Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega Nord party (LN) and a rising political figure in Italy, has leveraged Facebook and populism to push Italian public opinion of immigration to the far right. Salvini’s methods and agenda mirror those of other leaders in other Western democracies, namely President Trump in the United States and Marine Le-Pen in France. The rapid rise of these movements is significant to humanitarian efforts and to the international community at large, so understanding how they work, and why they have risen, is imperative. This paper examines Salvini’s three foundational strategies: creating an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy to ‘other’ migrants, blaming immigrants for Italy’s poor economy, and constructing a cult of personality around himself.
Since Italy enacted its first comprehensive immigration legislation in 1998, immigration policy has frequently shifted between left and right, depending on the party in power (Perlmutter). Historically, the LN has been responsible for pushing policy back to the right. It co-wrote the harsh, anti-immigrant Bossi-Fini Law in 2002, which counteracted the left-leaning 1998 Turco-Napolitano legislation, and it took part in passing security packages from 2008-2009 to increase deportation and to toughen immigration into Italy (Perlmutter). The party began to lose influence and popularity when, in 2011, it became entangled in internal conflict and a corruption scandal, leading to a change in leadership and the eventual election of Matteo Salvini as the party head in 2013 (Albertazzi). Since then, Salvini has become a prominent figure in Italian politics, serving as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior from 2018 to 2019, as well as Senator since 2018. During this period, there has been a notable uptick in anti-immigration sentiment among the general population. Up from 18% in 2014, 35% of Italians in 2018 named immigration as one of the two most important issues facing their country, an increase of 17 percentage points. This was considerably higher than the increases of neighboring countries, like France (6 percentage points) or Spain (3 percentage points) (PewResearch). Furthermore, only 12% of Italians in 2018 believed immigrants make their country stronger, while 51% believed they are a burden on the country (PewResearch). Over this same period, Salvini’s LN has become the most popular party in Italy, overtaking the Five Star Movement, another far-right party, in 2018 (Politico). Salvini’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has culminated in the Salvini Decree, which restricts migrants’ access to humanitarian visas, decreases the amount of shelter for asylum seekers, and expands the list of deportable offenses (Sunderland).
Salvini’s populist rhetoric has directly caused this surge in anti-immigrant sentiment. How Salvini has so effectively used Facebook as a vehicle to implement and popularize his three main strategies is the subject of this paper. Each of the next three sections analyze these three strategies with sustained reference to Salvini’s Facebook posts and the effect they have on his audience.
The Development of an ‘Us versus Them’ Dichotomy
Salvini’s first tactic is to build divisions between native Italians and those considered to be ‘outsiders,’ a vague group of criminals and migrants rarely defined precisely by Salvini. He has been, however, clear in defining who constitutes ‘us.’ Although the division between Italians and ‘outsiders’ stands at the forefront, Salvini has defined ‘us’ in such a way that builds further separation into Italian society itself. Salvini prizes a heterosexual, Catholic household in which the father works and the mother takes a domestic role (Khrebtan-Horhager). He has called for crucifixes to be mandated in public spaces, including public schools, and has denounced same-sex marriages (McKenna; Khrebtan-Horhager). Amid this divisiveness, Salvini uses simple phrases like “The Italians First and Foremost” and “Italians First” to unify against the perceived common enemy of Italians, regardless of religion or sexual identity. This creates an implicit hierarchy of privilege. Though Salvini sees a Catholic, heterosexual male as superior, and purer, compared to a non-Catholic, homosexual male, or a Catholic female, all are made to be superior to the ‘criminal’ migrants. Just as Salvini explicitly normalizes his ideal household, he too normalizes the superiority of all Italians through positive phraseology with respect to Italians and negative phraseology with respect to migrants.
