Sardines against Salvini: Moderation and Polarization on Facebook’s Protest Groups


The aim of this paper is to address the interplay between moderation and polarization in protest groups on Facebook. The study emphasises how Facebook’s rules and protocols affect the daily activities of administrators and moderators, in turn impacting organization, mobilization levels and collective identity of networked movements.

To this purpose, the paper analyses the case study of the Sardines’ movement, a wave of Facebook-planned peaceful mobilization that protested against the political rhetoric of right-wing party ‘Lega’ leader Matteo Salvini on his social media channels. The name “Sardines” comes from the expression “packed as sardines in a can,” to highlight the need for mobilization in the squares and to underline the strength of citizens when organised in groups.

The Sardines planned a series of rallies starting in November 2019, spreading everywhere throughout Italy from the region of Emilia Romagna, where the movement was born, and where a crucial regional election eventually saw Salvini’s party failing to win on January 26th.

The movement’s objectives are summarized in six main points announced in December 2019. Sardines deplore politicians who shun official institutional activities in favour of “permanent electoral campaigns,” and ask them to communicate only through institutional channels. Furthermore, the movement asks for both “economic and communicative” transparency for what concerns how politicians use social media. It urges the “world of information” to protect the “truth,” and the realm of politics to abandon any form of violence, be it physical or verbal. Finally, it asks the overhaul of the oppressive policies against migrants enacted by Salvini in 2019 and never repealed by the current centre-left coalition government.

In this short time span, the movement has gathered a significant momentum across the country but also encountered internal factionalism, schisms, and suffered verbal attacks from other political groups. At the time of writing, the movement seems to be already in decline.

This paper aims to explore the dynamics that contributed to this sudden decline by focusing on the increased levels of polarization on the movement’s Facebook Groups and on the role played by administrators and moderators in steering online communication and excluding the most inflamed comments among both supporters and detractors of the movement’s instances. It also explores the contradictions between the movement’s ideals of peaceful and respectful expression and the actual user verbal behaviour against political adversaries on Facebook. Finally, the study suggests that Facebook, far from being a neutral space for interaction, exacerbated the process of deterioration through its very functionality, rules and protocols. Methodologically, it relies on a set of in-depth semi-structured interviews with the moderators of the movement’s Facebook Groups and a qualitative content analysis of online interaction on the same platform.