Influencers’ Politics: Between Attention, Democracy and Power

[Illustration by Silvia Baccanti]

 

In recent months, the Italian political scene has been dominated by the debates involving the approval of a law aiming at aggravating the legal penalties for discriminating and instigating crimes on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, the so-called Zan Decree.

The discussion quickly spiralled from the quiet rooms of parliament to the lively news-feeds and timelines of public opinion. Remarkably, several actors, celebrities and public figures took a stance in favour of the approval of the act, which was stalling in the committee. Among the most effective voices in raising the issue, the power couple formed by the singer Fedez and the influencer and entrepreneur Chiara Ferragni, collectively known as Ferragnez, radically stands out.

On the other side of the divide, the right-wing opposition found an influential ally in His Holiness, Pope Francis. Of course, Italy is by statute a non-religious state and – in theory – his opinion should be as relevant as that of any other head of state. However, given the territorial position of Vatican City and the agreements signed in 1984 between Italy and the Holy See, the Catholic Church has the right to voice its opinion on Italian policies infringing on religious beliefs.

As a well-argued article written by journalist Stefano Feltri said, “Technically, Pope Francis and the Ferragnez operate in the same field: they promise serenity, gratification and the identification with charismatic characters that want to be role models. The Pope inherits a brand with a long tradition, but a bit threadbare and out of style … While the Ferragnez built their cult on real-time-gratification. […] Let’s be clear, I do agree about the argument [of the two celebrities], but those who care about liberal democracy should be wary of any concentration of power, regardless of how it is used.”

Now, Feltri’s article does not want to be a criticism of public figures who try to sensitize their audience on politics. On the contrary, it attempts to warn readers against whoever sneakily tries to push a political agenda by selling it as an absolute and self-evident truth.

Endorsements on the rise

The practice of the endorsement – a public declaration made by a person or an influential group – is generally accepted in the United States. Magazines, TV shows, actors and public figures spend themselves to invite their audiences to go and vote, often without mentioning a preference for a candidate or another. However, especially during the last US Presidential elections, endorsements have increasingly become more conspicuous and targeted at swaying voters.

In Italy, however, celebrity endorsements are not common. We are extremely far from Cardi B interviewing Bernie Sanders or Britney Spears talking about wealth redistribution on Instagram. To see anything like this, we would need to go back to more politicized times, when artists and intellectuals routinely expressed their political orientation through their work (think about singer Fabrizio De Andrè or theatre actor Dario Fo). Conversely, nowadays every declaration that falls outside a celebrity’s sphere is often considered unwelcome. To many, it is inconceivable that artists and public figures express their opinion on social or political matters. Whenever this happens, they are invited to go back to do what they know best.

Nonetheless, some policy debates can be more glittered than others. On social matters, for instance, the stars’ reticence to expose themselves and speak up is minor. Indeed, several Italian public figures have no problem to declare their support for the LGBTQ+ community. On the other hand, as the Italian anti-discrimination association “I Sentinelli” notes, “it seems more difficult to expose yourself regarding more politicized matters,  for example when it concerns migrants”.

Bringing the pop back to populism

In a recent interview to Italian newspaper La Repubblica, political analyst and co-founder of the magazine YouTrend Lorenzo Pregliasco declared, “Influencers and companies practicing brand activism fill a vacuum in politics.” Indeed, we are facing a new communication paradigm: influential non-political actors mobilizing attention on ethical and political matters with the intent to influence the political agenda.

Stuck between the frustration, anger and resentment of the people and the inability of the elites to address a complex reality, liberal democracy cannot work properly anymore.  The post-twentieth-century populism or neo-populism – which sociologist Marco Revelli defines as the senile illness of democracy – is the symptom of the failure of the system that, for better or worse, has led the West since 1945. However, the essence of neo-populism is not left v. right, but top v. bottom.

In an era defined by elite corruption and institutional failure, counter-hegemonic narrators are thriving. Young viewers trust alt-media figures like Chiara Ferragni or Fedez because they don’t seem to work for the elites. A new political oligarchy has arrived, and it is as strong as the number of followers that can be mobilised to exert moral suasion on decisionmakers. The phenomenon of influencers’ politics, born in the United States, is now spreading to other countries, and we are starting to see the consequences.

Conclusions

Interaction and pluralism are essential democratic principles. However, given the circumstances reported above, it is important not to underestimate the risks. If everyone’s opinion carries the same weight regardless of the accuracy of the arguments made, then it will be the most influential person to decide what is true and what is not. Do you find it fair that a singer, Fedez, explains the process through which parliament votes on a decree? Is he competent or selfless enough to do so?  No, he is merely playing an angle and shaming a political class in the process.

In conclusion, it is unquestionable that everyone has a right to have and express their own opinion. However, anyone who follows or listens to a celebrity or a public figure talking about politics (or any other matter) should remember that it is just their side of the coin, and they should strive to inform themselves rather than taking for good what it is narrated.

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