Salvini’s rhetoric against migrants falls into two distinct categories: criminalizing those who are attempting to enter Italy and criminalizing those who have made it to Italy and are currently residing there. The former will first be examined, with emphasis on Salvini’s interaction with NGO rescue ships. These NGO rescue ships are to Salvini what the U.S.-Mexico border wall is to President Trump. Salvini notoriously blocks ships filled with asylum seekers from docking in Italian ports to score political points (Horowitz). On Facebook, Salvini often refers to these rescue ships as “accomplices of human trafficking.” For example, in one post in 2018, he writes, “with FACTS, human trafficking business can be stopped.” Salvini’s frame of the transportation of migrants as “human trafficking,” immediately connotes illegality rather than humanitarianism. Although Salvini is targeting mainly the NGO ships that transport the migrants, he notes the complicity of the migrants, suggesting that this practice is a “business.” This implies to the reader that the NGOs are profiting off the migrants and the migrants are willingly participating in this illegal activity, invoking dislike for both parties.
Still, in other posts Salvini removes this type of agency from the migrants and instead associates them with illegal activity. In another post from 2018, he states, “I will bring to the Italian request . . . to BLOCK the arrival in Italian ports of the ships of international missions.” He goes on to say that the NGO ships, “download immigrants in Italy.” In this instance, Salvini frames the event as an “international mission,” quite literally dividing Italy from the international community. This is the most explicit example of the ‘us versus them’ narrative, as Salvini makes it seem as though the international community is plotting against Italy with “missions” to send migrants. This also has the effect of dehumanizing the migrants, turning them into objects that are simply used for such “missions.” Salvini continues with the negative phraseology in claiming the ships “download” migrants into Italy. This rhetorical device is similar to characterizing immigration as a “flood” or “surge.” It connotes a perpetual arrival of migrants into Italy, which ignores the individual identities of migrants and groups them into a mass of unnamed people, making it easy to label the entirety of this mass negatively. Salvini’s crusade against NGO rescue ships, principally done through these types of social media announcements, has greatly helped his party’s polling, which jumped from 18% to 30% following Salvini’s rejection of a refugee ship carrying 600 Africans (Stille). Salvini’s announcement of this rejection on Facebook gained 54,000 likes, far more than his average post.
Just as Salvini groups those attempting to migrate into Italy and frames them as criminals, he does the same for those who are living in Italy that are considered to be ‘illegal.’ Although this group of people is currently residing in Italy, Khrebtan-Horhager notes: “Salvini’s language about immigrant Others . . . create[s] a world of difference between Italian citizens and those who move on Italy’s margins” (Khrebtan-Horhager). Just because the migrants have successfully completed their journey to Italy does not necessarily signify they are free from the racialized othering and being sorted into the category of ‘them.’ Salvini orchestrates this type of targeting mainly through posts showing migrants committing crimes and by threatening deportation, both of which are rather simple attention grabbers for the general reader. By constantly posting crimes committed by immigrants and ignoring the crimes committed by native Italians, Salvini makes it seem as though the vast majority of crimes are committed by immigrants, when in reality the crime rate for non-Italians is lower than the rate for Italians (Di Carlo, Schulte-Cloos, Saudelli). Empirical evidence has shown this tactic to be successful, as a recent (2019) poll done by Eurispes found that 11.4% of Italians believe the main cause of spreading crime is the ‘excessive presence of immigrants.’ Though 11.4% may seem like a low number, it is the third highest believed cause and is only 6 percentage points away from being the highest believed cause.
