The tall young man looks like... well, a tall young man, dressed casually, fluffy stubble around the jaw, friendly dark eyes. Just as he was described in several newspaper articles over the past few months.
And yes, Dimitri Rougy does come across as open-minded, clued-up, curious and passionate about politics all at the same time.
Needless to say, the digital campaigner produces his mobile phone, which he puts on the table, when we meet in a café not far from parliament in the Swiss capital, Bern. Always reachable, his fingers twitching to send out a tweet, post a picture, answer a call?
He politely apologises for the delay. He missed a train – entirely his fault, he says.
Rougy is one of a team of four using a new form of crowd campaigning and social media to challenge a law cracking down on suspected welfare fraudsters.
The 21-year old’s star has risen ever since he and three other citizens decided to collect the 50,000 signatures needed – as part of the direct democratic system in Switzerland – to send the issue to a referendum.
Having all began with a tweet in March, and within two months they had reached their goal, winning the support of civil society, trade unions and even left-wing political parties which at first were reluctant to get involved.
Rougy says he still has to get used to the public attention and the pictures in the press.
“I’m still the same person and I won’t let anything come between me and my deep convictions.”
Despite his age, he has already gained considerable experience, mainly at a local political level, and with the media. He playfully switches between jargon and self-irony while professing to being keen to remain true to himself.
“It’s crucial to be authentic to keep in close contact with our supporters who I meet in the digital space.”
Rougy prefers live-stream sessions and online interaction, at any time of the day. “Well-rehearsed phrases and political slogans bore me to sleep,” he says. But in some of his answers he himself slips into socio-political marketing slang. Or is he just joking?
“At the start there was the intrinsic motivation to create a better world,” he says when asked how he became a political campaigner. Or: “I’m passionate about mobilising people.”
Trying to sketch his profile, we settle on the term “motivator” or “political influencer”. He grimaces at the German-language title of “Die Crowd und ihr General” he was given in a newspaper portraitexternal link.
His interest in politics goes back to his early teens, he says. He has been sitting in the parliament of the town of Interlaken as a member of the Social Democratic Party for more than two years and has made a name for himself as co-organiser of a youth assembly, giving the young generation a voice in local politics.
“At the beginning it was volunteer work. But I wanted to do more than just pursue the classical career, studying documents within a party and a parliament.”
In 2016, the student of cultural studies enrolled for a week-long crash course, a so-called “campaign bootcampexternal link” organised by a group of NGO activists.
“We were taught the basics needed to run a campaign. Theory mixed with hands-on training, listening and discussions about political campaigning with people active in the field.”
The participants apply their newly-acquired knowledge about strategic and tactical planning, communications and fundraising and lobbying in a small campaign.
And what exactly did he and the other participants learn? “It’s crucial to set a clear goal and remain focused. Then the rest follows almost automatically,” he says and chuckles, as he regularly does during the interview. “No, not really, but it becomes easy to align everything else accordingly.”
Despite his young age, Rougy is capable of comparing the traditional and more modern forms of campaigning.
He quickly lists a small catalogue of differences. “Point number one: we have no central office, we can work at home, in a café. We have co-workers everywhere. But we meet in the digital space, 24 hours a day in principle. Our office hours are always and never,” he says.
The two other main differences are: “We are not the main actors in a campaign; we let the crowd do the job.” Supporters are provided with tools, a manual on how to use them and advice if necessary. “Now they can become active themselves.”
This is where, thirdly, modern means of communication come in. “Our DNA is digital. We use all kinds of social media to improve cooperation.”
The internet is his working space. And it takes a good sense of understanding of the real concerns of the people to launch a successful campaign.
“Social media allows you to contact hundreds of thousands of people in Switzerland within a few seconds. This is a huge asset of the internet and for democracy,” he continues.
But ultimately, the digital space is not very different from analogue space, he argues. It’s just that “you may not see the person you’re talking to and the response is not as immediate.”
In his role as a campaigner he currently uses Facebook, Instagram and Flickr to post pictures, as well as newsletters and emails. He himself has around 1,100 followers on his Twitter account and posted about ten tweets on the day of our interview. Substantial, but hardly extravagant figures.
Millennials, like him, may be better at using digital tools – because they are digital natives, Rougy says. But his generation still has to a lot to learn and also must make an effort to keep up with latest developments.
“This morning I was trying to get to grips with liquidity planning. Yesterday I had no idea what this was and today I made a huge excel sheet for personnel planning and budgeting,” he chuckles again.
The campaign challenging the law on social security fraud plans to involve its supporters at all stages leading up to the November vote. For example, after writing a text to be published in the official vote booklet, Rougy sent the draft out to the crowd of supporters asking for feedback.
‘Crowd campaigning’ may take some time and they can’t necessarily rely on paid experts to take care of all aspects of campaigning, he says.
Being pioneers and doing most without external professional help could be a disadvantage. “There is nobody in Switzerland we can go to and there are no models to follow,” he says.
This new form of campaigning focuses on mobilisation and individual emotions, according to political analyst Claude Longchamp.
“Mobilisation is the new trend – not making or changing public opinion,” he says in one of his regular columns on swissinfo.ch.
Quoting marketing experts, Longchamp sees a sea change in political communication. Committees bypass traditional media channels and instead zero in on “multipliers” or “citizen marketers”.
Some critics have expressed concern that as political parties and organisations lose their role in the political process, this could pave the way for wealthy lobby groups to enter the political scene.
Any qualms about that, Dimitri Rougy?
“No.” (Long pause).
“Not at all,” he continues. We’re a pluralistic democracy. Structures of parties and organisations keep changing. It isn’t groups like us that are digging their grave. They have to take the blame for it themselves if they can’t do their job as they should.”
Just as easily, Rougy rebuffs scepticism that digital campaigning is still suspected of operating within a bubble of the young generation while failing to reach the vast majority of older citizens – often considered to be the most conscientious and frequent voters.
Indirectly admitting the generation gap, he says the referendum committee will operate a two-pronged approach.
“We will motivate people online for offline activities. We want to initiate as many conversations as possible, we want people to talk to their friends and families.”
He is convinced that the digital space allows him to be close to his supporters and he vows to remain true to himself wherever his professional or political career will take him after the November vote.
And what about the cliché of digital native, fingers deftly typing text messages on the phone while talking to journalists?
Not today…. Not during our two-hour meeting. So, no further apologies necessary.