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The rise of Instagram as a tool for political communication - A longitudinal study of European political parties and their followers


Abstract and Figures

Featuring a longitudinal, structural study of European party and citizen activity on Instagram between 2012 and 2018, this paper outlines the overarching changes in the ways that Instagram has been employed for political party communication. Differentiating between populist and non-populist political parties, the results indicate that much like for other platforms such as Facebook, the former category of parties enjoy higher amounts of citizen engagement than their non-populist competitors. Detailing the uses of different types of posts by the two types of political actors, the study provides insights into how political parties have adopted and used Instagram from 2012 and onwards.
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Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Anders Olof Larsson
Department of Communication
Kristiania University College
Featuring a longitudinal, structural study of European party and citizen activity on Instagram
between 2012 and 2018, this paper outlines the overarching changes in the ways that
Instagram has been employed for political party communication. Differentiating between
populist and non-populist political parties, the results indicate that much like for other
platforms such as Facebook, the former category of parties enjoy higher amounts of citizen
engagement than their non-populist competitors. Detailing the uses of different types of
posts by the two types of political actors, the study provides insights into how political
parties have adopted and used Instagram from 2012 and onwards.
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
The bulk of our knowledge of how political parties, politicians and the citizens who
potentially vote for them make use of social media for electoral and similar purposes is
largely based on studies of Twitter (Jungherr, 2015; Jacobs et al., 2020; Hemsley et al., 2018;
Enli, 2017) and to some extent on research looking into Facebook (e.g. Larsson, 2016;
Nitschke et al., 2016; Sorensen, 2016; Ceccobelli, 2018; Nave et al., 2018; Stetka  et al.,
2019). As such, it would seem that our understanding of the online engagement of such
actors needs to expand beyond the two mentioned platforms, detailing activities
undertaken on other social media as well. This appears as a suitable way forward for at least
two reasons. First, as each medium “invites particular social behaviors(Papacharissi,
2015b: 1), we should expect behavioral norms regarding the provision of feedback (where
users employ functionalities such as commenting and liking) to differ between platforms
(Bene, 2017; Bastos, 2015). Thus, researchers might find it useful to further nuance our
understanding by investigating how such use patterns play out in relation to different types
of political actors on platforms other than those already mentioned. Second, the online
prioritizations of political parties, politicians and staffers often appear to be more diverse
than the empirical foci typically employed by scholars. For instance, Kreiss, Lawrence and
McGregor (2017) found that US political practitioners identified platforms like Snapchat and
Instagram as important venues for campaigning efforts – especially in order to reach
potentially younger voters (see also Muñoz and Towner, 2017). Indeed, the tendency for
scholars to emphasize Twitter and Facebook over other platforms is likely related to the
relative ease with which data can or indeed could (Rieder, 2015; Bruns, 2019; Freelon, 2018)
be gathered from these platforms in comparison with others (Lomborg and Bechmann,
2014; Lewis et al., 2013). Such technical developments and opportunities for data collection
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have thus served to further the prominence of studies featuring Twitter and, to a somewhat
lesser extent, Facebook data.
While further insights into the uses of Twitter and Facebook are nevertheless necessary, our
focus in the study at hand lays on another social media platform – Instagram. Launched in
2010 and currently owned by Facebook, Instagram is perhaps best known for its “visual-
centric(Muñoz and Towner, 2017: 2) or indeed “image-based(Dimitrova and Matthes,
2018: 336) focus on images and video clips. Given the importance of audio-visual content in
political communication and campaigning that has been evident at least since the
popularization of television (Blumler and Kavanagh, 1999; Strömbäck, 2007), it is indeed
curious that “there is very little research on Instagram within the social sciences in general
and political communication in particular(Russmann and Svensson, 2017a: 50). Our current
efforts, then, provides a structural study of how party and citizen engagement has evolved
on Instagram during a six-year period. Utilizing data from a series of European countries, the
work presented in the paper at hand features an overarching longitudinal approach that
assesses the changing nature of Instagram as a tool for political communication. Given the
rising interest in activities of populist political actors (e.g. Engesser, Fawzi and Larsson,
2017), we apply a differentiation between populist and non-populist political actors (as
defined by Rooduijn et al., 2019). This will allow us to identify any overarching differences in
the Instagram use of the identified actor types – suggested differences that will be further
discussed in the subsequent section. Besides such forays into the supply side of political
communication on Instagram, the selected approach will also allow for insights into the
demand side of the political communication process as played out on Instagram – the
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engagement patterns left by the followers of parties as they like and comment on the posts
made available (e.g. Xenos et al., 2015; Nielsen and Vaccari, 2013; Gibson, 2012).
Literature Review
While social media like the one under scrutiny here were typically initially intended for
individual use (e.g. boyd and Ellison, 2008) – consider, for example, YouTube’s previous
slogan ‘Broadcast Yourself’ – a series of professional actors quickly saw the potential in
curating a presence on such venues where potential customers or supporters created
profiles and networked among themselves (e.g. Castells, 2007; Iosifidis, 2011; Moe, 2008).
