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Like Trump, Italian populist parties leverage social media

By Colleen Barry, Associated Press  |  Posted May 25th, 2018 @ 3:47pm


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MILAN (AP) — The populist parties in line to form Italy's next government are taking a page from Donald Trump's playbook: Go straight to voters and influencers with your message through social media engagement.

But while Trump is known for late-night tweet storms, 5-Stars Movement leader Luigi Di Maio and League head Matteo Salvini adopted a wider social media approach. They use Facebook, often with creative live videos, for the broad reach to their voter bases and rely on Twitter for rapid-fire back-and-forth with the influencers.

"It was an exact replica of Trump's campaign," said Carlo Carnevale Maffe, a professor of management strategy at Milan's Bocconi University. "Steve Bannon was basically endorsing that kind of logic."

Their engagement allowed the leaders to target their messages with surgical precision during the election campaign and now as they form what would be Italy's first populist government, said Marco Camisani Calzolari, a communications professor at European University of Rome who is publishing an e-book "The Fake News Bible" next month.

"They don't actually bypass the media," Camisani Calzolari said. "They target people through social media using the current best practices."

He said that includes the use of bots to automate comments or reactions that set the tone for the kind of conversation they want to ignite. He said research shows it as an effective technique for spreading a message, with positive comments drawing more positive and negative more negative.

"You don't have to create fake news. You just have to target some people who are sensitive to some specific area. So, say they are against migration, you don't have to create fake news about immigration. It is enough to target all the bad news about immigration to the people who are already sensitive to the issue," Calzolari said.

During a recent regional election campaign, for instance, Salvini broadcast live from outside a migrant center, telling viewers that the 600 migrants housed there were freely circulating in public as he speculating some might be stealing. The anti-migrant League scored a huge win in the previously left-leaning Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.

Yet, the populists' pick to be Italy's premier, Giuseppe Conte, is an unknown lawyer made even lesser-known by his lack of social media presence. He is just starting to catch up, joining Facebook, Twitter and Instagram this week.

Maffe said Conte showed none of Salvini's nor Di Maio's social media ease in making stiff debut posts. The non-politician who is vowing to be a political leader risks being overshadowed in the social media sweepstakes. That could especially be true if Conte, a mediation specialist, finds himself in the position of mediating between the two governing parties.

The 5-Stars Movement has another weapon in its arsenal — a blog started by its founder, comic Beppe Grillo. It is one of the most read in Italy and can be credited with giving birth to the political movement.

The anti-establishment movement, however, is running into trouble with the new European privacy laws taking effect Friday over its Rousseau online voting system that it uses to create consensus, most recently asking members to approve the program for forming the new government with the League.

Citing a lack of security for users' data, Italy's privacy guarantor fined 5-Stars over 32,000 euros earlier this month and set a June 30 deadline to open its servers to show they are properly protecting users data.

"They want to be in power, and they cannot even guarantee protection of user data," Maffe said.

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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