Can Europe Make It?

The 2018 Italian election campaign viewed from Twitter

We have followed 1,579 candidates and tracked their Twitter conversations for two weeks now. Also, we collected 400,000 citizens’ retweets and replies to candidates’ tweets.

Giovanni Pagano Martina Zaghi Francesca Arcostanzo
2 March 2018

Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini at an electoral meeting of the centre-right coalition at the Adriano's Temple in Rome, Italy, on 1st March 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.Italians go to the polls on March 4, and no one knows what will happen next. Observers and commentators agree that the election outcome is far from clear and that the latest polls are inconclusive. Voters are polarised over divisive issues such as taxes, the EU and immigration, and the electorate is roughly divided into three factions, each with about a third of the vote.

The outgoing center-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD), led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, has seen his support decline in the last year to about 23%. To the left of the democrats, the Free and Equal Party (Liberi e Uguali, LeU) – recently founded by PD defectors – is more a competitor than an ally. The center-right bloc is leading the polls at 35%: nonetheless, the coalition itself is divided roughly in half between center-right Forza Italia (FI), led by former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, and the far-right anti-immigrant League (Lega) championed by the outspoken eurosceptic leader Matteo Salvini.

The anti-establishment 5Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S) looks set to become Italy’s biggest single party (although behind the center-right coalition), but its leader Luigi Di Maio has generally stated that they don’t want to join other forces in an attempt to form a government.

Making matters worse, a record-high proportion of undecided voters adds to a new and untested electoral law, that allocates one third of the seats in a first-past-the-post system.

In the run-up to the polls, at EuVisions we have followed the Twitter side of the Italian electoral campaign, monitoring the online activity involving the six main parties: Free and Equal, the Democratic Party, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, national conservative Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, FdI), the League and the Five Star Movement.

Overall, we have been able to follow 1,579 candidates of these parties and to track their Twitter conversations for two weeks now. Also, we collected citizens’ reactions (in the form of retweets and replies) to candidates’ tweets, amounting to roughly 400,000 tweets.

Who tweets the most?

A quick glance at candidates’ activity provides an overview of the forces at play in the campaign. The outgoing Democratic Party holds the largest presence on Twitter in terms of ‘active’ candidates: 305 PD candidates took to Twitter over recent days, compared to 170 candidates for the Five Star Movement, 152 for Forza Italia, and 148, 88 and 79 for – respectively – Free and Equal, the League, and Brothers of Italy.

In light of these numbers, it is somewhat unsurprising to discover that the Democratic Party, overall, tweeted more than other parties (10,370 tweets, with an average of 940 tweets per day). However, the higher proportion of Democratic candidates seems to reflect a more organized and well established party structure as well as higher ‘political seniority’ of the candidates, rather than a heavier investment in the potential benefits of online campaigning. If we look at candidates’ activity on average, in fact, it turns out that the League features the most prolific candidates – every candidate writes on average 4.7 tweets per day – followed closely by Forza Italia (4.1), Free and Equal (3.9) and 5 Star (3.1). Despite being more present on Twitter, the Democrats rank near the bottom (3 tweets per candidate per day).


Figure 1 Average number of tweets/day sent by each candidate

Who gets retweeted the most?

Taken together, all tweets sent by the candidates amount to about 35 thousand. These numbers though are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to online conversations about the election campaign. The larger part of the over 400 thousands tweets we collected is made up of reactions to the candidates’ tweets sent by citizens who took to Twitter in the run-up to interact with politicians and participate in the campaign.

Looking at citizens’ reactions, it emerges that candidates from the anti-immigration League and from the anti-establishment 5Star are by far the most capable of engaging their respective electoral bases, which seem more motivated in spreading party content. On average, tweets from the League are retweeted 13 times, and those from M5S 10.8 times; whereas messages from other parties lag behind in terms of resonance. As we discuss in the conclusion, such a result seems to confirm that populist forces outperform traditional parties in engaging with their base on Twitter.


Figure 2. Average number of retweets per tweet sent by candidates

Personalization and negative campaigning: a look at candidates’ communication strategies

Since the rise of social media, political communication has been increasingly preoccupied by two parallel phenomena: an increase in the level of personalization of electoral campaigns – with a greater centrality accorded to the image of the leader – and a widespread use of strategies based on negative campaigning.

To better understand the role played by these two dynamics in the Italian campaign, we have analysed the content of candidates’ tweets to measure the attention dedicated by each party (a) to its leader (personalization) and (b) to other parties’ leaders (negative campaigning). The results are presented in Figure 3 and 4.


As Figure 3 and 4 show, parties make a different use of strategies of personalization and negative campaigning. Starting with personalization, the party which focuses most on the image of its leader is the right-wing League: Matteo Salvini is in fact mentioned in 16% of the tweets sent by his party’s candidates.  


Figure 3. Party leaders’ centrality in candidates’ tweets.

Such a tendency towards personalization is shared by the other Italian right-wing parties as well: Forza Italia and Brothers of Italy’s candidates dedicate both a significant amount of tweets to their leaders – respectively, Silvio Berlusconi (11.3%) and Giorgia Meloni (8.5%). Interestingly enough, this is also true for the left-wing Free and Equal, who mention party leader Pietro Grasso in 7.4 tweets out of 100. By contrast, a lower attention is dedicated by their fellow candidates to Luigi Di Maio (3.7%) and Matteo Renzi (3.4%).

Negative campaigning

Finally, Figure 4 presents interesting data on the main targets of the negative campaigning strategies carried out by the candidates of each party.


Figure 4. Main targets of negative campaigning.

As we can see, the 5Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio is the main bullseye in the conversations of candidates from Forza Italia (2%), Brothers of Italy (2.1%) and the Democratic Party (2.4%). Meanwhile, Democrats leader Matteo Renzi is the main target of the negative campaign carried out by the League (2%), the 5Star Movement (4.1%) and Free and Equal (2.1%).

Ultimately, the party which uses negative campaigning the most is the 5Star Movement: not only do 5Star candidates use more than 10% of their tweets to attack their opponents, but they tweet more about Matteo Renzi (4.1%) and Silvio Berlusconi (3.9%) than they do about Luigi Di Maio himself (3.8%). 


In recent years in Europe we have witnessed the rise of the so-called ‘populist parties’, together with a wave of innovation in (digital) political communication, especially during election campaigns. Populist parties, in particular, have proven to be pioneers in the adoption of innovative communication strategies. In a previous study on the German electoral campaign (2017) we showed how the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) dominated the scene on Twitter thanks to a widespread use of online channels, an unprecedented use of negative campaigning strategies and a highly engaged network of supporters. We found similar when studying the online behaviour of UKIP’s supporters at the time of the Brexit referendum.

On the eve of the Italian elections, we can see how both the 5Star Movement and League candidates rely on some of these communication strategies. Nevertheless, in their use of social media the two parties have certain things in common, but they also differ. Both the 5SM and the League display a greater ability to engage their network of online supporters – being by far the two most retweeted parties, and bth tend to focus on personalities rather than content. At the same time, political leaders play a very different role in the online strategy of the two parties: while the League devotes a huge attention (16%) to cheering on its leader Matteo Salvini, the 5SM bypasses the figure of Luigi Di Maio to focus instead on negative campaigning towards other leaders – most notably Renzi and Berlusconi.

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