Only connect: social media and the rise of Matteo Salvini

How to explain the success of Italy's de facto leader

John Hooper

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and one of its two deputy prime ministers, has a fair claim to being Europe’s most successful politician of the moment.

The growth in his and his party’s following since Italy’s last general election in March 2018 has been astounding. The Northern League — still its official title — took less than 18 per cent of the vote last year. Today, polls give it around 32 per cent.

That makes it not only Italy’s most favoured party, but the populist movement with the biggest following in Western Europe. Unless support for the League falls off a cliff between now and the European elections at the end of this month, it is likely to emerge as the biggest or second-biggest party in the next European Parliament. At the time of writing, polls show it winning just one seat less than the Germany’s mighty conservative alliance, the CDU/CSU.

Equally impressive, much of the backing Salvini has garnered for the League since the last general election comes not from the north or even the centre, but from the southern mainland, Sicily and Sardinia: the very parts of Italy whose inhabitants Leaguers once openly reviled as indolent terroni     (“yokels” or “hicks”) who lived off handouts paid for by taxes squeezed from the honest, industrious folk of the Po Valley.

That was before Salvini took on the leadership in 2013, when polls were showing the League’s share of the vote was below four per cent. In the years that followed, he gradually steered his followers’ resentment away from the people of the Mezzogiorno to refocus it exclusively on the asylum-seekers landing on Italy’s coastline. Even so, it was not until shortly before the last election that he felt confident enough to drop the word “Northern” from the League’s logo and  shortly afterwards adopt as its new slogan “Italians first.” Antonio Noto, director of the polling firm IPR Marketing, says that today one in four voters in the south and one six in the islands would give their vote to the League in a general election.

No Italian politician since Benito Mussolini has risen to such an influential position in public life while holding views as far to the right as those of Salvini. Gianfranco Fini, a former neo-fascist and leader of the now-disbanded National Alliance, was deputy prime minister from 2001 to 2006. But his freedom to impose hard-right policies was limited by Silvio Berlusconi, the then head of the government.

Salvini is under no such constraint. His nominal boss in cabinet, Giuseppe Conte is a law professor who was chosen to be prime minister because neither Salvini nor the leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S), Luigi Di Maio, would agree to let the other take the top job. Di Maio, like Salvini, settled for being a deputy prime minister. But from the day their coalition government took office, the more experienced Salvini has been setting the pace and the agenda.

Just who is Matteo Salvini, though? Perhaps the first point to make is that he is not at all as people outside Italy might imagine. A comparison with Il Duce (The Leader), the title accorded to Mussolini, is illuminating.

Where Mussolini scowled, Salvini smiles. Where Mussolini strutted, Salvini strolls. He comes across as the sort of jovial bruiser you might find sinking a beer with his teammates from the local rugby club. But you would know from the moment he stepped up to the bar to buy the first round of drinks that he was the man in charge — the captain. And, indeed, such is his nickname among his followers: Il Capitano.

Salvini’s public speeches are not demagogic harangues. Nor does he go in for the sort chin-jutting, chest-swelling histrionics Mussolini deployed. Salvini responds to criticism with ironic good humour. His replies to his adversaries on Twitter often end with the blowing-a-kiss emoji.

“I’m the least quarrelsome man in the world,” he protested in an interview last month with the Italian daily, Libero. But when the Jewish industrialist, Carlo De Benedetti, accused him of being an anti-Semite, Salvini threatened to sue, and as an ardent supporter of Israel, he would be in a pretty strong position if the case ever to came to court.

Salvini even denies being anti-immigrant. His objection, he insists, is only to illegal immigration.

So far, then, so inoffensive and reassuring. But Matteo Salvini does very much recall Il Duce in other respects, which is where the doubts about him start to creep in.

Like Mussolini, Salvini is a political journalist who once harboured left-wing sympathies. Born into a middle-class Milanese family in 1973, he joined the League while still in his teens and went on to work for the party’s daily newspaper and later its radio station. Back in those days, however, the League was a very different political creature: partly regionalist, partly separatist, fiercely parliamentarian, economically liberal, and perfectly able to cope with a tiny faction of self-styled communists of which Salvini was a founder.

The other similarity with the Duce is the scrupulous attention Salvini pays to his image and the messages he projects to his fellow-Italians. It was not the League — Italy’s long-established party — but the M5S that was meant to excel at contemporary communication. The digital revolution is written into the Five Stars’ DNA. The whole initial purpose of the movement was to work for the introduction of a direct democracy in which the public would decide on legislation by means of constant online polling. It still selects its candidates for elected office by means of online ballots.

Yet it is Matteo Salvini, not Luigi Di Maio, who has used the internet, and social media in particular, to best effect since coming into office. He now has more than a million followers on Twitter, almost twice as many as the leader of the M5S, 14 years his junior.