With Instagram being a relative newcomer to the social media landscape, its strong focus on
visual and indeed audio-visual content is nevertheless mirrored in studies detailing so-called
‘YouTube Elections’ that took place during the first decade of the 2000s (e.g. Carlson and
Strandberg, 2008; Gueorguieva, 2008; McKinney and Rill, 2009; Dylko et al., 2011; Gibson
and McAllister, 2011; Towner and Dulio, 2011). Indeed, the previously mentioned increasing
importance of images and videos for the purpose of political campaigning is evident also in
relation to Instagram (e.g. Enli, 2017; Russmann and Svensson, 2017b). Yet, we know rather
little about how parties have made use of the service at hand during its first years of
Regardless of what platform is studied, it is difficult to make any precise conclusions about
the effect of party social media use on outcomes such as election results (e.g. Koc-Michalska
et al., 2020). Nevertheless, gaining engagement – typically measured on Instagram as the
number of likes and comments per post made – must be considered as important. Indeed,
gaining engagement is likely to increase the visibility of posts by means of influencing the
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algorithms that guide much of social media traffic (Ceccobelli et al., 2020). As such,
maintaining an online presence on services like the one studied here is of the utmost
importance for parties seeking to spread their messages wide and far.
Patterns of Party use
At the time of this writing, Instagram offered its users four main categories of posts that
could be made to the platform – photos, videos, albums and IGTV (Instagram Television).
Users can indeed also utilize the stories functionality (launched in 2016) – but since such
stories are ephemeral by design, they could not be included in the study at hand. While the
ability to post photos has been part of Instagram functionality since the launch of the
platform, the opportunity for users to uploading Video content was included in 2013. Since
2017, up to 10 photos or videos can be included in what is referred to as an album, which to
the viewing Instagram user appears as a browsable catalog of the content made available.
Finally, while the allowed video length has varied between 15 and 60 seconds since 2013,
the possibility to use the IGTV functionality launched in 2018 (as a separate service and as
part of the main Instagram platform) and allowed for up to 60 minutes of video to be shared
to the platform.
Given our interest in the potential differences in populist and non-populist party use of
Instagram, it is important to note that previous research looking into party use of other,
similar services suggest limited ideological influence (e.g. Klinger, 2013; Vergeer and
Hermans, 2013; Lilleker et al., 2011; Schweitzer, 2008). Curiously, relatively old (e.g. Gibson
et al., 2008; Vaccari, 2008) as well as more recent (Larsson, 2017a; Koc-Michalska et al.,
2020; Jacobs et al., 2020) scholarship has suggested that such de-ideologized tendencies
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
might need to be re-assessed. Research specifically focusing on Instagram, then, provide a
somewhat clearer picture in this regard. Findings from Norway, for instance, suggest that at
least before the 2013 national elections, Instagram was “barely used for political purposes”
(Kalsnes, 2016: 29). With regards to political party activity, this inactivity appeared to have
changed before the regional elections in 2015, where supporters of the populist Progress
Party were reported as among the least active on the platform under scrutiny – instead, the
‘catch-all’ social democratic Labour Party emerged as yielding the most activity (Larsson,
2017b). A similarly inactive Progress Party is evident also in later studies from the same
context (Larsson, 2019b; Larsson, 2019c). Similar findings have been reported from Sweden,
where the populist Sweden Democrats hosted a private – as in not accessible to all other
users - Instagram account in the time period leading up to the 2014 national elections
(Filimonov et al., 2016; Russmann and Svensson, 2017a). Indeed, such privacy settings must
be considered a more conservative attitude towards the platform under investigation.
Similarly, Ekman and Widholm (2017) found that the Instagram activity by Sweden
Democratic representatives was characterized by “low or moderate connectivity(2017:
In sum, while populist parties appear to prioritize Facebook (Kalsnes, 2016), Instagram
appears as less important for them. While patterns of Facebook party use has been found to
be rather similar for both types of parties (Larsson, 2020), previous research suggests rather
dissimilar usage patterns when differentiating between populist and non-populist political
parties. In line with the research reviewed above, our first hypothesis reads as follows:
H1: Party use trajectory will differ between populist and non-populist parties.
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Patterns of user engagement
Before social media such as the platform studied here, online user engagement could – and
indeed can still – be gauged by the extent to which varying functionalities like comment
fields or ‘e-mail a friend’ links were used - the “bells and whistles” (Deuze, 2003: 214) of
web pages. While these and similar varieties of web traffic data sources remain important
measures of activity also today, the influx of social media has added another dimension of
audience engagement possibilities as visitors have the possibility to involve themselves on
Instagram by means of liking and commenting on the posts made by Instagram account
holders such as the parties studied here. With this in mind, Hayes and co-authors (2016)
point out that “lightweight signals” (2016: 171) such as these opportunities to engage are
used in a variety of different ways. For instance, while a comment can readily express a
certain sentiment, a ‘like’ can take on a plethora of meanings based on the original intent of
the engaging user, expressing support or critique alike (see also Driscoll and Walker, 2014;
Gorrell and Bontcheva, 2015; Lomborg and Bechmann, 2014). Regardless of the
uncertainties regarding the precise, situated and indeed individualized meanings of these
modes of engagement, pronounced levels of likes and comments are likely to influence the
algorithms that “shape the visibility of content and therefore public attention” (Kreiss and
McGregor, 2017: 4) on the platform studied here.
The question is, then, to what extent populist and non-populist parties succeed in engaging
potential voters on the platform at hand. While previous scholarship has indicated a late
start on social media for the former of the two types of parties (e.g. Larsson, 2020), the
latter half of the 2010s brought with it the rise of populist party popularity identified in a
series of countries not only in Europe but across the globe (Moffitt, 2016; Oliver and Rahn,
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2016). This observation mirrors the findings of Gil de Zúñiga and co-authors (2020) who
suggested “a reinvigorated political populism trend has taken place across different
latitudes in the world(2020: 585) during latter years. Perhaps as a result of their prevalent
use of rhetorical devices such as negative campaigning (Nai, 2018) and emotionalization
(Hameleers et al., 2017), populist actors emerge as more authentic (Enli, 2017) and more in
touch with “the people” (Jagers and Walgrave, 2007) than their non-populist competitors.
