A new report by the Rome Business School
In this brand new study, our colleagues at the Rome Business School explore the intriguing topic of political marketing as practised through social media. Though the focus is on Italy and the recent elections there, the topic and lessons resonate far more broadly.
Political marketing is a fundamental part of political life, allowing political actors to convey their messages very quickly and to adapt them to different contexts. As the study has found, out of a total world population of 8 billion, 5.44 billion people use cell phones, accounting for 68 percent of the world’s population. In fact, 64.4 percent of the world’s population is now online and, among them, there are 4.76 billion social users, accounting for just under 60 percent of the world’s population. The global total number of users has increased by nearly 30 percent since the beginning of the pandemic: more than 1 billion new users in the last 3 years.
According to Prof. Valerio Mancini, one of the key investigators in this research, social media allow “politicians to speak directly to voters, bypassing professional mediators, blurring the distinction between the public and private spheres, increasing polarisation, with a progressive political transformation in a majoritarian sense witnessed by the crisis of parliamentary systems and their ‘majoring.’”
Political communication is no longer simply about territorial and image-based electoral strategy, but is increasingly embracing digital media and, in particular, social media, both of which have become key in electoral campaigning.
According to Alessio Postiglione, who co-led the research, “The success of social media is closely linked to the personalization of politics, with charismatic and divisive leaders, capable of igniting passions, mobilizing the vote, which is no longer directed toward parties; mobile and liquid voting, which voters increasingly express under the effect of emotional marketing.” Moreover, Postiglione notes, “The vote thus becomes contestable at every election, and the more leaders ignite passions, the shorter their parabola seem to be.”
As regards the Italian political landscape and the influence of social media on elections there, the study has focused on the social media performance of Giorgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi (the right coalition that ultimately won the election) and Guiseppe Conte (M5s) and Enrico Letta (Pd) who came in opposition. The main social platforms were considered: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.
The analysis discovered that, from a quantitative point of view, leaders performed better than parties in terms of followers, with a small number of politicians competing on social media and with better results showing from divisive leaders who follow the friend-enemy logic. Social media, it seems, rewards polemics. Matteo Salvini is the Italian politician with the highest number of followers totaling, on the four social platforms, a total following of 9.4 million, followed by Giuseppe Conte who touches 7 million 83 thousand followers and Giorgia Meloni in third place with 7 million.
The poor performance on social media of Letta and the Pd does not reflect an equal low electoral response in the country, demonstrating that, as Postiglione puts it, “Believing that social dynamics do not influence real politics is certainly wrong but equally believing that social media is a faithful mirror is a perceptual distortion”. In fact, from the qualitative analysis carried out, which measures the engagement of social profiles, different indications are obtained. Among them, for example, the low engagement of the strongest social profile of all (Salvini’s) would reflect the negative performance of the last elections.
It remains difficult to compare Letta’s profile with the other leaders because the Pd relies more on party-centered communication than leader-centered communication, partly due to the fact that the Nazareno secretaries last less than the competing parties and, in the present case, it is already known that Letta will leave his post to the winner of the next primaries. As a result, Letta has far fewer followers than the other leaders surveyed (just 100,623) but has a good engagement rate, particularly on Instagram (2.20 percent). In short, Letta pursues a different strategy: few but good. Surely, however, elections are won with votes, and reaching few voters albeit who have a high level of engagement risks electoral defeat.
Letta’s strategy is different to Conte’s. The analysis done on Conte’s TikTok profile notes an engagement index of 14.35 percent, outperforming Salvini (4.50 percent), Meloni (4.13 percent) and Berlusconi (3.80 percent). This figure shows how the M5s staff is focusing on the electoral social of the future. Because it is clear that, although the very young, who are the most active group on this platform (13/16 years old), cannot vote now, in a few years, they can become an electorate at the disposal of the Pentastate leader.
Considering another platform, Instagram, both Conte (95 percent) and Meloni (90 percent) have Instagram profiles populated by real users, while the Carroccio leader has only 47 percent of plausibly real profiles (Phlanx data). The telltale sign that his profile growth may have been doped by trolls or fake followers to inflate vanity metrics that, precisely, in elections, risk remaining only vanity.
It’s also worth noting that some of the followers of Italian politicians are actually not Italian. Among Salvini’s followers we find Bulgarians (4.3 percent) and Romanians (4.3 percent), Chinese followers for Meloni, and Jamaican (10.7 percent) for Conte. Although it might be tempting to say that these politicians have an international appeal, this is most probably indicative of fake profiles.
This research was conducted by Rome Business School and led by Prof. Valerio Mancini, Director of the Rome Business School Research Center and Alessio Postiglione, Program Director of Rome Business School’s International Online Master in Communication Management. The report was published on 14 February 2023.
You can find out more about the report and the work conducted at the Rome Business School research centre here.