Much of the credit for this goes to Luca Morisi, a slightly-built former lecturer at the University of Verona. Morisi, who coined Salvini’s sobriquet, The Captain, has the appropriately pallid complexion of one who has spent long hours programming into the night. Some of that time went on creating a software programme that is at the heart of Salvini’s communications strategy. Known as La Bestia (The Beast), its exact workings remain confidential. Morisi has said it deals with “measurement and analysis, but nothing that has to do with the content, the substance” (of Salvini’s political communication).

In the very few interviews Morisi has given — he declined a request from Standpoint — he has insisted it is Salvini who decides on the messages he wants to transmit and that his role is simply to “amplify” them.

He has a team of about 10 assistants “none of whom is much over the age of 20”, he told the weekly news magazine Panorama. For the most part, they work remotely, but come together once a week in Rome “in a place near the Interior Ministry, but not on government premises, that we call The Bunker”.

At the core of his approach is an acronym: TRT, which stands in Italian for Television-Web-Territory. “We make these three fields interact in a game of reciprocal mirrors . . . Each of the three fields adds value to the others,” he said.

As an example, he used Salvini’s appearance on a TV talk show. Before the programme, he and his team hype the event for all it is worth. “During the transmission, the key phrases are immediately posted to Facebook and Twitter . . . people who are not watching the television go and turn on their sets. At the same time, those who are watching the TV and see that Matteo has an iPad in his hand go onto social media” to see what he has written. After the show, the key clips are extracted so Salvini’s messages reach those who did not see him “live”.

Much of that might have been guessed. But it is the final initial, “T” for territory, that is perhaps the most original aspect of Salvini’s communications strategy: the endless relaying via social media of videos and selfies depicting the tireless leader of the League out and about among the people, hammering home the notion that he is “one of you”. It is a message he enhances with tweets and posts giving his followers a glimpse into his private life — or at least the version of it approved by his team of canny social media operators.

Take a recent day in which he used Twitter to celebrate the return to Libya of a boatload of asylum-seekers, ridiculed a claim that they had been in danger of drowning, congratulated his chum Bibi Netanyahu on returning to power in Israel, and deplored a suggestion that Italy might introduce a tax on primary residences to help pay down its mountainous public debt. How did he round it off? With a photograph of his quintessentially Italian supper: a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara.

“The account that Salvini gives of himself on social media uses two strategies that are apparently contradictory: the strong man and the man of the people,” says Sofia Ventura, a political scientist at the University of Bologna. In promoting the second of these, she notes, he has been greatly helped by Italy’s gossip magazines. Salvini is divorced from his wife, Fabrizia Ieluzzi, who gave him a son now in his teens. In 2012, he fathered a daughter by a subsequent partner, but that relationship also hit the rocks. Last year, to the delight of the paparazzi, Salvini began a romance with a TV showgirl, Elisa Isoardi.

Were it not for the power of his boy-next-door narrative, their affair might well have been depicted in pretty sceptical terms. Instead, the gossip press wrapped it in a soft glow more suited to the first-love romance of a couple of teenagers. The nation’s sigh came to an abrupt halt in November when Isoardi announced the end of their relationship — on Instagram.

But the soap opera continues. In March, Salvini turned up at the premiere of Dumbo with a new flame, the 26-year-old daughter of a controversial right-wing politician, Denis Verdini.

The indulgent monitoring of the League leader’s private life has an important role to play in taking the rougher edges off his other image as a strongman. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, found while researching a book that Salvini had been photographed bare-chested more often than any other contemporary leader apart from Vladimir Putin. All of a piece with that is his his fondness for donning uniforms. So far, he has appeared in public in the regulation jackets of the police, the navy, the semi-militarised Carabinieri and even the fire brigade.

Arguably more troubling are the nods and winks that Salvini seems every so often to direct at the ultra-Right. In May 2018, he went to a football match wearing a jacket that is all the rage among those who tread the fine line between neo-Fascism and neo-Nazism. Two months later, on the anniversary of Mussolini’s birth, he posted to Twitter a photograph of himself below a paraphrase of Il Duce’s famous quip, “[so] many enemies; [so] much honour”. The photograph showed Salvini as a target in the crosshairs. The crosshairs chosen for the purpose formed a perfect Celtic Cross, a symbol of the European far Right.

But is the League’s leader dangerous? Marco Tarchi, professor of politics at the University of Florence, and an expert on populism and the far Right, pooh-poohs the idea. “Dangerous? Why? Because he threatens democracy?” he asks. “Absolutely not. Those who consider him to be on the far Right are wrong. Salvini is a typical populist leader who aims, not to overturn the system, but to change the policies put into effect in the last few decades in certain areas, giving voice to the thinking of the ‘man in the street’.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat disagrees: “I see him as very dangerous.” Whether or not Salvini is content to operate within the bounds of a democracy, she argues, is the wrong test to use. He belongs to a class of politicians she terms the “new authoritarians”: men such as Erdogan and Putin who are willing to allow a semblance of democracy. Salvini, says Ben-Ghiat, “does not need a dictatorship to do what he wants to do”. 

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