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Matteo Salvini Likes Nutella and Kittens. It’s All Part of a Social Media Strategy.

ROME — Matteo Salvini likes spreading Nutella on his morning bread. He winds down with a bowl of Barilla pasta and a glass of Barolo wine. He heeds the words of wisdom inside the wrappers of Perugina Bacio chocolates. He drinks Moretti beer.

Italy knows these things because Mr. Salvini, the country’s hard-line interior minister, deputy prime minister and leader of the anti-migrant League party, shares them on his many social media feeds. Just about every day.

But Mr. Salvini’s social media feeds are not really about product placement, or the musings of a proud culinary nationalist. Rather, say those who have worked closely with him, they are part of a carefully studied and remarkably successful strategy to sell his common-man brand in an anti-elite era.

A year after Mr. Salvini stormed Italian politics from the far right, his rise as Italy’s most powerful politician — far-eclipsing the influence of a prime minister many consider a puppet — has become a parable of the modern social media age. He is the study of a politician, much like President Trump, whose methods have shattered political norms, nearly all Italian politicians agree, whether they agree with his politics or not.

Mr. Salvini expertly wields his wildly popular Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts for political attacks. He uses them to demonize opponents, stoke fears about marauding migrants and accuse bureaucrats in Brussels of every manner of sin. He appears on live-streamed videos and political stops wearing enough macho-macho man uniforms to make the Village People blush.

But just as critical for Mr. Salvini’s success is maintaining an aura of authenticity, the political gold of this populist age. As part of that approach, he has hinted at a softer, more human side with pizza, pasta, kittens and a just-dumped relationship status. The result is a checkout line relatability (“Populists: They’re Just Like Us!”).

It is an image that Mr. Salvini has sculpted over time — and one that has helped propel him from the political fringe to the center stage of Italian politics.

Flavio Tosi, a former rival of Mr. Salvini who lost a power struggle to lead the League, said that Mr. Salvini had argued as early as 2013 in private party leadership meetings that the key to national growth was attacking Europe and immigrants and investing in social media.

“Salvini invested a huge amount of money in social media — hundreds of thousands of euros,” said Mr. Tosi, who has since been kicked out of the League.

In early 2014, Mr. Salvini, then the freshly anointed leader of a marginal party polling around 3 percent, entrusted his social media strategy to Luca Morisi, a software developer who focused on Mr. Salvini — rather than a party-centered strategy — to forge a direct link with supporters.

He favored frequent and varied posts to keep their attention. His social media operation and software, dubbed “The Beast,” has evolved into a thing of lore, with some Italian reports claiming it is designed to sense the mood of the Italian electorate, allowing Mr. Salvini to add sugar (see Nutella) or spice (“Italian ports are CLOSED”) when needed.

Mr. Morisi also created contests in which supporters who liked Mr. Salvini’s posts the most and the fastest were rewarded by appearing in a Salvini post.

Mr. Tosi said that Mr. Salvini also bought Facebook Likes early on. Mr. Morisi called that ridiculous and denied that “a euro” had ever been spent to purchase followers.

What is clear is that Mr. Salvini’s electoral support has more than doubled in less than a year. He has 3.3 million Facebook followers, more than a million followers on Instagram, and 943,000 Twitter followers. His rate of engagement on Facebook, though it has dipped recently, is often greater than President Trump’s.

“He gives the impression of being a man of the people,” said Vincenzo Cosenza, an expert on social media.

He noted that Mr. Salvini focused on building an emotional link with supporters and that his videos purposefully seemed unprofessional. His message, polarizing as it is, is often packaged as common sense solutions.

“He says, ‘There’s an enemy that we can blame. I’m one of you, but I can resolve the problem,’ ” Mr. Cosenza said.

Mr. Salvini’s method of mixing incendiary rhetoric with cheeriness, often in the same posts, has often vexed opponents — but their outrage has generally focused even more attention on Mr. Salvini.

Last week, his opponents attacked one of his Nutella posts, made on a day when an earthquake in Sicily endangered lives. (“My St. Steven’s Day begins with bread and Nutella” Mr. Salvini wrote with a “tastes delicious” emoticon. “Yours???”)

Opponents called the post insensitive and unbecoming of a top official at a moment of national emergency. The news media piled on. But Mr. Salvini was not about to jettison his winning algorithm just because his critics accused him of abandoning ministerial decorum. He knows which side of his bread the Nutella is spread on.

“I confess this, my enormous error and flaw,” Mr. Salvini responded in a Facebook Live video. “I like Nutella.”

Indeed, a glance at Mr. Salvini’s social media is all it takes to see that the criticism has not hurt his appetite.

On Dec. 1, he wrote “who doesn’t like a crepe with Nutella” alongside a selfie depicting him liking a crepe with Nutella.

On Dec. 4, he showed his solidarity with discount shoppers by posting an unappetizing plate of pasta, writing “200 grams of bucatini Barilla, a little Star ragu sauce and a glass of Barolo by Gianni Gagliardo. So much for the belly.”

The next day was filled with sweets. “The day begins with a beautiful Bacio Perugina,” he said on Instagram, with a picture of the aphorism in the chocolate wrapper: “Friendship brings great happiness with little gestures.”

(Ferrero, which owns Nutella, declined to comment, as did Nestlé, which owns Perugina. A Barilla official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on an internal matter, said the Barilla-promoting posts had prompted consternation within the company because of Mr. Salvini’s polarizing politics.)

But, like the Nora Ephron of far-right European politics, for Mr. Salvini everything is copy for his social media game. There are his vacations, in which he appears bare chested on the beach, riding a police Jet Ski, or DJing with a caipirinha in hand.

Critics have noted that Mussolini, whom Mr. Salvini has purposefully echoed to both delight his nationalist supporters and goad liberals, often went shirtless early in his reign. But if Mussolini was the barrel-chested superman, Mr. Salvini appears to relish his role as the flabby schlub.

During this year’s campaign, Elisa Isoardi, a successful and glamorous television personality and Mr. Salvini’s girlfriend at the time, posted pictures on Instagram of her ironing his dress shirts.

It enforced the traditionalist credibility of Mr. Salvini, who has two children by two different women, neither of them Ms. Isoardi. It drove his critics nuts — and it drove traffic.

And when Ms. Isoardi announced their breakup in November, she did so with an Instagram post, in which he is bare chested in bed and nuzzling her neck.

“With immense respect for the true love that was,” she wrote. “Thank you Matteo.”

When Mr. Salvini keeps his shirt on, he makes sure the shirt says something. As a separatist advocating the creation of the northern nation of Padania, he wore T-shirts that said, “Padania is not Italy.”

But since coming to power and making law and order his battle cry, Mr. Salvini has made it clear that he believes that clothes make the strongman.

He once spoke to reporters while wearing a Coast Guard shirt with stars on the collar. He attended church in the uniform of a firefighter. He often wears the jacket of the state police, and has donned the hard hat of a construction worker.

Last week, as the controversy over his Nutella post died down, Mr. Salvini posted a picture taken in Catania, Sicily, where he wore a local firefighter jacket and held a deep-fried rice ball, the local delicacy.

“I couldn’t leave splendid Catania, after the meeting on earthquake in the Prefecture and an hour of walking around the center among the people, without tasting an arancino al ragu!” he wrote, with a crying-from-laughing emoticon. “What do you say, will the Democratic Party attack me??”

Source: NYT > World

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