The Italian influencers who gatecrashed the country’s political scene
A rapper and fashion blogger-turned retail mogul are increasingly swapping brand engagement for civil activism, upending Italian politics along the way.
ROME — Together, they’re known as the Ferragnez — Italy’s most potent influencer power couple.
Increasingly, however, they might just be Italy’s most potent political influencers. And politicians are desperate to share their limelight.
The husband-and-wife duo — Fedez, a superstar rapper, and Chiara Ferragni, a fashion blogger-turned retail mogul — reportedly fetch €60,000 from lifestyle brands for posts sent to their collective Instagram audience, which is almost the same size as the population of Canada.
But in recent months, the pair have been occasionally swapping brand engagement for civil activism, upending Italian politics along the way.
On issues from gay rights to the coronavirus to gender-based violence, the duo has wielded their digital savvy to push their thoughts, raise money and cajole politicians. They’ve directed fans to troll the Instagram page of a politician holding up an anti-LGBT violence bill. They’ve crowd-sourced funding for a hospital. And just this past weekend, Fedez grabbed Italy’s attention when he accused a state-run broadcaster of trying to censor him during an appearance.
Their political rise represents a new twist in a long-standing dynamic in Italy: distrust of political parties and elites. The wariness has taken different forms over the years. In the 1990s, Italians vaulted Silvio Berlusconi from media baron to prime minister. Two decades later, comedian Beppe Grillo founded the anti-politics 5Star Movement, which swept to power in 2018.
Now, Fedez and Ferragni have become the latest figureheads in Italy’s culture (and political) wars, resonating with a Gen Z audience. And the country’s politicians of all ideologies are lining up to praise them, court them and elbow into their online videos, all in the hope that some of their stardust rubs off.
Influencers, meet COVID
Fedez and Ferragni became national heroes during Italy’s first wave of the pandemic, a brutal period that overwhelmed the country’s health care system and provided a disturbing preview of what was to come across much of Europe.
The duo took to social media to help bolster a struggling hospital in Milan, asking for donations. Soon, they had raised millions, enabling the hospital to establish a new coronavirus department.
Then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took notice. He called Fedez and Ferragni personally to ask for help persuading young people to wear masks. The outreach quickly became a meme-able moment in Italy with a common theme: the Ferragnez controlled Conte.
For the pair, the fundraising effort represented a shift from their normal social media fare, which typically featured cute pictures of their children and pets, as well as videos of them pranking each other.
But injecting more political content into the mix didn’t dampen the duo’s popularity — in fact, it became a surprise hit among their 36 million followers.
In one video Ferragni posted last year, she argued that sexist victim-blaming was being used to rationalize violence against women, slut-shaming and revenge porn. It got 7 million views.
More recently, Ferragni — who over 12 years has turned her fashion blog into a retail empire — criticized the chaotic vaccination booking system in Italy’s Lombardy region, which was delaying her husband’s grandmother from getting a vaccine.
With the posts, the married couple was taking a new version of a well-trodden path for celebrities entering the political fray. Comedian John Cleese made broadcasts for the U.K.’s Liberal Democrats. Married musical megastars Beyoncé and Jay-Z fundraised and stumped for former U.S. President Barack Obama.
But the Ferragnez were going around the political system altogether, and making the politicians come to them.
A political pivot
As the couple got more political, they adopted a central issue: Fighting for a law that would classify violence against LGBT people and women as hate crimes.
The measure is contentious in Italy. The leftist Democrats are pushing the bill, calling it essential to reducing discrimination. But the Catholic Church and the liberal right are strongly opposed, claiming the bill would infringe on a right to speak freely on gender and sexual orientation.
The Ferragnez has jumped right into the middle of the debate.
In April, Fedez hosted an online debate with the MP behind the law, Alessandro Zan. Two million people watched. And last month, the pair ordered followers to flood the Instagram comments of Andrea Ostellari, the right-wing Italian lawmaker blocking the law from moving through parliament. They complied, posting more than 5,000 comments. Ostellari ultimately caved.
Then last weekend, the issue exploded into a political row when Fedez performed in a televised Labor Day pop concert on Saturday. During his appearance, Fedez shamed politicians from the right-wing League party for homophobic statements. He specifically named people like Giovanni Di Paoli, a regional councillor in Liguria, who allegedly said: “If my son was gay, I would burn him alive.” (Di Paoli denies making the remark).
On Fedez’s Instagram, the clip of his remarks racked up more than 15 million views.
The comments themselves drew even more attention after Fedez also attacked the state broadcaster Rai 3, which was airing the concert. Fedez claimed that initially the network, controled by political figures on the right, had tried to “censor” his broadside, urging him to avoid naming individual politicians.
Politicians rushed to join the fray.
Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister and a senior 5Stars figure, said “every artist must be permitted to express themselves freely,” before making sure to note his personal connection to Fedez.
“I have known Fedez for some time,” he said. “As well as being a great singing talent he is a person that puts his heart into everything he does.”
Enrico Letta, leader of the leftist Democrats, also came in to support Fedez, saying he was “in perfect agreement” with the remarks during the performance.
“The fact that someone like him speaks about these issues has broken the taboo against discussing civil rights because we are in a pandemic,” Letta said.
Even Matteo Salvini, the firebrand leader of the League, ostensibly Fedez’s enemy, condemned the homophobic remarks Fedez highlighted, calling them “disgusting.” He then noted he had been trying to meet with Fedez “to speak peacefully about the future, freedom, rights, art, music.”
Italy’s influencer era
Essentially, with just a few comments on social media and TV, Fedez had gotten the entire Italian political world to pay attention to his preferred issue.
It’s a phenomenon that reflects the power of modern-day social media influencers, said pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco of YouTrend.
“A big difference from the past is that today an influencer with millions of followers has an enormous reach, not just when he goes on TV,” Pregliasco said.
Their setup also creates a symbiotic feedback loop: If a social media star speaks about Gen Z-friendly political issues, it generates wider attention — and more likes.
It’s “on-demand politics,” said Pregliasco. Influencers can pick and choose where to express themselves, without having to take a broader ideological stance on everything.
The intense attention Fedez and Ferragni have attracted has generated the obvious question: Will they become Italy’s next pop icon-turned populist politician?
Some have linked them to the Democratic Party, which is pushing to lower the voting age to 16. Having Fedez and Ferragni in the fold could certainly attract a younger demographic to the party.
But the Ferragnez insist they have no plans to enter politics.
“In this list of things that my wife and I have to do, entering politics comes straight after becoming a professional cricketer,” said Fedez in a recent video.
Pointing to their dog, Ferragni added: “It is more likely that Maty goes into politics.”
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