Based on the often-reported online success of populist actors (Engesser, Fawzi and Larsson,
2017; Larsson, 2019, Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2020), our second hypothesis is expressed as
H2: Instagram engagement will be more pronounced in relation to posts made by populist
parties in comparison with posts made by their non-populist competitors
User engagement across post types
In their study of user engagement with the Facebook activity of 52 party leaders during
national election campaigns held in 18 Western countries between 2013 and 2017,
Ceccobelli and co-authors (2020) suggested that the “formal nature, that is whether they
are photos, links or videos” of posts “may predict modes of interaction with them”
(Ceccobelli et al., 2020: 9). Indeed, Vaccari (2012) points out that while comparably early
online political campaigning efforts tended to be text-oriented, the growing use of audio-
visual content as evident in a variety of contexts may function to democratize political
expression as it supposedly creates “a new grassroots outlet for the affective dimensions in
politics(Chadwick, 2008: 32; see also Papacharissi, 2015a). This potential for audio-visual
content to go “viral” (e.g. Nahon and Hemsley, 2013; Klinger and Svensson, 2015)
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supposedly builds on its “spreadable” (Jenkins et al., 2013) and “emotionally rousing”
(Rieder et al., 2015: 12) qualities, making the online provision of photos and perhaps
especially videos a top priority for political actors on the campaign trail (e.g. Kreiss and
McGregor, 2017). A study similar to the one presented here indicated that on Facebook,
political party posts featuring videos were indeed more engaged with than posts that did
not showcase such content (Larsson, 2020). With the popularity of audio-visual content in
mind, our third and final hypothesis reads as follows:
H3: Instagram engagement will be more pronounced in relation to posts featuring audio-
visual content in comparison with posts featuring other types of content.
Data collection
Data was collected using the CrowdTangle service, which offers full historical access to
public Instagram accounts such as those studied here (e.g. Fraser, 2020; Larsson, 2019a). It
is similar to the InstaR package for the R software environment, which previously allowed
for the structured, “tidy” (Wickham and Grolemund, 2016) archiving of meta-data (such as
the post text, the time of posting, the number of likes, the number of comments et. c.) for
public Instagram account posts (Barbera, 2016). Given the research topic featured here,
CrowdTangle was utilized to archive the meta-data for the full history of Instagram posts
from each party that was represented in the national parliaments of all European Union
member states (with the addition of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) at the end of 2018. In
total, this process of data collection yielded a total of 186 405 posts that were posted by
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285 parties. Posting activity reached back to January 3, 2012, and the data collection
process ended on December 31, 2018.
Data analysis
Populism can be defined in a myriad of ways, all with their advantages and drawbacks (de
Vreese et al., 2018). The literature suggests two main approaches to the term – one “actor-
centered” and one “communication-centered” (e.g. Jacobs et al., 2020; Stanyer et al., 2016).
While the latter approach considers populism a style of communication that frequently
refers to dichotomies between ‘the people’ and ‘societal elites’ and then attacks elites using
often simplistic and emotional arguments and language, the former classifies political actors
as populist or not based on some specific criteria or definition. Studies following the “actor-
centered” approach will then typically use this classification to “compare the
communication strategies of populists […] with those of non-populists” (Jacobs et al., 2020:
613). The study at hand, then, follows an actor-centered approach and understands parties
as belonging to one of two categories: populist or non-populist. The process of classification
was guided by the work of Wilke and colleagues (2019) who employed three different
sources to define the concept - the populism party scale developed by Inglehart and Norris
(2016), ratings from the 2017 Chapel Hill Expert Survey (Polk et al., 2017) and the PopuList,
which as the name implies provides an updated, annotated lists overview of European
populist parties based on expert consultancies (Rooduijn et al., 2019). While the three
identified sources all differ somewhat in how they operationalize the concept of political
populism, they all emphasize the “the ‘pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt others’” narrative
suggested by Mudde (2004) and mentioned above. Following previous scholarship in using
the PopuList for classification purposes (Rooduijn et al., 2019; Larsson, 2020), 11 out of the
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285 parties were classified as populist. Table 1 details the populist parties included in the
study at hand.
To investigate the aforementioned hypotheses, the analyses will first focus on the
assessment of supply side activities - showing activity undertaken by political parties – and
second on the demand side, detailing activities undertaken by party followers in relation to
party posts. For the supply side, the internal structure of Instagram allows us to discern
between four major types of post – Photos, Albums (essentially the ability to feature several
Photos in the same post, launched in 2017 - see PNDPulse, 2017), Video (which appears to
have launched in 2013 - see Taylor, 2013) and IGTV posts, which emanate from the separate
Instagram-operated app with the same name launched in 2018. This final category of posts,
then, allows for longer videos to be uploaded – up to one hour in length (Constine, 2018). It
is worth noting that CrowdTangle does not capture Instagram Stories (Constine, 2016) –
since they “are ephemeral and thus disappear after 24 hours(Fraser, 2020).
For the demand side, engagement with different types of posts is understood here as the
ways in which Instagram users are allowed to provide feedback to content made available
by some other user. While such options for engagement tend to change overtime (e.g.