Salvini’s posts highlighting criminal activity tend to follow the same format, with a linked article captioned by a short, attention grabbing comment from Salvini. A post from January of 2019 exemplifies this structure, as Salvini shares an article titled “Migrant steals and crushes agents” with his comment “Zero tolerance for illegal immigrants and criminals.” This type of post strategically uses the title of the article, which states generally the crime and makes it clear it was committed by a migrant, to convey the anti-immigrant message itself. It is effective for Salvini because the reader can instantly connect the two key concepts being shown to them: migrants and crime. This becomes more dangerous with the inclusion of Salvini’s caption, which often uses the one particular instance to generalize all migrants as criminals. In one sentence, Salvini reaffirms the connection between “immigrants” and “criminals.” Instead of condemning this act in particular, he condemns “illegal immigrants” as a group, insinuating that all immigrants are criminals just as this particular individual is. Even when Salvini is not attempting to equate one criminal act with the population of immigrants, his perpetual, cherry picked data work to confirm the biases of his readers post by post. Even when the post is denouncing only one immigrant for a particular crime, the repetition with which he posts similar stories has the same effect as equating one criminal migrant with every immigrant: the reader begins to believe there is a connection between the variables. A 2015 post follows this method, and states: “Yet another rape, this time near Cuneo, where a 50-year-old woman was beaten, and then raped, by a foreigner . . . How many more rapes will it take for Renzi (then Prime Minister) to move???” Salvini makes sure to go into graphic detail to provoke his reader. Though this post may be less reliable because it does not include the article title acting as a form of proof, the description of the event serves the same purpose as the title of the articles had: draw attention to two simple themes. Salvini also makes it obvious that this was not a onetime occurrence, using quantity to his advantage. He uses phrases like “yet another,” “this time,” and “how many more” to remind the reader of the perceived commonality of this type of occurrence. These crimes committed by migrants certainly do seem common when scrolling through Salvini’s Facebook, but the data does not confirm this assumption.
Professor Giuliano Bobba conducted a quantitative study of Salvini’s Facebook posts. He analyzed if the type of post impacted the amount of likes it received. He found that only one type of post, and one type of populism, consistently resulted in a higher number of likes: excluding populism. This type of post includes negative messages regarding immigrants and minorities, linking them to crime and the degradation of society (Bobba 19). Salvini’s audience consistently views these posts more favorably, perhaps suggesting a higher sense of sympathy and overall agreement. This evidence shows that the ‘othering’ of migrants is a crucial reason for the increase in anti-immigrant thought across Italy.
Poor Economic Conditions as the Fault of Migrants
In the period between 2008-2017 and even into 2020, Italy has been afflicted by stagnating GDP growth, a rising national debt, and a soaring unemployment rate (Bull 14-16). Italy’s growth rate is one of the worst in the Eurozone, better than only Greece and Finland between 2013-2016 and is projected to be the worst among the 19 Eurozone countries in 2020 (Bull 15; Statista). As of 2019, Italy’s national debt has reached 137.3% of its GDP, second highest among Eurozone countries, and far above the 86.1% average (Statista). Unemployment consistently rose between 2011-2014, peaking at 12.7% in 2014 (Statista). In 2019, the unemployment rate sits at 9.9%, still higher than the Eurozone average of 7.6% (Statista).
For each of these problems, Matteo Salvini blames a different group of ‘others’ and allows native Italians to go unblamed. To explain stagnating GDP growth, Salvini points to banks “that would withdraw resources from savers without putting them in the production circuit” (Perri 244). For the rising national debt, Salvini criticizes Europe and the euro for starting the economic crisis (Perri 244). And finally, to defend the high levels of unemployment, Salvini condemns migrants, using the common trope that migrants steal jobs (Perri 244). Only the last of these is within the scope of this paper. Additionally, though not a direct indicator of poor economic performance like unemployment, Salvini focuses on government spending. Similar to his assertion that migrants steal jobs, Salvini claims that migrants are stealing government funding from native citizens.
Salvini’s posts disparaging migrants for the poor unemployment numbers play directly into the economic sentiment in Italy. As of 2018, only 15% of Italians believe the economic situation in their country is good, down from 22% in 2009 (PewResearch). Almost every neighboring country has seen an increase in positive economic sentiment between 2009 and 2018; France has seen a 29 percentage point change and Spain has seen a 17 percentage point change (PewResearch). Clearly, according to Italians, the economy is getting worse and blame must be placed somewhere. Salvini’s Facebook posts, which associate immigrants with unemployment, work to provide the culprit onto which Italians can latch their frustration. Unemployment is the most recognizable and obvious economic indicator to the average citizen; people quickly recognize they are living in a poor economy when they lose their job. Because of this simplicity, Salvini does not waste time explaining the problem to his audience, but instead places blame. He often rejects the notion that migrants take the jobs Italians do not want. For example, in 2014, when unemployment peaked, he posted: “Today a left-wing “teacher” claimed ‘luckily there are so many immigrants, who do the humble jobs that Italians don’t want to do’. Enough with this SHIT.” This suggestion is echoed in another post in 2014: “Do we bet that there are dozens of people on this page who would do ANY job as long as they are properly paid.” Both of these posts assume that migrants have good paying jobs that they have taken from Italian citizens. This assumption hides reality and instead reinforces his followers’ belief that they are unemployed because of an immigrant who stole their job. In reality, in 2015, the average wage in Italy was €29,634 (statista), far more than the average wage for a foreign born resident, at €13,180 (voanews), suggesting that immigrants take lower paying jobs than their native-born counterparts.
