Ten things we learned from MPs on Instagram

Image copyright Jeremy Corbyn/Theresa May

Conservative MPs have been offered tutorials on how to use Instagram, the picture-sharing app more usually associated with animals and brunches, following criticism of their social media strategy.

Party chairman Brandon Lewis recently arranged a training session for MPs on setting up an account and “creating effective content”.

As more MPs sign up to use it, we followed as many as we could find to see what it could tell us about how they are communicating with voters.

1. It’s not as big as Twitter or Facebook

It’s still a minority interest among politicians, relatively speaking. About 90% of MPs have Twitter profiles and the vast majority have Facebook pages, but only about a third use Instagram.

Of those who are on Instagram, the accounts are not always updated regularly and tend to have far fewer followers than on Twitter or Facebook.

Image copyright Gordon Marsden/James Duddridge/Instagram
Image caption Even MPs with Instagram accounts are not always active users

Jeremy Corbyn has 149,000 followers on Instagram compared to 1.7m on Twitter and 1.4m on Facebook.

Theresa May has 29,600 Instagram followers compared to 457,000 on Twitter and 548,00 on Facebook.

2. It’s a relatively friendly place

The viciousness of Twitter and Facebook is well-documented. A survey for BBC Radio 5live found at least 50 MPs had been subject to abuse during the 2017 election campaign, including “co-ordinated Facebook attacks”.

A recent report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life included the finding that “no female MP who was active on Twitter has been free from online intimidation”.

But Instagram seems, at least for now, to conform to a different pattern.

To take one post at random – the Conservative MP John Lamont recently posted a picture of himself training for a marathon, which on Instagram has garnered 64 “likes” and polite questions about which charity he is fundraising for.

On Twitter, the same photo has only 11 likes and underneath someone has commented: “Would you not be better getting something done for Scottish Borders instead of obsessing over a bloody race.”

One Conservative aide says MPs find the platform “more wholesome”, adding “comments aren’t necessarily a big part of Insta so it doesn’t attract the same abuse and tone-deaf, campaign-y tweets which Twitter enables”.

3. MPs can “be themselves”

On a related note, Instagram is striking for being less relentlessly political than Twitter or Facebook.

As Marie le Conte, a political journalist who has written about MPs’ use of Instagram, observes: “It’s a bit of an online safe space where they can post ‘normal people’ stuff and not receive an avalanche of abuse in response.”

This means that you’ll see photos of Labour’s Andrew Gwynne’s efforts for “dry January”, or new minister Mims Davies confessing to matching her shoes to her departmental briefcase.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson tells the BBC: “I’m a recent convert to Instagram and it’s not political – I follow it for houseplants and art, nutrition and food, fashion, fitness and boxing.”

Of course, how much MPs are letting us see their “real” personalities and how much they use the platform to cultivate a particular image is up for debate.

But this is a tension familiar to anyone who uses Instagram, not just MPs.

4. Constituencies rule

Although MPs do share photos of the green benches and gilded turrets of Westminster, they tend to post far more from their constituencies.

A shot of a trip hazard in Leamington Spa may not sound totally thrilling, while all the pictures of MPs holding party leaflets alongside constituency activists can get a little repetitive.

But it’s a way of MPs showing voters what they’re up to at a local level while the media may be more focused on their approach to national issues.

5. So does scenery…

You’re certainly at an advantage, Instagram-wise, if you happen to represent a picturesque constituency.

Just scroll through the timeline of any MP for a seat which is on the coast, or in the rolling countryside.

You can see the “likes” flood in, with no political message or politician in sight.

6. … And animals…

For as long as social media has existed, animals have been the star of the show – whether it’s grumpy cats or good dogs.

And naturally on Instagram, the pets MPs own or encounter become part of their personal brand.

7. … And food…

While Instagram shares some features with Twitter and Facebook, the craze for posting pictures of food is perhaps its most distinctive feature.

It’s part of how users create the impression of their lifestyle – often highly stylised and aspirational.

Some MPs have fully embraced this.

But for MPs, food photos are much more than just attractive pictures. Local delicacies or cake sales can be another way to subtly stress their attachment to the constituency and particular causes.

8. But it’s not all organic

While Instagram provides a handy tool for MPs hoping to present their human side, it doesn’t always work out that way.

The timelines of many MPs – particularly Conservatives – are cluttered with stock graphics provided by party headquarters.

This may look odd if you follow lots of MPs, but is probably a sensible thing for politicians with busy schedules, who may need easing into a social media platform they are not yet confident about.

As well as content provided directly by the parties, MPs also team up more informally. We spotted these two posts, by Conservative MPs Mims Davies and Sir Peter Bottomley, which look very similar.

Image copyright Bottomley/Davies/Instagram
Image caption Images shared by Conservatives Sir Peter Bottomley and Mims Davies

Bottomley’s post was created by Jessica Zbinden-Webster, his assistant, who shared the idea with Davies’ team. “There is an MP-to-MP sharing of digital strategy taking place now which there wasn’t a year ago,” she told the BBC.

There’s nothing wrong with this of course – MPs, especially from the same party, have always collaborated and shared resources.

“The similar idea of sharing an MP’s schedule on Instagram ‘Stories’ has been shared as an efficient way of keeping constituents informed of what their representative gets up to in Westminster,” said Zbinden-Webster.

9. It reaches a different audience

Instagram announced in September that it had 800m monthly active users, up from 700m million in April, making it one of the fastest-growing social media platforms.

Twitter has less than half that number, and has recently reported a very modest increase in user numbers.

Twitter also functions as a news platform, whereas Instagram focuses on the everyday details of people’s lives – and as such it’s a good place to lie in wait for “normal” people who aren’t already political wonks.

As Conservative MP Victoria Prentis puts it: “It’s a quick and convenient way of engaging with a different demographic of constituent.”

10. It can create unlikely stars

The most popular politician on Instagram is Jeremy Corbyn. That’s perhaps not unexpected given his party’s popularity with younger voters, as well as people of all ages who use the internet more often.

But the MP with the second highest number of followers, ahead of Theresa May, is the Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg. On Twitter he is only the 18th most-followed MP.

You might not associate Instagram with Mr Rees-Mogg’s brand of old-fashioned Conservatism.