Salvini: A Populist Force to be Reckoned With?

Right wing populism is on the rise globally, and studies show that the hybrid use of mass and social media is the perfect combination for its further expanse. Among the populist forces who excel in this strategy is Donald Trump, and recently he seems to have met his European equal: The Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini.

He is man of the people, just like any other Italian. That is how Matteo Salvini has and continues to portray himself through social media. Yet, he is far from a regular man. In June 2018 this right wing politician was sworn in as the Italian Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Interior. Together with the party leader of the Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Salvini is currently the co-leader of an anti-establishment governmental coalition that advocates closed borders and restrictive decrees on immigration.

Among his political strategies, Salvini has been a diligent user of social media and frequently posts about his everyday life, mixed with political slogans. In fact, Salvini is famous for creating and spreading new hashtags such as #closetheborders, that seems to hit all the right buttons of an increasingly fearful society.

But behind every single of his seemingly arbitrary social media appearances lies a thorough analysis by his personal social media team. Most famous is Luca Morisi, the developer of a software commonly referred to as “the beast”, due to its potent and ferocious ability to analyze the political direction of comments and reactions to Salvini’s social media posts tracelessly and in real-time. Moreover, it suggests which upcoming themes to exploit in his future posts.

His latest social media trick is the so-called “Vinci Salvini”, a social media game consisting in liking as many of Salvini’s posts as fast as possible on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter during a limited period of time. Every week, the winners will have their personal pictures displayed on all of Salvini’s social channels and the top four candidates are promised a coffee with the Deputy Prime Minister himself.

In the promotional video, Salvini sarcastically points out an alleged bias working in his disfavor in the mass medias. Indeed, his statement is consistent with the findings of Engesser, et al., who conducted a study on the use of what is called the “hybrid communication strategy” among populist actors. This strategy features the use of mass medias to distribute official statements, combined with social media to “to circumvent the media institutions and journalistic gatekeepers” in order to achieve a more direct and personal contact with the electors, without needing to adhere to the structures of mass medias.

Indeed, Salvini seems tick all the boxes of what characterizes a right wing populist. So why is he portrayed by international magazines such as Time Magazine as one of Europe’s “most feared men”?

First and foremost, Salvini has managed to develop a reputation of being determined, mainly due to accomplishments within his party Lega Nord. During the era of Umberto Bossi, Lega Nord was mainly a regionalist party with aims of creating an independent state consisting of northern regions of Italy due to the inefficiency and unproductivity of Southern Italy, causing grievances towards the party among southern Italians. Yet, after becoming the party leader, Salvini managed to rebrand the party as “La Lega”, break the no-go zone of southern Italy and united Italy against a foreign common enemy, thereby steering the regionalist party towards nationalism. According to Albertazzi, et al., this course of action is unprecedented among Western regionalist parties.

Following the 2018 elections, Salvini managed to reach a constrained coalition with the Five Star Movement after three months of negotiations due to a lack of a majority coalition. Questions were further raised when a relatively unknown former law professor, Giuseppe Conte, became Prime Minister without the consensus of the people and Salvini acquired the position of Minister of the Interior, thereby granting him control over politics of immigration.

Secondly, Salvini’s recent involvements in legal and political scandals indicate a trend to misuse power and blur the line between lawfulness and illegality to the point where even his co-Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio has raised concerns regarding Salvini’s controversial and never-ending stream of attacks against opponents and institutions. Here follows some of his most critical moments since gaining power:

Sea Watch, one of the NGO’s rescuing migrants at the sea. Photo: Hol And /Wikimedia Commons.

Almost immediately after gaining office, the Minister of the Interior began blocking ships with asylum seekers from disembarking on Italian soil, forcing them to reroute. In August 2018 he refused to let 177 asylum seekers disembark on Italian soil, forcing them to remain on the ship for five days while trying to redistribute the migrants to other European countries. Despite the threat of criminal investigations, the Deputy Prime Minister continues to attempt to pass decrees that will close the Italian border thereby blocking arriving ships. Furthermore, he was recently warned by the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights for violations of human rights.

In January 2019, news covered Salvini’s peculiar use of uniforms when visiting various workplaces and pictures emerged of Salvini dressed as firemen and police officers. When the Deputy Prime Minister entered into parliament wearing a police jacket the legality was unsuccessfully questioned.

In addition, the Government decided to suspend a teacher from the region of Calabria on the 11th of May for 15 days due to her refraining from interfering when her students made comparisons between Mussolini’s fascist laws in 1938 and Salvini’s immigration decrees during history week.

This is not his only attempt to silence his opponents. The minister has on multiple occasions menaced to impose sanctions to get his way. For example, he threatened to withdraw the police protection of the writer Roberto Saviano after he openly criticized the Deputy Prime Minister. Ever since publication of his book, “Gomorra”, which unraveled the criminal network known as the Camorran mafia, Saviano has been forced to live under police protection. Additionally, Salvini has recently engaged in a dispute with Fabio Fazio, the host of the talk show “Che tempo che fa,” where Fazio openly criticized Salvini’s harsh and inhumane migration policies. Only a few weeks thereafter Salvini verbally targeted his ”excessive salary”, as a response to the criticism, three episodes of the Rai talk show were suspiciously cancelled due to “economic cuts”.

Roberto Saviano, the author of ”Gomorra”. Photo: International Journalism Festival/Flickr.

Nevertheless, his misbehavior seems so have gone unnoticed, if not praised among his supporters on social media. Together with his social media team, Salvini has managed to target the public through personal and informal videos explaining his behavior while contorting the facts behind the events.

Yet, the opposition has not remained silent, despite the numerous verbal attacks and heavy threats on Salvini’s unmoderated social media commentary fields. As an example, the hashtag #closetheborders was recently matched by the counter-hashtag #openhumanity and the same phrase has been written in protest on numerous sheets hanging out of the windows of Italian homes. However, many of the banners have been forcefully removed by firemen, raising the question whether Italy is rapidly moving towards an increasingly censored and totalitarian society. The outcome of Salvini’s political strategy has so far been successful by his standards, and the question remains whether the countermovement will have any effect on Salvini’s path to become the next Prime Minister of Italy?

Annika Consiglio

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