Second Life island becomes platform for Italian politics

His main political rival controls three national television networks, a newspaper, a weekly magazine and a publishing house, so an Italian minister has decided to try to level the propaganda playing field by buying himself an island in Second Life.

Antonio di Pietro, Italy’s infrastructure minister, announced the purchase of the island last Wednesday, appropriately enough, on his personal blog.

“I have decided to open a space for Italy of Values [the party he founded seven years ago] on Internet in Second Life,” he wrote. “For the moment I have bought an island and planted an Italy of Values flag on it. The island will soon be equipped with offices, conference rooms and information points regarding the initiatives of Italy of Values.”

“The island is called Neverland and was bought from a Japanese woman for US$1,500,” said Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who has acted as a consultant to Di Pietro for the Second Life project. “Di Pietro chose the name, which is taken from the nonexistent island in ‘Peter Pan’,” Casaleggio said Friday.

The island is part of the 3-D virtual world created by the U.S. company Linden Research Inc. and recently discovered as a potentially valuable mirror for real-world political activity. The two main candidates in France’s presidential election race have both opened a political space in Second Life.

“Segolene Royal was the first, and was much criticized for it, but now everyone is copying her,” Casaleggio said. U.S. presidential hopeful John Edwards reportedly has an unofficial Second Life presence, thanks to a “Resident” who is one of his supporters.

“People confuse this with a video game, but there’s nothing playful about it at all,” Casaleggio said of the initiative. “The island will be used to create contact between Di Pietro and the electorate and to facilitate communication within the party.”

Avatars of Italy of Values campaigners will be used to greet visitors to Neverland and provide them with information about the party. The site will also reconstruct news conferences and interviews with individual journalists in an effort to get the political message across to as wide a public as possible, Di Pietro’s statement said.

The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, recently reconstructed its activities for a Second Life audience and the Swedish government has set up a virtual consulate to provide information and services through the virtual world, Di Pietro pointed out in his announcement.

France’s far right National Alliance opened a Second Life office three weeks ago only to find it being picketed by avatars objecting to its allegedly racist policies. “It was the first ever political demonstration in Second Life,” Casaleggio said.

“The island, originally called Winter Garden, is already partially built,” Casaleggio said. “There is vegetation, a waterfall and seagulls.” The political content is coming soon.

Di Pietro has been a pioneer in the use of information technology since the days when he worked as an anticorruption prosecutor in Milan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, using computer databases to coordinate investigations and computer technology to assist in the presentation of evidence in court.

He has continued to use IT to promote his political career, making heavy use of his personal blog in the 2006 election campaign and in December becoming the first minister to use YouTube to brief the public on what goes on behind closed doors in Italian cabinet meetings.

“I think he’s the only minister in the world to do this,” Casaleggio said. “YouTube is radically different from traditional media, because it completely eliminates the middlemen. There are no filters between speaker and audience.”

Neverland is owned by Di Pietro’s party, so there should be no dispute over property rights if he is replaced as party leader, Casaleggio said. And the party is unlikely to be selling any time soon. “In Second Life you are more likely to want to expand than to leave,” the IT consultant said.

It may be a while though before Di Pietro’s internet audience starts to worry Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate and opposition leader, who was one of the subjects of Di Pietro’s corruption investigations in the 1990s.

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