Salvini pairs his rhetoric about immigrants stealing jobs with a similar idea: immigrants stealing governmental economic support from native Italians, making the economic conditions of native citizens even worse. The effect of such a message is twofold: it creates disdain for the immigrants, who are perceived to be ‘stealing’ funding, and it builds distrust and resentment toward the ruling government, who are seen to choose immigrants over their citizens. An example of such a post comes from April 2015: “While in Sicily the highways close, viaducts collapse, and youth unemployment exceeds 50%, tonight another 1,200 immigrants will land in Palermo, which will be welcomed and maintained . . . In Italy, only immigrants can find the treasure.” Salvini highlights the poor conditions in Sicily, describing in detail the eye-opening issues that plague the region. Notably, he does not do the same for the conditions the migrants are escaping. By emphasizing the poor conditions experienced by native Italians and ignoring the conditions in Northern Africa the migrants had left, Salvini makes it seem as though the Italian government is ignoring the deserving citizen in favor of the undeserving migrant. While this generates anger toward the government’s priorities, it also places the migrants in an unfavorable light. Because Salvini compared these two aspects that both rely on government assistance, roads and unemployment for the Italians, and resettlement for the migrants, it seems to the reader that these two things are mutually exclusive: because the government chose to spend on immigrant resettlement, it cannot spend on the problems plaguing Sicily. Thus, this irresponsible frame sets the blame toward the immigrant, who is stealing the funding that can perceivably only go toward one or the other. That frame is put quite clearly at the end of the post, when Salvini states: “only immigrants can find the treasure.” This framing makes the idea of both Italian citizens and immigrants thriving economically impossible; it’s one or the other, according to Salvini.
Salvini’s idea that immigrants are stealing government support is largely done through his posts about the Mineo Immigration Center in Italy, Europe’s largest migrant center, which provides housing for migrants but was permanently closed in 2019 because of Salvini (Petroni). Before its closing, Salvini often posted pictures of the center and reminded the reader of its cost. The center is broken up into separate apartment buildings, all of which are clean and look rather expensive from the exterior. A post from 2017 capitalizes on the center’s expensive looking residences, as Salvini posts: “Mineo immigrant center, 5 parables (TV satellite dish) for one cottage . . . But what will they watch???” In this post, the image itself is more powerful than the text. The image shows 5 separate satellite dishes attached to one cottage. The image is clearly meant to provoke the reader and spark anger toward the perceived greed of the immigrants. In other posts about the center, Salvini notes that these cottages, or the funding put into the cottages, could be used for Italians struggling under the economy. This is evident in a post from 2016, as Salvini says: “Houses with parable (TV dish), garden, and air conditioning. Houses that many Italians could use!” This post almost implies that the immigrants are undeserving of such amenities and it would be better suited instead to give these houses to Italians. This implication lifts Italians above the immigrants, perhaps making the reader feel that they deserve more economically from the government than what they are receiving, especially when compared to these benefits afforded to the immigrants.
