Argument

Matteo Salvini’s Selfie Politics

Far-right or not, the Italian deputy prime minister’s social media presence has made him one of the most popular politicians in Italy.

A new mural by Italian street artist Tvboy, entitled “La Guerra dei Socials” (The War of Social Media), depicting Matteo Salvini in Milan on Nov. 14. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)
A new mural by Italian street artist Tvboy, entitled “La Guerra dei Socials” (The War of Social Media), depicting Matteo Salvini in Milan on Nov. 14. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

MILAN—Italy might be in the middle of a high-profile showdown with the European Union over its proposed budget for next year, but last week the country was captivated by a different drama: Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s breakup, which played out over social media.

“It’s not what we have given each other that I miss, but what we still had to give to each other,” his girlfriend of three years, television presenter Elisa Isoardi, wrote on Instagram announcing their breakup. “With immense respect for the true love that was, thank you, Matteo.” The poetic caption came below an intimate selfie of the two in bed, featuring a shirtless Salvini kissing her cheek. The photo quickly made the rounds on Italian media before taking on a life of its own.

Later that day, Salvini, who is also leader of Italy’s far-right, anti-immigration League party, addressed the breakup on his Facebook and Instagram pages. With a photo of himself smiling, arms wide open, he wrote that the Italian people “don’t care” about his personal life but that he still felt the need to address the situation. “I loved, I forgave, I surely also made mistakes, but I believed in it all the way,” he wrote. “Too bad someone had other priorities.” And that night, he posted a selfie on Instagram with a bouquet of pink flowers, again making reference to his and Isoardi’s split: “I go to bed certainly sad but content,” he wrote.

One minute, he’s broadcasting a meeting at the Interior Ministry; the next, he’s posting the kind of status update or selfie one might expect from a glued-to-his-smartphone teen.

Most politicians wouldn’t take to social media to lament their breakups—or discuss the ravioli they ate for dinner or the TV show they watched the night before, for that matter. But Salvini, 45, is a different kind of pol. One minute, he’s broadcasting a meeting at the Interior Ministry or promoting links to negative coverage of migrants trying to reach Italy; the next, he’s posting the kind of status update or selfie one might expect from a glued-to-his-smartphone teen.

“He can make a livestream from the Ministry of the Interior just saying that he’s working hard on laws and for the Italian people, and after a couple of hours he can post a picture where he’s eating ham and mozzarella and he asks the users, ‘Do you like it or not?’ and thousands of people say, ‘Oh yes, I do,’ ‘I do, too,’ ‘Oh, you’re great,’” Eleonora Bianchini, a journalist with Milan’s Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper, who has written extensively about the League, told me. “And after that, he can go back and … be extremely outraged because an immigrant violated the law.”

This blend of the personal and the political bolsters Salvini’s brand as a man of the people, helping soften his rhetorical hard edges and make him more relatable. It engages the party’s fired-up base and has helped him with more skeptical voters, too. According to a Demos poll published this month, he’s the most popular leader in the government, with an approval rating of 60 percent.

Thanks at least in part to his strategy, Salvini has managed to take the League to new political and electoral heights in the span of eight months. Since winning 17.4 percent of the vote in March’s general election and forming a government with the populist Five Star Movement in late May, Salvini’s League has nearly doubled its support, surpassing the Five Star Movement to become the strongest political force in the country.

There are multiple reasons for that success, of course, not least of which is that migration has remained atop the Italian and European political agenda. But Salvini’s media strategy—aided by a team of staffers working around the clock—certainly plays a role, as well. Alessandro Morelli, a League MP and Salvini ally who chairs the party’s group in the Milan city council, likened the party’s communications efforts for Salvini to selling a Ferrari: “he kind of promotes himself,” he told me. “One thing about Matteo is he is always able to find the right topic, the right headline that’s going to be of interest at the time.”

The League, like many European right-wing populist parties, has an active and engaged following on social media. But Salvini has 3.4 million followers on Facebook and more than 900,000 each on Twitter and Instagram. His approximately 10 Facebook posts per day routinely get tens of thousands of “likes” and thousands of comments, many of which come from enthusiastic supporters. Salvini’s Facebook post about his breakup, for example, has received more than 8,000 responses. Most commenters offered messages of solidarity or encouragement: “your true woman is Italy, she will be faithful and grateful!” one wrote. Another said: “courage, Italians who love you are with you.”

As the League’s right-wing counterparts across Europe look to increase their support and appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, many surely see Salvini as a role model. A foreign party leader’s ability to emulate his and the League’s political messaging style depends considerably on their ability to get a personality-centric balance right; few, it seems, could likely pull it off. Even the Five Star Movement, the League’s coalition partner, has focused more on promoting the party than the personality of its leader, Luigi Di Maio, the other deputy prime minister.

But at least in Italy, at a time when voters seem to have such high disdain for the political establishment, that may no longer be enough. Salvini’s strategy helps convince voters that their leader still knows how to be a regular person. “It shows a kind of leadership which is on the one hand strong and tough,” Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster in Italy with Quorum/YouTrend, told me, “but on the other hand also empathetic in a way and close to the people.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism. Twitter: @emilyrs

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