Instagram is the virtual stage for celebrities parading their luxurious lives: you’ll find Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Ariana Grande and Cristiano Ronaldo in the top 10 most-followed users. Not the natural home for dishevelled British politicians, you’d think. But the app, which was bought by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, has become a battleground for politicians of all stripes to get their message across. And they’re targeting Instagram’s young users, who don’t use Facebook, both because of privacy concerns and the perception that it has become a medium more suited to their parents.
The number of politicians with accounts has grown significantly in recent years; the most popular is Jeremy Corbyn’s at 400,000 followers, with Boris Johnson at 285,000. This campaign has also registered a far greater amount of user engagement with political posts compared with 2017. Among the most viewed content is the video of Corbyn’s speech at the rally against the war in Iraq on 15 February, 2003 in Hyde Park; and his “Mean Tweets” video, where the Labour leader comments on critical tweets about himself by the fireside. Johnson’s account features campaign events, selfies, motivational slogans, pictures of the him handing out cups of tea in an old people’s home. In one photo he appears at the fish market in Grimsby holding a big fish. Politicians such as the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and the former Labour and current Lib Dem politician Chuka Umunna have also earned reputations as Instagram-savvy politicians. Williamson has posted images of himself making a pancake, and the Wickes coat hooks he hasn’t got round to putting up.
They’re also seeking celebrity endorsement on the platform. Corbyn has Ed Sheeran (32 million followers), Dua Lipa (37m followers) and Stormzy (2.7m followers). Johnson has not earned endorsements of the quite the same calibre: the most notable showbiz celebrity to come out in explicit support is the stand-up comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown.
Politics is being transformed, with campaigns adopting many of the tropes that have emerged on Instagram, in particular the culture of “staged authenticity”. They show how supposedly things “really are” backstage, away from the limelight, to make political leaders appear more “relatable” and humane at a time when their approval ratings have reached rock bottom.
Common to many of the pictures is an attempt to convey the impression that the leader was not aware he was being photographed. This is the style most used by Instagram celebrities, to create a more emotional connection with their fan base, with the ultimate aim of strengthening their brand, and converting fans into customers. In the case of politicians, the style tries to overome the distrust of citizens, and in particular young people, towards a political class that is perceived to be distant from their everyday concerns, and turn their fans into proselytising opinion leaders in their own social networks.
Surveys indicate that we are at a nadir in terms of trust towards politicians. Approval rates are particularly low for Corbyn, but not excellent for Johnson either. The issue of trust was raised repeatedly during the campaign, including during the ITV leaders’ debate, when Johnson was jeered by members of the audience for saying that he cared about truth. What is at stake here is the “sentimental connection” between leaders and the electorate, which the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s argued was crucial to political consensus-building. The use of social media in general, and of Instagram in particular, is to a great extent geared precisely at rebuilding this connection.
In adopting the trope of staged authenticity, political leaders in the digital era, or “hyperleaders” as they have become known, want to persuade us that there is nothing to fear from them, that they can be trusted, because they are just flesh and bones like us. This is a communication strategy that is not unique to the UK. In the US, politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke, and in Europe, Italy’s former deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, use Instagram in much the same way.
Politics is moving towards the Instagram model. But is this “reputation offensive” an effective remedy for the crisis of trust in politics? Embracing Instagram is a symptom of how worried politicians are about citizens “disliking” them, and the fact they are conscious they need to rebuild trust. But Instagramming alone won’t be enough. Ultimately this is because the “staged authenticity” that is performed there is manufactured. It is just the newest form of what the US historian Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events”, tactics such as press conferences and photo opportunities that are there simply in order to be viewed and reported.
But if the glaring crisis of trust in UK politics has to be addressed, much more needs to be done. It is certainly not something that can be solved with social media wizardry.