Driscoll and Walker, 2014; Jungherr and Theocharis, 2017), the offering of likes and
comments as possibilities for engagement appears to have been stable throughout the
existence of the studied platform. While the precise meaning of such engagement options
does indeed vary based on the intent of the partaking user (e.g. Lampinen, 2015; Gorrell
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and Bontcheva, 2015; Hayes et al., 2016), we can nevertheless think of these measures as
representations of user attention. Specifically, they should be considered as imperfect
representations, since we cannot readily assess the situated intention of these engagement
forms at scale. Regardless, the number of likes and comments provided in relation to a
specific post gives us some indication as to the popularity of said post (Barnhart, 2020).
Much like for other studies utilizing social media data, the data analyzed here were
characterized as highly skewed (e.g. Hanusch and Bruns, 2016; Jungherr, 2014). Thus, the
analyses featured median comparisons of the levels of engagement enjoyed by populists
and non-populist parties. Non-parametric Mann-Whitney U tests were utilized in order to
assess the statistical significance of the uncovered differences (Field, 2018).
Turning first to the supply side of our analyses, figure 1 shows the number of posts per year
and type for both categories of parties.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the photo variety of Instagram post comes out on top for both
categories of parties. Similarly, the relative level of use for the other three post varieties
emerge in a comparable descending fashion for populists and non-populists. Beyond these
parallels, figure 1 also reveals some contrasts with regards to Instagram prioritizations
across the two party types. For the aforementioned photo variety, we can see that while the
activity for non-populists appears to have plateaued from 2016 and onwards, the
corresponding line for populist parties shows a comparably fluctuating historical trajectory
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and ends up with what could be characterized as an ascending trend. While we cannot
make any precise conclusions from these data, it nevertheless seems likely that such an
upwards trend for populist actors is related to the increased popularity that many such
parties enjoyed following the 2015 refugee crisis – an influx of refugees which was indeed
palpable in a series of European countries.
With regards to the specific types of posts used, figure 1 shows that non-populist parties
incorporated video in their Instagram strategies starting in 2013 - the year that the specified
functionality was launched - with 68 such posts. Two years later, we see a modest at best
start for populist usage of video type posts with 2 such instances – only in 2016 (with 43
posts) can we see the previously mentioned increasing focus on audio-visual formats
supposedly yield influence the Instagram activity of populist parties. Taking all types of posts
into account, the lines featured in figure 1 shows how the two different parties have
curated their Instagram presences following differing trajectories. While we cannot be sure
based on the data analyzed for the study at hand, the literature reviewed earlier suggests
that the uncovered differences are likely a result of the disinterest in Instagram expressed
by populist parties. In sum, our results support our first hypothesis, which suggested
differing patterns of use for the two party types.
Shifting to the demand side, figure 2 provides insights into year-by-year Instagram
engagement from followers of populist and non-populist parties.
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While the lines depicting the engagement activity undertaken in relation to party posts
indicate clear differences between the two party types, a series of Mann-Whitney U tests
were performed to check for statistical significance of the uncovered differences. For Likes,
the differences between populist and non-populist parties emerged as statistically
significant across all studied years (p < .000 for all years). For comments, the performed
analyses indicated that the differences shown in figure 2 were non-significant for 2012 (p =
.092) and for 2013 (p = .072). From 2014 and onwards, the differences pertaining to
comments emerged as significant (p < .000 for all years between 2014-2018). Thus, we can
conclude that with a few exceptions in the earliest phases of the studied time period,
populist parties succeed in gaining more engagment on Instagram - regardless of feedback
type. These results could be seen as a stark contrast to the level of activity undertaken by
the successful populist actors – especially if one considers their relative tardiness to fully
incorporate the platform under scrutiny. As a similar study detailing the Facebook
engagement enjoyed by the two party types provided similar results to those presented
here, so is the aforementioned “rise of populism” (e.g. Moffitt, 2016; Oliver and Rahn, 2016)
visible also in relation to Instagram. As such, we can confirm our second hypothesis, which
suggested that Instagram engagement would be more pronounced in relation to posts
made by populist parties in comparison with posts made by their non-populist competitors.
Our third hypothesis emanated from previous findings regarding the role of audio-visual
media in political campaigns, suggesting that Instagram engagement would be more
pronounced in relation to posts featuring audio-visual content in comparison with posts
featuring other types of content. Figure 3, then, details the median likes (upper half of the
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figure) and the median comments (lower half) for post types and party category (left side
for non-populists, right side for populists).
The left-hand side shows engagement enjoyed by post type by non-populists, while
engagement undertaken in relation to posts made by populist actors is shown on the right-
hand side. Median amounts of likes per post type are shown in the upper half of the figure,
while the same statistic for comments is shown in the lower half. Mirroring the results
presented in figure 3, a series of Mann-Whitney U tests indicated that the differences of
engagement between party types across post types all emerged as significant (p < .000) for
both likes and comments.
Focusing specifically on non-populist actors, the album post variety emerged with a
significantly higher median of likes (257, p < .000) when compared to the other post types.
For medians of comments, video post types had the highest median (4) across all four types
– however, the difference between this category only provide statistically significant when
compared with the photo type of post (p < .000).
A rather different set of results emerge for the populist parties under scrutiny. Indeed, the
Mann-Whitney U tests indicate that the IGTV category of posts – allowing for comparably
longer audio-visual content to be uploaded – yields higher medians for both likes and
comments. As mentioned previously, IGTV was launched in the final year of the studied time
period. Thus, in a short period of time, this category of post has risen to the heights of
popularity among the followers of populist parties on Instagram – perhaps reflecting the
need for populist parties to use social media such as the platform studied here to
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“uncontestedly articulate their ideology and spread their messages” (Engesser, Ernst, Esser
& Büche 2017: 1110). Save for the likes enjoyed by non-populists, the findings offer support
for our third hypothesis as recounted previously.
