THE BLOG

Welcome to the World of Click Here Politics

07/03/2013 13:27 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

I somehow doubt that Beppe Grillo would naturally see himself as a political soul-mate of Barack Obama's. But they do have at least one thing in common: they know what can be achieved by harnessing the power of social media data-crunching.

It's already been widely reported that Grillo's barn-storming success in the Italian elections last week was in large part due to the way he managed to form a potent political movement out of the inchoate noise of the internet. He has more than 1.2 million fans on Facebook and more than a million followers on Twitter. (The UK Labour party has 140,000 fans on Facebook and just 76,000 followers on Twitter.)

Barack Obama, who couldn't be more different from Grillo in personality -- cool, analytical and super-controlled, compared to the Italian comedian who is fiery, emotional and unpredictable -- shares with him, however, an understanding of how social media are revolutionising the art of political campaigning.

In an article last month, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that in his State of the Union address last month, President Obama "combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics - big speeches and big data - to spur political action."

He quoted the American journalist Sasha Issenberg, who in his recently-published book The Victory Lab, wrote that "Obama's team knows not only where its supporters live, shop and worship but even on which bus routes they travel, which video games their kids play and which TV personalities they respect."

Welcome to the world of Click Here politics. It's a world in which to win, you need first to gather your supporters online, then analyse who they are and what makes them tick, and -- most crucially -- tailor a message that fits their profile.

British politics is still in the dark ages. We are asked to admire the Liberal Democrats' organisational skills in Eastleigh because they were able to maximise their postal vote ahead of polling day. Postal vote? So 20th century.

As for the Conservatives, one of their campaign workers, writing on The Spectator's website, reported: "One of the practical reasons the Conservatives lost was a lack of data: banks of volunteers young and old spent hours on the phone and walking the streets pestering postal voters who'd already sent off their votes and we'd failed to record this fact. We called quite a few dead people."

Compare that with an account in the Washington Post last November, which revealed that the Obama campaign team targetted its TV ads not by which programme they interrupted, but by channel and time of day, based on detailed information obtained from both canvassers and cable TV set-top boxes, which analyse in minute detail who's watching what, when they're watching and where they live.

According to the Washington Post: "The [Obama] team bought detailed data on TV viewing by millions of cable subscribers, showing which channels they were watching, sometimes on a second-by-second basis ... [the team's] calculations showed that it would get the most bang for its buck in some strange places: the Family Channel, the Food Network and the Hallmark Channel, among others."

Perhaps it's not surprising that in Europe, new, non-parliamentary political movements are embracing the world of Click Here politics with far more alacrity than the traditional political parties. According to a recent report from the think-tank Demos: "New social movements are emerging using social media, and challenging existing parties in a way unthinkable a decade ago. The English Defence League in the UK, the Pirate Party in Germany, and the Occupy movement are all examples of movements that have employed social media to grow rapidly and create a significant political and social impact - all in the last three years."

Note those examples carefully: what they share -- with each other and with Beppe Grillo -- is a message of exclusion, that they and their ideas are locked out of conventional political discourse, that they have no place, and no chance of winning a place, if they play the game the old-fashioned way.

It's both a challenge to traditional politics, and a danger. The lesson? Don't mock Grillo, learn from him.