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Instagram users may be more influenced politically by their social connections on the platform than they are by political accounts. (Dean Moriarty, Pixabay)

Social ties, not politicians, may drive political participation on Instagram

Politicians of all stripes use social media to share their party platforms and connect with voters, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than ever, they use video and image-driven platforms, especially Instagram.

Many major Canadian federal political parties and leaders have large followings on Instagram, and younger voters especially are regular and active users. Political information related to COVID-19 is regularly shared on the platform by Canadian political and opposition leaders.

The number of Instagram users has also increased rapidly in recent years. In February, Statista reported that Instagram had a billion monthly active accounts, up from 200 million users in March 2014.

Until recently, much attention from the media and academic researchers has focused on how politicians and citizens use Facebook and Twitter for political engagement. Less coverage and work has examined how voters use Instagram to engage with political information, especially in Canada.

Users interact with people they know

A number of Canadian voters sought political information about the 2019 federal election on Instagram. This included posting related content or liking, sharing or commenting on posts made by political parties.

Recent survey research conducted as part of the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge shows that respondents who used Instagram to engage with political information during the election were more likely to interact with people they knew on the platform rather than professional accounts designed to foster political participation. The results are seen below:

This is an important finding because it suggests that professional communicators, even with all their expertise and resources, were still less effective than respondents’ friends, family members and acquaintances in driving engagement on the platform.

This point is made more salient when we consider recent research that highlights the strategies behind political candidates’ use of Instagram and other social media accounts.

Some of this work, for instance, examines the role of digital storytelling in candidates’ efforts to project and manage their political images.

Findings and implications

The survey includes responses from 208 Canadian citizens 18 years and older. Respondents intended to vote and to access political information related to the election on Instagram. The survey was conducted online in French and English, from Oct. 4-13, 2019. The data collected is not nationally representative, but results give useful initial indicators.

Many respondents, more than three-quarters, used Instagram to engage politically on issues related to the election in one or more ways. Yet these Canadians were more likely to interact with users who they knew offline (27 per cent). They were less likely to engage with content posted by professional accounts, such as political candidates (19 per cent) or non-partisan organizations (10 per cent).

Instagram users are more influenced politically by their social connections on the platform then they are by political accounts. (Piqsels)

In particular, respondents were less likely to interact with content posted by groups, including political parties (13 per cent), news outlets (13 per cent) and non-partisan organizations (10 per cent). Rather than these groups, survey participants more readily engaged with accounts run by or representing a single individual, such as a political candidate (19 per cent) or a journalist or other public figure (21 per cent) — though still not nearly as much as they engaged with people they knew offline.

This research suggests that respondents’ offline relationships drove political engagement on the platform more than professional communicators. It also signals the important role that social ties played in respondents’ communications on Instagram around the election.

These findings have spurred some recommendations for civil society groups like unions or non-profits whose work involves political engagement.

Encourage content sharing

When sharing nonpartisan political information online, civil society groups should consider how they can most effectively use Instagram to spread that content. Since the study suggests that individual users may be more inclined to engage politically on the platform with people they know offline, these groups should consider strategies that encourage individual users to screenshot or otherwise independently share their content.

Civil society groups like unions and non-profits should encourage people to share their content. {Piqsels)

This could allow civil society groups to better connect with individual Canadians.

Also, civil society groups whose mandates include digital literacy should include discussion of political engagement on Instagram in program materials and initiatives. As young people are more active users of the platform, these efforts should target teenagers and young voters.

These initiatives could address how young people can develop their political knowledge and participation on Instagram.

Further work could show the extent to which these behaviours are reflected nationally, and in relation to political information about COVID-19.

The findings give initial indications that social capital may play a greater role than political, industry or third-sector financial resources in political engagement on Instagram. That’s important given the expertise and resources behind many of these efforts.

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