How Instagram became the politicians’ playground

Free from viral abuse, Instagram has become our MPs’ preferred platform to show off their human side

Tom Watson is spiralising courgettes with a gadget bought in a supermarket sale. Caroline Flint looks thrilled with the mini trampoline she got for Christmas, though arguably not as thrilled as Tory leadership contender Liz Truss is to be posing with Larry the Downing Street cat on her knee. And Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, wants you to know he’s been doing some DIY.

Welcome to the soothingly soporific world of politicians on Instagram. You won’t find many profound insights on Brexit, admittedly. But in a week where two Conservative councillors were caught “liking” Facebook memes about beheading Sadiq Khan while Labour’s Angela Rayner received death threats for tweeting something polite about Tony Blair, there’s something undeniably restful about looking at pictures of Emily Thornberry stroking a penguin. If political Twitter feels increasingly like hard work, Instagram is one of the few places MPs still allow themselves to be playful.

“It’s a whole different world,” says the Conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries, whose Twitter account this week featured a snapshot of her bedside panic button but whose Instagram focuses more on sweet images of her dogs. “My daughters are on it, my friends are on it, and I like to do things like look at kitchens because I’m having my kitchen done. Twitter is for politics. Instagram is for people I like and things I want to see – the other half of my life.”

It’s also become something of a safe space for female and minority politicians, who bear the brunt of vitriol elsewhere. (Dorries was an early social media adopter who became warier after suffering the attentions of a stalker; these days she isn’t on Facebook and tweets sparingly, feeling the site has been “taken over by the hard left and the hard right”.) On Instagram at least, Jess Phillips can still discuss domestic violence le gislation without being called a feminazi, while Diane Abbott’s official account is swamped with heart emojis not racist abuse. But has the platform really cracked the puzzle of detoxifying political debate, or is this just the calm before the incoming storm?

The faster Instagram grows, the more seriously politicians are taking it. The race for US presidential nominations is already beginning on Instagram Live, the site’s video live-streaming function, where you can watch veteran Democrat Elizabeth Warren chatting over a beer or young pretender Beto O’Rourke making “slime” (a tween craze) with his daughter. In Britain, Chuka Umunna marked the creation of centrist breakaway faction the Independent Group by Instagramming a picture of its founding members eating chicken at Nando’s, while Tory leadership contenders Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Truss and Williamson are all cultivating followings. What better way to suggest a lovable personal hinterland, while showing willing to connect with younger voters?

A new generation of visually literate young activists are meanwhile using Instagram to campaign on issues from gun control in the US to “period poverty”. “In terms of influencing it’s great, though it’s not necessarily as impactful as Twitter,” says anti-FGM activist Nimco Ali, who uses both sites. “If you understand branding, which is what campaigning is, and you can brand your campaign aesthetically, Instagram can be the place for you. If you want to hone your message, Twitter is the place.”

Yet political Instagram is developing a darker side too, with active communities of anti-vaxxers peddling disproven junk science about measles jabs causing autism, Russian trolls pumping out pro-Kremlin propaganda, and alt-right sympathisers.

In some ways, Instagram is better inoculated against viral hate than its rivals. It’s more rewarding for trolls to harass public figures on a viral platform like Twitter, where journalists are more likely to notice and reward them with attention. Radicalising people is arguably easier via YouTube, where video holds people’s attention for long periods, and algorithms lead them to similar content. Extremists seemingly prefer to organise inside Facebook groups, which provide them with somewhere private to exchange toxic ideas.

“There’s definitely a problem with Facebook groups,” says Lucy Powell, the Labour MP who is urging more transparency over the memberships of larger groups and greater accountability for group hosts spreading fake or libellous information. “Administrators can get rid of anyone who doesn’t share their world view and indoctrinate people by normalising opinions that wouldn’t last five minutes in the pub. On Instagram, you can only leave a comment on the person’s page, and you are clearly the author.”

Nor does Instagram lend itself to Twitter-style pile-ons, where big names retweet (share beyond its intended audience) someone else’s tweet, inciting followers to ridicule or attack it. Instagram doesn’t have a “re-gram” function, and although people can share screenshots of someone else’s words, users mainly see content from people they’ve chosen to follow and probably like. That reduces potential for bullying but also arguably the potential for robust argument and counter-argument, raising the question of whether it’s even possible to do politics without some conflict.

One reason political Instagram has stayed friendly is that it’s often barely about politics. Like many MPs, Powell treats her own Instagram account as relaxing down time – “I use it to keep up with people who’ve left Love Island or what Holly Willoughby’s wearing on This Morning” – and followers respond accordingly. It would feel faintly odd to start a fight over a picture of someone’s cat.

But it probably helps that users are predominantly young, female, more likely than tweeters to come from ethnic minorities and crucially less interested in politics. A community associated with fashion and “fitspo” isn’t naturally attractive to political obsessives spoiling for a fight. Besides, the site’s sunny nature may be contagious. One study of Facebook users found that when their feeds were altered to include more positive or negative stories, behaviour shifted accordingly; people who saw more negative material posted more of it themselves and vice versa. Instagram, with its bouncy #familyfun hashtags, still feels friendly and upbeat. The snag is that so did Twitter a decade ago. As platforms expand, and their demographic changes, so can the prevailing mood.

Instagram recently banned the far-right activist Tommy Robinson, but alt-right rabble-rousers Katie Hopkins and Milo Yiannopoulos have popular accounts; feuds begun on other platforms are visibly spilling over on to Instagram, as has the angry Brexit lexicon of betrayal. “You are a traitor to Britain trying to stop the will of the people lets [sic] hope you get voted out” reads one comment on a perfectly anodyne post about students from Yvette Cooper.

And while most of Jeremy Corbyn’s 195,000 followers lap up pictures of him eating vegetarian curry or addressing rallies, the Labour leader’s feed also attracts aggressive comments about everything from Brexit to his long-ago love affair with Abbott, plus supportive but distinctly un-Instagrammish references to “Tory scum”. More disturbingly, a recent Holocaust Day post noting that 6 million Jews were killed in the second world war brought at least one Holocaust denier out of the woodwork, while comments on a post about economic inequality quickly descended into a row about antisemitism.

For now, the volume of abuse is tiny compared to other platforms. But worryingly for some veteran far-right watchers there is no easy way of tracking one individual’s comments, potentially scattered on hundreds of posts across the site, which makes it potentially harder to monitor. The greatest risk is arguably that Instagram’s natural fluffiness could make users complacent about the nature of the threat or even help to normalise extreme content placed there. For now, it’s still a sunny harbour from political storms. But Instagrammers perhaps shouldn’t assume they’ll remain #blessed for ever.

Contributor

Gaby Hinsliff

The GuardianTramp

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