With the spread of social media employment in political campaigns across the globe starting
in the early 2010s, comparably recent scholarship has suggested the need for longitudinal
insights into the uses of platforms like the one under scrutiny here. For instance, Kreiss,
Lawrence and McGregor (2017) suggested “the rapid changes of the Internet mean we
cannot presume continuity(Kreiss et al., 2017: 2) in the ways that social media platforms
are used by politicians and citizens alike. Indeed, Karpf (2020) provides a succinct summary
of the field when he suggests that “political use of Facebook and Twitter in 2019 is not
generally placed in comparison to how the two platforms were used in 2014(Karpf, 2020:
2). The study presented here, then, provides over-time insights into a platform that has not
seen as much academic attention as the two mentioned previously – Instagram. In detailing
the structure of the activity undertaken by European parties and citizens from 2012 until
2018, the study presented has focused especially on detailing the prowess of populist
political actors when it comes to levels of citizen engagement. This final section of the study
discusses some of its key findings and places them in the context of previous, similar
While Instagram was launched in 2010, the first instances of use of the platform among the
European parties included in the study at hand was found in 2012. On the one hand, such
relative slowness to make use of the then-new platform could be ascribed to time lag
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between introduction and use (e.g. King, 1982; Wohlers, 2009) or to difficulty in adopting
and adapting novel technologies to differing political systems (e.g. Karlsen, 2013). On the
other, these results could also be related to the supposed prioritization of other platforms
over the one studied here. Twitter, for instance, has long been seen as a useful tool for
“political marketing and image control(Tromble, 2016: 8), while Facebook has been
attractive for an extended period of time due to its large user base (de Best, 2018). As such,
political actors might have been better off by focusing their online endeavors elsewhere
than Instagram.
The relative tardiness of political parties to adopt Instagram does not appear to be matched
with audience engagement, however. Comparing the results presented here pertaining to
the median likes and comments per post and year with similar results reported for audience
engagement on European political party Facebook pages over a similar time period (Larsson,
2020), the year-by-year engagement statistics for Facebook (i.e. the median and amount of
likes, shares, comments and reactions) clearly surmounts the corresponding Instagram
measurements – save for the final two years scrutinized in both studies. For these two years
(2017 and 2018), platform popularity among the European citizenry appears to switch as
median amounts of Instagram engagement supersedes the same measurements as detailed
in the aforementioned Facebook study. We might expect that such increased popularity
would lead to an influx of Instagram use by political actors – however, such a shift of
attention seems unlikely at this point. Indeed, Facebook offers highly adaptable tools for
electioneering that Instagram does not (e.g. Kreiss and McGregor, 2017). Moreover, while
Facebook is clearly integrated into the hybrid media system identified by Chadwick (2013),
Instagram has so far not been associated with public debate in ways similar to Facebook and
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indeed Twitter. As such, the combined advantages of prioritizing Facebook over other
platforms are likely to maintain the status quo of Facebook dominance. Nevertheless, the
increased engagement visible on Instagram needs to be taken into account by parties in
some way – future research might be able to delve deeper into party prioritizations as
platform engagement dynamics change.
Finally, while populist parties appear to have been slower to adopt the service under
scrutiny when compared to non-populists, the results presented concerning Instagram
engagement show that much like for other platforms (e.g. Larsson, 2020), populist actors
clearly surpass their non-populist competitors. Thus, the rhetorical devices employed by
populists on other platform appears to translate well also when they take to a clearly image-
based platform like Instagram. Given the steadily increasing professionalization of (Lisi,
2013; Tenscher et al., 2015) and the “analytics turn” in (Chadwick and Stromer-Galley, 2016)
campaigns, parties are likely to have reached similar conclusions to the ones presented here
in their respective analyses of online performance. The question is, then, what
repercussions these conclusions might have for the communication prioritizations of
parties. Indeed, preceding changes and trends in media formats have previously influenced
such priorities (Blumler and Kavanagh, 1999; Blumler, 2016). Given the rise of Instagram, we
can expect parties regardless of ideological persuasion to adopt the structural tendencies
identified here, prioritizing audio-visual content over other types. While such changes in
format is likely to influence the ways in which political issues are communicated, this does
not necessarily mean that the populist style is likely to spread widely beyond the parties
classified as such in the present study. However, seeing as this way of communicating
supposedly yields hefty amounts of engagement, future work might nevertheless find it
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useful to study if and how the phrasings and rhetoric often associated with populist actors
are somehow adopted and adapted by other parties.