This type of propaganda and association of immigrants with economic failures and government spending has very real implications upon the audience. Professors Cochrane and Nevitte at the University of Toronto show that generally, an increase in anti-immigration sentiment can come from unemployment increases (Cochrane, Nevitte). This, however, is only true with the presence of a far-right political party, which theoretically utilizes the unemployment to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment (Cochrane, Nevitte). The study also notes that before far right parties rose in countries, there was no link between unemployment and anti-immigration. Though this relationship between unemployment and anti-immigrant sentiment may simply be correlative, it is worth considering in the context of Salvini and Italy. Both unemployment and anti-immigrant sentiment have increased throughout the past decade but have peaked at different times. While unemployment peaked in 2014, anti-immigrant sentiment continues to reach new highs. But in 2019, the Italian unemployment rate was still higher than the average of Eurozone countries, perhaps giving way to continued anti-immigrant thought. Regardless, it is true that many of Salvini’s Facebook posts include the main themes of immigrants and unemployment, along with a focus on government spending. The results of this study may suggest why Salvini posts in this way and why the blame placed on immigrants for economic conditions is a key reason for the anti-immigrant rise.
Matteo Salvini’s Construction of a Cult of Personality
Matteo Salvini has worked to frame himself as a relatable political figure that only wants the best for Italy. He has been able to do this by breaking down complex issues into simple, easy to understand points. On Facebook, he rarely offers policy recommendations, but instead promotes straightforward views: immigrants harm the country, the failing economy is the fault of Europe and immigrants. These common points, while easy for the reader to comprehend, offer no real policy solution. As Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, points out: “Stranding people at sea isn’t a policy, it’s media” (Donadio). However, this rhetoric Salvini uses is believable because of his relatable figure. By fighting against entities perceived to be harmful to Italy, whether it be immigrants or the EU, Salvini comes off as a “man of the people,” according to Perri. Additionally, because he does not place blame on Italian citizens for any of the problems plaguing Italy, choosing instead to victimize them, he gains popularity. These tactics, combined with Facebook posts that show Salvini playing with cats, eating his favorite food, or relaxing on the beach, have turned him into an icon in Italy.
Salvini’s celebrity status is especially concerning for immigrants within Italy and for potential immigrants outside of Italy as his popularity has normalized radical right-wing ideas. Pledging to deport 400,000 migrants back to their country of origin is a radical idea, but it has been normalized as the jump in support for the Lega Nord shows. Mass deportation and closed borders are now becoming the norm among Italian citizens as Salvini mixes anti-immigrant posts alongside posts about his personal life. For example, a post in July of 2017 depicts Salvini standing shirtless on a beach next to two local policemen. His shirtless appearance breaks the political norm of formality, allowing him to separate himself from more professional, and thus less relatable, politicians. Although this is a relatively personal picture of him enjoying time on the beach, it is still littered with anti-immigrant sentiment. The hashtag ‘#stopinvasione’ is included at the end of the post after he mentions the particular beach he is on is free from disturbance because of the local police. Noting this and including the hashtag at the end of the post makes it seem as if immigrants, and only immigrants, were causing these disturbances. Salvini’s timeline is also filled with selfies taken with fans, showing his popularity and approachability. It is clear Salvini targets likeability, as seen from a post in July of 2019, in which he announces he is visiting an animal shelter to support prevention of animal abuse: “Protecting our four-legged friends is not a right but a duty.” This post gains Salvini popularity on one hand and normalizes his policies and positions on the other. It is easy to see how this type of post can increase popularity: virtually everyone can agree with the need to protect animals. This policy proposal is rather financially moderate, setting aside €1 million, but conveys the message that Salvini is a caring individual with high morals. Because this policy is so moderate financially and seems to benefit all parties involved, it helps to normalize the rest of his policies. His proposals to deport almost half a million immigrants and block Italian seaports no longer seem so radical because it appears to the reader that Salvini is well grounded morally and may now trust his decision making to a higher degree.
