Renzi’s offline propaganda, urbi et orbi

Imagine you wake up one morning in the US only to find “exclusive” extracts of a forthcoming book by Donald Trump disseminated all over the press. The New York Times features one in the front page, with no context or comment whatsoever; the same goes for The Washington Post, FT, USA Today, and others. Take ten of the major news outlets, covering the whole political spectrum, featuring many excerpts with great emphasis — and no critical commentary.

Imagine the same in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn: the Guardian has one, the Telegraph another, the Times and Daily Mail as well.

Or let’s suppose you wake up in a France. Previews of a new political manifesto by Emmanuel Macron are everywhere — Le Monde, Figaro, Le Soir, Les Echos.

I know, it sounds crazy.

And yet, this is what actually just happened in Italy.

Matteo Renzi is a former Prime Minister who — after a stunning defeat in a referendum which he himself said should have caused his retirement from politics — recently won the primaries that reelected him as Secretary of the Democratic Party, and is now a major candidate for a second mandate in Palazzo Chigi. After several electoral setbacks, he is trying hard to reshape the overall vision of the party, and get himself a renewed credibility to obtain the leadership of Italy for the second time.

Part of the project is a long anticipated book, ‘Avanti’. After some months delay, and an apparent sleepless night that Renzi felt worth tweeting about, the manifesto is finally ready for print.

A first excerpt was published by the party’s propaganda arm, the pdf-only leaflet ‘Democratica’ that supplanted l’Unità, the former communist Bible founded by leading critical thinker Antonio Gramsci. Controversy immediately ensued, as Renzi, in a meme published — and soon removed with no explanation — on the Facebook page of Partito Democratico, basically repeated a slogan on migration that traditionally belonged to Italy’s far right nationalist party Lega Nord: “aiutiamoli a casa loro”, or help migrants in their home countries. The PD Secretary went even further, arguing that hospitality is not a “moral obligation”.

Renzi was quick in trying and reframing the whole thing as a failure in communication, due to social media’s supposed incapability of discussing hard topics and a bad choice from the staff, and yet those exact words can be found in the book — making it a substantial debate on future policy, rather than a matter of digital culture.

But that was just the beginning of a much more sophisticated propaganda strategy that materialized this morning on the printing press, when ten news outlets from all political and ideological inclinations published more extracts from the manifesto — most of them in the front page.

Here they are:

A first thing to notice is how Renzi’s propaganda managed to diversify the message conveyed by the extracts to give each outlet content that is perfectly tailored on its individual readership.

Berlusconi’s Il Giornale could attack Italian prosecutors and the Justice system that caused the former PM so many troubles for twenty years. Right wing-oriented Libero could dwell into the issue of the two Italian marò stranded in India after a high profile scandal that enraged conservatives for years; Catholic-oriented l’Avvenire could focus on traditional hot buttons like “identity” and “roots”. La Repubblica, which extensively covers the evolutions and quarrels of the Democratic Party, had a reconstruction of the latest schism that caused the creation of new political movements sitting on the left of Renzi. La Stampa and Corriere focussed on international politics. Il Sole 24 Ore, the leading economic newspaper in the country, had an exclusive proposal on fiscal policy. Local newspapers had local news: il Mattino, from Naples, hinted at Renzi considering the city for the 2028 Olympics, while Quotidiano Nazionale could report on the “Giglio Magico”, Renzi’s inner circle, which has strong roots in the very region the paper is published.

Once picked up by all these news outlets, Renzi’s propaganda could then spread to all newscasts, and even in a four and a half minutes interview with Tg2, from the national public broadcasting service — again, with no critical coverage, or any real question.

Which left me wondering: is this whole thing business as usual?

Since the election of Donald Trump many pundits rightly focussed on how increasingly sophisticated digital propaganda techniques manage to shape public opinion, consensus and the agenda of both politicians and the media. Among them, many of the above mentioned outlets did too.

What happened with Renzi’s ‘Avanti’, though, signals that traditional weak spots in “disconnected” media are still there to be exploited too, and that we should not give them one bit less importance.

Even admitting we can solve the “political bots” or “fake news” quandaries through increased monitoring and liability by social media platforms — a solution I strongly disagree with on the grounds of the chilling effects on freedom of expression this would have — there is no saving us from a media ecosystem that collectively mistakes a propaganda manifesto as news, and treats it as such.

If, as Jeff Jarvis puts it, “Fake news” is “merely a symptom of greater social ills”, and “our real problems” are instead “trust and manipulation”, then cases such as the treatment of Renzi’s ‘Avanti’ hardly make the case for truth and credibility in the media.

Italy is already filed among “partly free” countries in Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press 2017”. Researchers should probably consider what happened today in future reports.