While the study presented here has provided useful insights into the growth of the political
uses of Instagram, it has limitations that should be duly addressed. First, it does not seem
unreasonable to expect that several parties who did not enjoy parliamentary status could
have been active on Instagram during the studied time period. Future work might find it
suitable to cast a wider net, encompassing parties in- and outside of parliament. Second,
while our focus here was placed on parties, the supposed individualized (Larsson, 2019b)
and personalized (Kreiss et al., 2017) nature of Instagram suggests that inquiry into the
over-time activities of individual politicians could be a suitable step forward in
understanding how political actors communicate online. Third, remembering that populist
expressions are indeed sometimes used by actors that are not necessarily considered
populist, future work might find it useful to adopt a “communication-centered” approach to
populism as mentioned earlier and to look into the post content - and how the different
topics dealt with have influence on post popularity. Performing such analysis in a
comparative fashion brings with it the challenge of correctly interpreting the many
languages, tropes and cultural codes featured across a wide selection of countries. A
suitable starting point could be to use subset of countries – perhaps inspired by principles of
most similar systems design – and to subsequently expand to larger samples. Relatedly,
while the choice to focus on Europe in the study at hand was motivated by suggestions from
previous scholarship (Lilleker et al., 2017; Dimitrova and Matthes, 2018), there is a dearth of
studies that detail these issues outside of what could loosely be referred to as Western
contexts. Thus, future scholarship should make attempts to broaden the empirical scope to
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
include a wider array of countries and contexts. Finally, a fourth suggestion revolves around
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Populist Party
Freedom Party of
Far right
Flemish Interest
Far right
Finns Party
Far right
Jobbik - Movement for
a Better Hungary
Far right
People of Freedom /
Forza Italia
Far right
National Alliance
Far right
Progress Party
Far right
Law and Justice
Far right
Far left
Far right
Sweden Democrats
Far right
Swiss People's Party
Far right
Table 1. Populist parties included in the study.
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Figure 1. Type of post per year for populist (lower half of figure) and non-populist (upper
half) parties. N of posts, logarithmic scales shown.
2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
715 978
12336 12476
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Figure 2. Median likes and comments per post and year for populist (lower half of figure)
and non-populist (upper half) political actors.
2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Year of Created
00 0
23 31 60
163 224
310 9 28
35 112
Median engagement per year
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Figure 3. Median likes (upper half) and comments (lower half) received per post type for
populist (right side of figure) and non-populist (left side of figure) actors.
Non-populist Populist
Album IGTV Photo Video Album IGTV Photo Video
Median Likes
Median Comments
... However, Instagram is gaining recognition as a major media forum for political communication for engaging younger audiences and mobilizing potential voters and activists (Davidjants and Tiidenberg 2021;Lalancette and Raynauld 2019;Larsson 2021). Instagram's emphasis on photo-sharing and visual communication makes it a particularly important media venue. ...
... New research highlights Instagram's potential for studies of political -including eco-political -communication. In Europe, for example, citizen engagement with politics on Instagram is growing dramatically (Larsson 2021), and newer upstart parties are strategically using the platform during elections (Turnbull-Dugarte 2019). Although Instagram users 'follow' political leaders for information and political guidance, engaging posts are also key as Instagram blurs boundaries between political news/information and entertainment -particularly with Instagram users' frequent use of memes and 'humor to make political points' (Parmelee and Roman 2019, 9). ...
... In Sánchez and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi -over a two-year period, this paper identifies, compares, and contrasts how elements of sociopolitical culture specific to the aforementioned countries, their political leaders, and their populations can influence patterns of Instagram-based visual politicking. While many scholars have studied this phenomenon from a country, political party, or politician-specific perspective, this study contributes to an emerging body of scholarly literature examining this phenomenon from a comparative perspective (e.g., Farkas et al., 2022;Olof Larsson, 2021). Furthermore, as the majority of scholarly work on visuals and politics on social media has focused on North American and North European political contexts, this study offers a much-needed look at this dynamic in countries located in southern Europe and Asia. ...
... Specifically, strategic communication "helps shape or define meaning, establish trust and reputation, and manages relationships with internal and external stakeholders to allow an organization to grow and operate as intended" (D'Urso, 2018; see also : Hallahan et al., 2007). This study contributes to the strategic communication literature by looking at dynamics of digital visual political communication, which can be susceptible to reputational risks, can lead to identity crises, and can affect different facets of politicians' public outreach and engagement activities (D'Urso, 2018;Men et al., 2018;Olof Larsson, 2021). By exploring uses of identity markers and cultural cues in political imagemaking and communication on Instagram, this paper sheds light on growing trends shaping politicians' digital outreach and engagement strategies. ...
How do specific sociopolitical cultural contexts influence the image-making strategies of heads of state on social media? Through a hybrid visual quantitative and qualitative analysis, this study highlights the ways in which political leaders of two countries with vastly different cultural contexts – Spanish President Pedro Sánchez and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – used the social, political, geographical, and cultural particularities of their countries to present themselves visually on Instagram and appeal to the public. The findings suggest that Sánchez and Modi have leveraged Instagram’s structural and functional properties to stage political performances infused with cultural markers, to spotlight specific facets of their identity attributes and character traits, as well as to roll out strategic visual narratives conveying their political values and stances on political and policy issues of importance to their target audiences. This study contributes to understanding the role of visual politics in social media-based politicking and how this type of strategic communication builds on cultural cues to frame personalized political identities.
... Unlike mass media, social media are said to generate equal attention for all users. Today, we know that underlying algorithms manage this process, which, in turn, are controlled by popularity cues (Porten-Cheé et al., 2018) and therefore favor visual, emotionalizing, and negative content (Jost, 2022;Larsson, 2021). Furthermore, these algorithms form connectivity between users and users and between users and content, although in an automated technical rather than personal way. ...
