By Steve Scherer
TURIN, Italy (Reuters) - Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has doubled support for his far-right party in just seven months by cultivating a savvy social media presence that any politician would envy - including his inspiration, Donald Trump.
Salvini, who modeled his "Italians first" campaign after Trump's successful U.S. presidential bid, has built an effective communications machine aimed not just at bolstering his League party's popularity at home but also helping anti-immigrant, populist forces win control of European parliament next May.
Salvini has been especially successful on Facebook, Italy's most popular platform with 34 million active users per month out of an eligible voting population of 46.6 million.
Although Trump's page has more "likes" at 23.5 million versus Salvini's 3.2 million, the Italian's followers are more "engaged", according to data compiled by Pietro Raffa, a digital strategist for Milan communications consultancy MR & Associati.
In the first week of July, for example, 2.6 million people liked, commented, shared or watched videos on Salvini's 82 Facebook posts, versus 1.5 million engagements on 32 posts for Trump, Raffa's data showed.
"Salvini always has much more engagement than Trump," Luca Morisi, Salvini's social media strategist and the man behind the machine, said at a workshop hosted by pollster and political analysis firm YouTrend in early October.
Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon told Reuters that U.S. politicians could learn a lot from Salvini's methods.
"The use of social media and Facebook Live... were state of the art," said Bannon, who has met Salvini more than once. "I was blown away by how sophisticated he was and how he managed to do it on a shoestring."
Much of the credit goes to Morisi, 45, who developed software for financial institutions before joining Salvini. His team of 10 works 24 hours a day if necessary, averaging 10 Facebook posts a day and spreading content across YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, and through Whatsapp and Telegram chat groups.
Using a specially designed matrix of software, collectively dubbed "the Beast", the team creates graphics, pumps out adverts for upcoming events, publishes on multiple social media platforms, and monitors news.
A loyal and growing cohort of "real people" churn out social media support for Salvini voluntarily, Morisi said in his presentation, titled "The Legend of the Captain", a ubiquitous nickname for Salvini that Morisi coined.
"There's a community that was built up over time, piece by piece, brick by brick, that today is very strong," he told the workshop for aspiring political communications professionals.
Morisi avoids the limelight and rarely speaks to the media. A Reuters reporter was allowed to attend his closed-door talk and take part in a question-and-answer session afterwards - the only reporter there - but Morisi declined to be interviewed separately.
The machine started up in earnest in January 2014, less than a month after Salvini took the reins of a party polling around 3 percent and plagued by corruption scandals, Morisi said.
Morisi set aside party references and made Salvini - a folksy, 45-year-old politician with a reputation for plain speaking - the brand.
Now the League polls as high as 34 percent, better than its 5-Star Movement coalition partner. In September, Salvini's Facebook page had 28 million unique views, and Morisi said it has recently reached as high as 30 million.
Like Trump, Salvini doesn't shy away from controversy that sparks debate and more traffic. "The more they call us racists, the closer we get to 51 percent," he said in a Facebook video on Sept. 25.
"The secret of Salvini's communication is Salvini himself, together with a team of people who have worked with him for a long time, which plans and amplifies the message," Morisi said.
Chubby and bearded, Salvini invites people into his world, posting pictures of the reality TV show he's watching - "Temptation Island VIP", for example - or, at 11:30 p.m., the chestnuts he's roasted as a snack.
"How much I like chestnuts!!!", he wrote on Oct. 3. "Have a nice evening friends. You can count on me."
"These posts are very important because they create a direct relationship with people, and they help distinguish Salvini from the unpopular caste of politicians," Morisi said.
The personal posts are mixed in with automated plugs for his radio or TV appearances, or with news. Then there are the Facebook Live videos, including one from the roof of parliament - "the only place in the building where we could find a 4G connection," Morisi said - where Salvini attacked the "eurocrats" in Brussels.
Together with France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban and others, Salvini aims to overthrow the European Union's liberal establishment and restore power to nation states, an agenda many see as a threat to European unity.
When he was placed under investigation for kidnapping after refusing to allow migrants to disembark from an Italian coast guard ship, Salvini went live on Facebook from his interior ministry office to open the court order.
Where other Italian politicians might squirm with embarrassment, Salvini acted like the investigation was a medal of honor, with his audience as happy accomplices.
"It is you who asked this minister to control the borders, to control the ports, to limit arrivals, to limit the departure of illegal migrants," he told his viewers.
To keep people's attention on the Internet, you need graphic variety - different type cases, emoticons and bullets in text - consistency of narrative voice, accuracy in spelling and grammar, brevity and speed, Morisi said.
"One day on social media is like a week in the pre-social media era," he said. He aims to publish a post every two hours to announce that "the bar is open".
"If you leave a page even only a few hours without new content, it sags like a souffle," he said.
To amplify Salvini's message before the March general election, Morisi created a contest: the fastest person to "like" Salvini's posts each day would get their picture on his page. The top four clickers during the three-week game won a coffee and a selfie with their "captain". Some 50,000 people signed up.
Any spike in numbers is amplified by Facebook's algorithm, he said.
Morisi denied reports by La Stampa newspaper and others that the "Beast" software picks up on the mood of the online audience at any given moment to hone Salvini's message.
"There's no algorithm that suggests to us or to Salvini what should be talked about," he said. "An expert communicator with years and years of experience doesn't need an algorithm that tells him to take a picture of chestnuts."
(Editing by Crispian Balmer and Sonya Hepinstall)