Just as Salvini builds himself up to be relatable and trustworthy, he also calls out rival politicians and the bureaucracy as a whole, making himself seem like a revolutionary politician who wants to fundamentally uproot the status quo. This strategy works to discredit his political opponents and show their ideas to be harmful to the Italian people. Through his anti-establishment and pro-Italy stance, Salvini furthers the frame that he cares only about the Italian people, an easy populist message to embrace among those disillusioned by their government. On Facebook, Salvini often uses phrases like “The bureaucracy must be brought down.” Many of Salvini’s posts regarding the bureaucracy are formulated in this way. He leaves out specific policy recommendations, choosing instead to use vague, attention grabbing phrases. He forcefully calls out political parties that are failing the country, posting statements like: “After years of PD (ruling party in 2018) disasters today we find ourselves with the explosion of public debt and poverty. Time to change the course,” and “Abusive ministers who hate Italians.” Just as his shirtless pictures on the beach accomplished, these statements break political norms of formality and respect, which help make Salvini seem brutally honest and authentic, the same tactic used by President Trump in the 2016 election (Hahl, Kim, Sivan). In addition to calling attention to his rival’s political failings, he succeeds in making his opponents seem unreasonable and foolish. This was done in a post in September of 2019, as Salvini notes that his opponents call him “Nazi”, he then goes on to say: “How do I respond? With the words of Saint Matthew: love your enemies, do good to those you hate.” In this extremely limited context, Salvini is portrayed as the reasonable politician who respects his opponents despite their attempts to slander him.
Although these posts lack substantive data to prove his claims, they appear to be effective. As of July of 2018, Salvini was the most trusted minister in the Italian government, with 52% public trust (statista). Trust in a politician is significant because it indicates support for their policies In Salvini’s case, this trust translates to support regarding his immigration stances. That key reason is why his construction of this cult of personality is significant in increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. Italian citizens clearly trust him more than other Italian politician and that is in no small part because of the character traits he gives off and the perceived truths he tells about other prominent politicians. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset theorizes that if a population does not feel that its interests are being met by its government, a “lying demagogue” can take the role of a “authentic champion” of the people’s interest. This may also happen if the government seems to be favoring the wellbeing of one social group over another (Lipset). Both of these causes are championed by Salvini in his Facebook posts, mainly through rhetoric that immigrants are receiving more attention from the government than native citizens. His backlash against this practice, then, is perceived by his audience as a brave action in speaking the truth (Hahl, Kim, Sivan). Lipset’s conditions, principally the second, may serve as an explanation as to why Salvini’s populist cult has been so successful, as seen from his public trust, and why this cult is helpful to Salvini in furthering anti-immigrant thought.
The rate at which Matteo Salvini and the Lega Nord have been able to rise to prominence in Italy is significant to humanitarian efforts and to the international community at large. Salvini has used social media to his advantage, posting clear, easy to understand content that demonizes migrants and celebrates himself. His social media usage has revolved around the three core messages examined throughout this paper: the creation of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy, the blame placed on migrants for Italy’s poor economy, and the creation of a cult of personality. These methods have led to a noticeable increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and racial violence in Italy. While this specific trend is alarming itself, it is not unique. The past decade has seen a rise of far-right, anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe, notably Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party in Hungary, Marine Le Pen and the National Rally party in France, and Nobert Hofer and the Freedom Party in Austria, among others. The rhetoric of such parties mirror that of Salvini almost exactly, emphasizing national identity and a duty to protect its native citizens from outside harm. As I have focused on in this paper, social media has been a driving factor for the rise of these populist parties. Social media produces a veil of legitimacy for these parties, while acting as a daring alternative to the traditional news media (Khosravinik 63). In this way, populist parties are free to distribute anti-establishment rhetoric that appeals to individuals who feel ignored by the ‘system.’ This paper show how dangerous social media can become toward migrants when used in ways that constantly target the group as a whole. Considering this, the spread of social media populism, dubbed as techno-populism by some, is concerning for the well-being of migrants. The international community cannot necessarily prevent countries from this rightward shift, but it has a responsibility to the displaced migrants that will surely be created. From Salvini’s actions in blocking rescue ships alone, the United Nations’ refugee agency had to call upon European countries to intervene and to take in the migrants (Balmer). If countries continue to embrace this anti-immigrant ideology, it will become more and more difficult to find suitable countries for refugees coming across the Mediterranean Sea from Northern Africa. When populism associates itself with social media, the results build division and anger toward outsiders. My study has shown the results of a populist-social media mix and its impacts on immigrants, which should serve as a warning for the international community as far-right populism continues to spread across Europe.
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