critics ignore."

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