On April 26, 2020, Antonio Decaro, the mayor of the southern Italian coastal city, Bari, walked at a steady pace along the seafront. The mask covering his face muffled his words.
“How should I explain this to you? We have to go home!” Decaro said, swinging his arms about.
“You cannot sit here, I am sorry, go home!” he said a few seconds later to a couple that sat staring at the sea. Decaro shrugged his shoulders, disappointed? A faraway voice shouted:
“Can we go hunt octopus next week?”
“I don’t know if you will be able to hunt octopus. A tsunami is coming! A typhoon is coming!” Decaro answered.
The next man on the path exclaimed: “We’ll make it, Antò!”
“Yes, we’ll make it if we stay home. If we do not stay home, we certainly won’t make it. We’ll all die.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging Italy under lockdown, and his beach stroll, along with other videos that showed Decaro’s concern for the wellbeing of his citizens, went viral. They inspired a wave of other Italian mayors to scream at uncomplying citizens, and all of a sudden, Decaro wasn’t just a politician; he was, according to an Instagram post by Naomi Campbell, the representation of “creativity, courage, passion, and compassion” of Italians.
A democrat, a technician, a man famous for his self-deprecating humor, Decaro walked around town, risking his own health to tell his people to go home. But he also made sure to share his efforts live on Facebook. He used what is generally labeled as “populist tools” such as the extensive use of social media, to become, the star of the web.
The Italian far-right Lega leader, Matteo Salvini bulimically uses social media to assert his views and presence, alongside other European populist parties like Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Spain’s Vox.
Can politicians use social media to enhance their image without succumbing to populism? Would it be strange if they used the same populist tactics? Would they compromise their values? As the pandemic unsettles governments, leaving fertile ground for strongmen, could the way Decaro used social media for visibility be an answer to these questions?
“Somebody works a lot, and for a video telling people to go home, he becomes famous. This is the strange thing about communication in this period,” Decaro said.
Roberta Bracciale, Professor of Media Sociology at the University of Pisa, said that in the age of hyper popularization caused by social media, the politician’s image has become more critical than ever. “There are three key concepts to popularization: professionalization, intimization, and emotionalization,” Bracciale said. These are the pillars for the success of what academics call Lifestyle Politics: I am good at doing something, I need to create intimacy, and I need to share my emotions.
According to Bracciale, populists invented Lifestyle Politics, but what differentiates them from other politicians is the ideological elements embedded in their communications: they call for the sovereignty of the people; they attack the elite of which they are also a part; they label the “Others” (usually foreigners) as dangerous, and blames them for the problems of their country.
Aware of the importance of public image, maintaining appearances, and of the power of social media, Decaro has been working on multiple public relations campaigns since 2004, when he was first elected Mobility Councilor of Bari.
“He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has a candid attitude, and speaks the language of his people,” said Giovanni Sasso, the co-founder of the Public Relations agency Proforma and creative manager of Decaro’s electoral campaigns. In 2015, Decaro became mayor of Bari and was re-elected in 2019, with a staggering 66% share of the votes.
“We were the guardians of the fears and the aspirations of the citizens. This is why we published those videos,” Decaro said referring to the lockdown videos. Decaro’s words reflected the professionalization that had made part of his image from the beginning of his career. In fact, he was often seen on buses that he had pushed to make more efficient, telling freeriders to pay for the ticket. Decaro made sure to share his efforts, and with the help of Proforma he produced a comical promotional spot, where he demonstrated the effectiveness of new public transportation methods in the city.
Following Bracciale’s popularization checklist, intimization has always been present in Decaro’s communication. From taking a swim at Bari’s beach on the first day of the year with hundreds of his voters, to reassuring viewers of his homemade videos that he was a sweatpants-wearing average Joe, he has shown his voters exactly who he is. Then, the pandemic allowed him a new opportunity to prove himself.
“Those things that I did, I did them for my city, to keep the community united, not for my political figure,” Decaro said. He said that he did not overexpose his private life in the video shared during the lockdown. But he did show it to the citizens.
On March 11, 2020, emotionalization, the third pillar of Lifestyle Politics, made him clearly stand out. During the first night of the Bari lockdown, Decaro walked through a deserted city center, with his assistant in tow, recording a Facebook Live video. They took to the streets to ensure that stores had closed. “During these years, we made so many sacrifices to keep this city alive, and to bring tourism,” Decaro said, while tears filled his eyes.
If used well, social media tools mixed with Lifestyle Politics can create unlimited space for visibility. But the problem is that this space is often filled with the negative rhetoric of those defined as populists.
“The more those factors combine, the more the leader becomes populist, and the more they become real and powerful,” Bracciale said. Not only does populism contain far-right ideals, but it also includes left-wing leaders. They all use the same techniques and rhetoric.
“It’s a militarization of social media space,” Russo, founder of Pro Forma, said. According to him, populists like Salvini and Trump have staff that endlessly occupy space on all social media platforms to maximize consensus. “But this bulimic presence phagocytes the political idea and creates a rebound effect,” an approach Russo said he disliked, but that the latest elections around the world have shown to be effective.
One thing that makes communication tactics, both populist and not, go viral, is the online grassroots communities that follow the political scene using irony, satire, and memes. The videos shared by Decaro during the pandemic got exponential visibility because of his unconventional narrative. He is not a populist, but he is very popular.
By going out and speaking to people directly, Decaro became famous within online communities (also called MERS) and triggered a mechanism of horizontal information circulation. The mayor showed openness, asked people politely to go back home, and intervened during altercations between the public and officers trying to enforce lockdown regulations. “The better you are at doing this, the bigger the success,” Bracciale said.
Decaro shows that using what is usually called populist techniques of communication doesn’t make you a populist. The content of its communication doesn’t call for the sovereignty of the people, doesn’t attack the elite, and doesn’t hate foreigners. He merged grassroot politics with online presence. This combination has proved to be just as successful as the polarizing tweets sent out by Matteo Salvini.
“We are entering a new normal,” Bracciale said. A normal where populist tools have become a part of the strategy for any ambitious politician.
“Communication is important, to communicate what a mayor does, or what a mayor is. Communication is needed to say you’re sorry,” Decaro said. “ But you cannot substitute it for administrative work.”
While Decaro keeps on walking through the streets of his southern Italian city, other politicians seem not to be taking advantage of these strategies. If they were to have a chance at facing off against the incoming populist tide, a more “populist” approach to communication might just be their saving grace.