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The emergence of social networking sites offers protest movements new ways to mobilize for action and draw attention to their issues. However, relying on social media also creates challenges, as social media follow their own principles. If protest movements want to be visible in news feeds, they have to adapt to so-called social media logic, as originally postulated in mediatization research. The principles of social media have been conceptualized. However, there is a lack of empirical research on how political actors perceive and orient to this logic, how they learn about it, and the consequences for mobilization (i.e., communicating protest issues as well as taking protest action). As protest movements are an integral part of modern democracies, use social media somewhat intensively, and usually build on a fluid network structure that allows us to examine adaptation processes in greater detail, they are particularly suitable for addressing these questions. Semi-structured interviews with activists organizing protest actions or managing social media accounts from 29 movement organizations in Germany ( N = 33) revealed that protest movements have internalized social media logic and paid attention to not only the design but also the timing of posts to suit algorithms. The protest organizations generally built on their experience with social media. The degree to which they followed these principles was based on available resources. Limits of this adaptation arose, for example, if sensitive or negative content rarely produced likes or, increasingly, personalization evoked a presumed hierarchy within the movements.
... As a part of social media, Instagram has a solid influence to provide criticism and carry out surveillance (i.e. media watchdog) to disseminate information and political activities promptly (Arianto, 2021;Larsson, 2021;Rogers & Niederer, 2020). Moreover, Instagram has become a medium of political communication to convey people's interests and criticism towards the government and political elites (Indrawan et al., 2020). ...
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The Covid-19 pandemic, which has accounted for remarkable casualties in Indonesia, did not seem to make political elites more empathetic. The study aims to reveal how the mythology of the political elites behind the criticism of Instagram accounts @GejayanMemanggil. To fulfill this goal, we employed Roland Barthes' semiotic analysis of nine contents of @GejayanMemanggil. This study has revealed five major results. First, the mythology of the political elite is represented as the 'ancilus' of oligarchic interests during the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, political elites and oligarchs have superior positions to control society and health workers. Third, the political elites' policies focus more on economic recovery than the people’s safety. Fourth, @GejayanMemanggil Instagram account narrates the mythology of political elites who have no sensitivity towards people’s hardship because they exploit their positions and facilities as public officials. Finally, political elites show that they do not empathize with the suffering of the people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
... For example, Dumas et al. (2020) conducted a longitudinal study to examine the relationship between the strategies young adults use to attract more 'likes' on Instagram and their personal well-being. In another study, Larsson (2021) examined the interaction between political parties and citizens on Instagram to understand the changes in how political parties communicated on the platform. Skowronski et al. (2021) applied longitudinal design to reveal the patterns of adolescent sexualization and self-objectification that resulted from video game and Instagram use. ...
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TikTok, a short video-sharing social media platform, has quickly become one of the most popular apps. The platform offers a highly immersive and interactive environment, where users share original content and participate in challenges, duets, and other tasks. Even though TikTok is only a few years old, it has already been shaping the ways millions of people interact online and engage in artistic, cultural, social, and political activities. This chapter provides a comprehensive overview of emerging TikTok studies. It shows that there is a growing interest in studying TikTok and its social effects. Social scientists have applied a wide range of methodological approaches to explore users' experiences on TikTok and the platform’s effects on society. This chapter discusses the most effective research strategies in TikTok studies, examines specific cases of several research projects, and suggests directions for future research.
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We give first insights in the political communication of the 2021 Federal election campaign in Germany. We focused on political messages found in ephemeral stories (n=2208) and permanent posts (n=718) shared in the last fortnight of the campaign. Topic modeling with BERTopic did not yield topics as finely grained as the categories of prior content analyses, yet two main themes emerged: The majority of posts deal with policy issues, while the majority of stories does not deal with policy issues. We found a large body of stories to be documentation of the rallies and campaign trail.
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Zusammenfassung Die Foto- und Video-Sharing-Plattform Instagram hat sich in den vergangenen Jahren zu einem der meistgenutzten sozialen Medien weltweit entwickelt. Auf Grund der forschungspraktischen Hürden, die mit der Erhebung von Instagram-Daten einhergehen, scheint Instagram in der (empirischen) Plattformforschung noch unterrepräsentiert zu sein. In diesem Artikel werden daher einige der verschiedenen Möglichkeiten aufgezeigt, Instagram-Daten zu erheben. Zunächst führen wir jedoch in die Mediengrammatik der Plattform Instagram ein. Dieser Ansatz hilft die im Anschluss vorgestellten Möglichkeiten der Erhebung von Instagram-Daten zu differenzieren und theoretisch zu rahmen. In Bezug auf die Datenerhebung unterscheiden wir zwischen fünf verschiedenen Erhebungsstrategien: a) der manuellen Erhebung, b) den freien Programmiersprachen, c) den Tools des Meta-Konzerns, d) den kommerziellen Tools und e) der Datenspende. Diese werden anhand relevanter Kriterien (unter anderem Mediengrammatik, Erhebungsform, Beitragsebenen, Vollständigkeit, Programmierkenntnisse) gegenübergestellt. Es zeigt sich, dass je nach Forschungsfrage und Methode unterschiedliche Datenerhebungsstrategien angemessen sein können. Zuletzt werden auch die forschungsethischen Implikationen der Erhebung von Instagram-Daten diskutiert.
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This paper presents a longitudinal, structural study where party and citizen activity on Facebook is studied over a ten-year period, outlining the growing importance of audio-visual content for online campaigning purposes – as well as the rise of populist parties on the same platform. The study shows that an overall increased focus on video as a means of communication emerges as especially pertinent for native Facebook functionalities. This could have repercussions for how online political communication messages are fashioned – but also for the dependencies on platforms that are supposedly strengthened as parties make choices regarding where to invest their campaign resources. In terms of citizen engagement, the results indicate the dominance of populist parties, who have strengthened their positions on the studied platform. The dominance of populist actors will likely have repercussions for the algorithmic spread of political messages – as well as for the ways in which political messages are shaped.
