Instagram and Snapchat are vital tools for activating democracy

Giles Kenningham
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As a medium for candidates to communicate with the public, Instagram is a no brainer, (Source: Getty)

Facebook may own the conversation in the digital landscape in this coming election, but it needs to watch out.

Once the disruptor, it is now firmly part of the establishment, and that brings with it greater responsibility and a requirement for stringent safeguards.

As Facebook’s status as an edgy newcomer wanes, we need more digital disruptors, not only to make sure no one has a monopoly on social media, but also to change the conversation and inject some much-needed energy into the way we talk about politics.

Instagram and Snapchat have not yet really broken onto the political scene in the UK. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn both use Instagram, but so far it has failed to shape the agenda in this election. By contrast, in the recent US and French elections it played a central role.

Instagram has 18m users in the UK, and although it is owned by Facebook, its core demographic is much younger than that of the social media behemoth – Instagram is increasingly the platform of choice for young people and millennials, with 90 per cent of users aged under 35.

As a medium for candidates to communicate with the public, it is a no brainer, especially in carefully choreographed campaigns. If you’re a politician, you can share images and capture those first moments that may not be newsworthy but help provide an insight into your personal life that helps you appear more human, less spin-doctored.

It also offers opportunities to share the powerful and compelling stories of people you meet on the campaign trail. And crucially it allows you to engage with new audiences.

We know huge swathes of the electorate feel permanently disengaged and turned off from the political process. For many people they will have no idea what the Prime Minister or a government minister does on a day-to-day basis. As politicians grapple with the eternal problem of how to engage and energise a cynical public who have a low opinion of them, Instagram could be a way of increasing an understanding and insight (albeit a snapshot) of exactly what they do behind the scenes.

In India, Prime Minister Modi has an impressive 8m Instagram followers. President Obama cleverly gave over the control of his account to visitors at the White House, from museum curators to sport teams. In the UK, David Beckham has used the platform masterfully. With nearly 38m followers he gives his fans a window into his everyday life, from taking the kids on the school run to preparing dinner.

And even the tightly controlled media operation at Kensington Palace recently shared Prince Harry’s trip to Bermuda on the platform.

Snapchat is behind Instagram when it comes to users, but it still has a cool 10m in the UK. The instantaneous nature of the platform means it creates a sense of urgency to grab people’s attention. The here today, gone tomorrow nature of it means content is less polished but perhaps more authentic. And it offers a humorous way to engage people who normally switch off at the very mention of the word “politics” Crucially it has high levels of engagement with the average user spending 30 minutes a day on it.

Corbyn has been the first political leader to embrace the platform, which makes sense given more young people vote Labour than Conservative. In the recent French elections all three of the main candidates used Snapchat to reach out to young people and take their questions. To its credit, the Electoral Commission has tried to capitalise on this by joining forces with the platform to try and get the ever-illusive 18-24 demographic to register to vote.

As the public battle with political fatigue with their third vote in three years, it will be interesting to see if the Snapchat/Electoral Commission initiative has mobilised the millennial generation to turn out on June 8. Irrespective of what happens, we need Snapchat and Instagram to become a central part of the democratic process to ensure more people have a say and stake in the future of our country during what are seismic times.

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