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Political Instrumentalization of Religion: the Debate on Salvini’s Use of Religious Symbols on Facebook and Twitter

Populism
Religion
Social Media
Rita Marchetti
Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche, Università degli Studi di Perugia
Rita Marchetti
Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche, Università degli Studi di Perugia
Susanna Pagiotti
Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche, Università degli Studi di Perugia
Nicola Righetti
Università degli Studi di Urbino
Anna Stanziano
Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche, Università degli Studi di Perugia

Abstract

How does the use of religious symbols by political leaders affect online public debate? This is the main question of this paper, which analyzes the political instrumental use of religion and religious symbols in Italy during the 2018 Italian and 2019 European election campaigns. Besides taking into consideration the phenomenon of religious publicization (Herbert 2011), a comprehensive reflection on the visibility of religion in the public debate should not overlook its politicization, and the role of digital platforms: on the one hand, the renewed relevance of religion in the public sphere (Habermas 2006), and the empirical link between Christianity and national identity (Pew Research Center 2018), represent a strong driver for populist conservative politicians to address religious issues, on the other hand, the disintermediation (Chadwick 2013) of political communication allows leaders to speak to the people through social media (Engesser 2017), with the aim of mobilizing voters. An example illustrating the intertwining of publicization and politicization of religion is Matteo Salvini, the leader of the “Lega”, an Italian populist far-right party. Salvini is widely recognized for his massive use of social media (Bobba 2019), and for the unscrupulous use of religious symbols for propaganda purposes. This study analyzes Facebook posts and tweets mentioning Salvini and a set of religion-related keywords published in the run-up to the 2018 Italian and 2019 European election. Using a combination of quantitative and computational methods, and qualitative in-depth focuses, the contribution will analyze actors involved in the discussion, frames of reference and the most popular posts/tweets on the platforms, with the general purpose of understanding if and how politics and social media logics have been shaping the discourse around religion and affect its online representation. Against this theoretical and empirical background, we will ask which could be the consequence for religion of such political instrumentalization.