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With the advent of social media, political communication scholars have systematically revised theories and empirical corollaries revolving media use and democracy at large. Interestingly, in about the same period of time, a reinvigorated political populism trend has taken place across different latitudes in the world. This widespread populist movement has expanded regardless of whether these political systems were established democracies, emerging democracies, or societies immersed in political contexts at peril. This essay serves as the introductory piece to a special issue on populism. First, it highlights the ways in which “populism,” being an old phenomenon, has further transpired into the political realm in the era of social media. Second, the essay seeks to better contextualize what populism is and how it has developed within today’s hybrid media society. Finally, this introduction also lays out the ground to six central theoretical and data-driven papers that encapsulate many of the important issues revolving the phenomenon of populism today.
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Social media are said to be a core driver of populists’ current success. Yet, our knowledge of how populist politicians use social media is limited. We argue that they can use Twitter and Facebook, politically the most important platforms, as a “double-barreled gun,” each serving a different target. Based on the architecture of the platforms and the populist ideology, we expect that Twitter is used to name and shame journalists publicly, Facebook to activate anger among citizens. Both types of use are examined by studying the Members of Parliament (MPs) of Austria, The Netherlands, and Sweden. We collected 9852 tweets for the 475 MPs on Twitter and 10,355 Facebook posts from the 287 MPs with a Facebook Page. Using negative binomial regression and content analyses, we find that populists seem eager to activate anger. They are not more likely to @-mention media accounts, but “shame” them roughly three times more often.
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The PopuList offers academics and journalists an overview of populist, far right, far left and Eurosceptic parties in Europe since 1989. The PopuList is supported by the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies, The Guardian, and the ECPR Standing Group on Extremism and Democracy. The PopuList dataset has been used in numerous publications in academic journals and public media. It may be found here:
Populism is a key feature of contemporary democratic politics, and is on the rise across the world. Yet current approaches to populism fail to account for its shifting character in a rapidly changing political and media landscape, where media touches upon all aspects of political life, a sense of crisis is endemic, and where populism has gone truly global. This book presents a new perspective for understanding populism, arguing that it is a distinct ‘political style’ that is performed, embodied and enacted across a number of contexts. While still based on the classic divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, contemporary populism’s reliance on new media technologies, its relationship to shifting modes of political representation and identification, and its increasing ubiquity has seen the phenomenon transform in new and unexpected ways. Demonstrating that populism as a political style has three central features – appeal to ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’; ‘bad manners’; and crisis, breakdown or threat – the book uses a performative framework to examine its key actors, stages, audiences and mise-en-scène. In doing so, it draws on illustrative examples from across the globe, moving beyond the usual cases of Western Europe and the Americas to also take in populism in the Asia-Pacific and Africa. Working across the fields of comparative politics, media communications and political theory, it seeks to account for populism’s complex relationship to crisis, media and democracy, ultimately offering an important and provocative new approach for understanding populism in the twenty-first century.
This paper examines how Facebook is used by political parties during elections to extend or accelerate their reach within the electorate and how successful these efforts are. Specifically, we compare the content and style of parties’ Facebook posts during the 2014 European parliament elections, and how this affects followers’ responses in terms of liking, sharing and commenting on the posts. Our findings reveal while that the timing and visual content of posts are important in increasing voters’ attention, interactivity matters most. Responsive party posts on Facebooks are significantly more likely to be shared, liked, and commented on by users. Given that follower reactions, particularly sharing, helps to increase the visibility of party communication through indirect or two-step flow communication (online and offline), these findings are important in advancing our understanding of how and why social media campaigns are able to influence voters and thus affect election outcomes. For parties themselves the results provide some useful insights into what makes for an ‘effective’ Facebook campaign in terms of how they can accelerate the reach of their communication.
By considering the Facebook activity of 52 party leaders during national election campaigns held in 18 Western democracies that went to the polls between 2013 and 2017, we study users’ engagement with popularization and with populist leaders. Applying negative binomial hierarchical models on original data of party leaders’ Facebook pages, we find that elements of popularization in leaders’ posts are associated with an increase in users’ acknowledgement (number of likes), decreases in redistribution (number of shares), while they do not affect discursive interactions (number of comments). Our research also shows that, irrespective of their content, messages published by populist leaders are more capable of increasing both acknowledgement and redistribution, while they do not generate more comments than those published by non-populists. Finally, we find that when populist leaders adopt popularization as a communicative style, they do not achieve any extra gain vis-a-vis non-populist actors.
This article confronts some of the difficulties that temporality poses for the study of digital politics. Where previous articles have discussed the unique methodological challenges for digital politics research – centrally, that we face ceteris paribus problems when attempting to study how people use a medium that is itself still being developed – this article addresses the underlying subject of temporality itself. It offers two distinct provocations. First, it discusses what we are ignoring when we discuss Internet politics in terms of an overarching “digital age” or “digital era.” Conceptualizing a uniform digital age in contraposition to previous media regimes is an easy heuristic crutch, but it comes at the cost of rendering key features of the sociotechnical system invisible. Second, the article distinguishes temporal rhythm from the more common concepts of linear and cyclical time. Particularly in the areas of contentious politics and media politics – areas that are central to the topics covered in this special issue – some of the core changes in institutional processes can be understood as a breakdown of routinized temporal processes. The article then offers suggestions for how digital politics scholars can better incorporate temporal concepts into our research.