Italy's politicians take to TikTok in 'cringe' videos aimed at courting undecided youth voters

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia, attends the closing rally of the Center right coalition - Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia, attends the closing rally of the Center right coalition - Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images

One confesses to dancing “like a drunken bear” while another pledges not to try to pick up teenage girls.

Italian politicians, desperate to garner votes ahead of a landmark general election on Sunday, have taken to TikTok to try to burnish their credentials with young people yet to decide who to vote for.

Like dads showing off their moves on the dance floor, they have had to endure the eye-rolling disdain of their target audience.

But their stiff and halting efforts on the social media platform could reap dividends.

Although Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni and the League's Matteo Salvini are slated to be the big winners in Sunday's general election, polls say that up to 40 per cent of Italians are undecided as to who to vote for or are thinking of not voting at all, among them hundreds of thousands of young people.

In what has been dubbed the country’s first Tik Tok election campaign, the popular app, normally the domain of teenagers performing dance routines, offering fashion tips and posting comedic clips, has been invaded by middle-aged politicians in suits.

The League's Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, and Brothers of Italy's Giorgia Meloni - AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
The League's Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, and Brothers of Italy's Giorgia Meloni - AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

It is an irresistible target for them – there are around 16 million Italians on TikTok, a 76 per cent increase on last year.

“This will be remembered as the first electoral contest played out on TikTok,” said Il Messagero, an Italian daily.

Many TikTok users have described their efforts as cringe-worthy while others complained that they go to the platform for entertainment, not to be bombarded with political messages.

Emma Galeotti, 19, who has more than 700,000 followers and 46 million likes on the Chinese-owned social media app, criticised politicians for patronising young people, “for speaking to us like we’re in an episode of Dora the Explorer.

“We’re not stupid. Talk to me like an adult, not a child. They think it’s enough to make a video, add a bit of music, and that’s it. They don’t understand our generation. They should disappear from TikTok.”

One of the political big guns who first took to Tik Tok at the beginning of the election campaign last month was Carlo Calenda, the leader of a centre-left party called Azione or Action.

@carlocalendaofficial Sbarchiamo su tik tok. Facciamo sul serio anche qui, proviamoci insieme. #neiperte ♬ suono originale - CarloCalendaOfficial

Dressed in beige trousers and a white button-down shirt, he tried to crack a couple of jokes with his debut, saying that when he tries to dance he looks “a bit like a drunken bear” and adding that he was not qualified to give tips on make-up because he was “ugly, with a big tummy”. He added stiffly: “But I can talk to you about politics.”

Making his debut on Tik Tok at the beginning of September, a beaming Silvio Berlusconi, sitting at a desk, said: “Hi guys, here I am. There are five million of you guys on this platform and 60 per cent of you are under 30 and I feel a little envious (about not being young).”

@silvio.berlusconi Ciao ragazzi, eccomi qua. Vi do il benvenuto sul mio canale ufficiale #Tiktok per parlare dei temi che più stanno a cuore a Forza Italia e al sottoscritto e che vi riguardano da vicino: parleremo e discuteremo del vostro #futuro Vi racconterò di come vogliamo rendere l'#Italia un Paese che possa darvi nuove opportunità e la possibilità di realizzare i vostri sogni. Ci rivediamo presto su TikTok ! #silvioberlusconi #berlusconi #elezioni #forzaitalia🇮🇹💪❤️ #politica #giovani ♬ suono originale - Silvio Berlusconi

In a later offering, the former prime minister, who earned notoriety for inviting nubile young starlets to his “bunga bunga” sex parties, joked that he was not on TikTok to try to win introductions to teenage girls.

He may be 85, but he appears to have made a bit of a splash, winning 584,000 followers.

Ms Meloni, the leader of a far-right party with fascist roots called Brothers of Italy, is tipped to become Italy’s first female prime minister.

She is fighting the election in alliance with Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and the hard-right League, led by Mr Salvini.

She too has taken to Tik Tok and has around 175,000 followers. That is not very many, but the videos she has posted have done well – a couple have been seen more than 900,000 times.

Matteo Renzi, another former prime minister and the leader of a small party called Italia Viva, also piled onto the platform.

The former boy scout and mayor of Florence made reference to an episode for which he was widely mocked.

Back in 2016, he was asked in a BBC interview what he thought of Brexit.

With a thick Italian accent, he rolled his eyes and said in English “First reaction, shock”.

The clip was widely parodied, becoming an internet meme and the basis for rap songs.

In his debut Tik Tok appearance, he tried to make a positive out of a negative, saying: “You may know me as the guy of 'first reaction, shock' fame.”

It is not just young people who think politicians should stay off TikTok.

“They clearly don’t know what they are doing. It’s a little bit pathetic,” said Francesco Galietti, the founder of Policy Sonar, a Rome-based political risk consultancy.

“They’re all surrounded by squads of social media people. The flavour of the month used to be Instagram, now it’s TikTok. They’re getting visibility, but not necessarily popularity – that’s a totally different thing. They’re just getting clicks. This is the first TikTok campaign – and hopefully the last.”

Giuseppe Sala, the mayor of Milan and a senior figure on the centre-left, also thinks it is a lamentable trend.

Presenting the calendar for Milan Fashion Week earlier this month, he said: “Fashion Week will use TikTok a great deal, probably doing it better than many of the politicians who have embarked on this social network in a somewhat pitiful way. Some politicians cross the bounds of human dignity.”