Courting the Voter Through Instagram

Curator's Note

With the rise of neoliberalism and promotional capitalism, workers are expected to become “entrepreneurs of the self” who must promote their behaviors, relationships, bodies, and selves in order to advance their own interests against their competitors. Social media networks, such as Instagram, allow users to present and produce an online persona. For politicians, the intention of self-branding on Instagram is purely rhetorical; its goal is to produce an image that voters will “buy.” It could be said that 2016 is the year of the “Instagram election” since each politician’s online persona plays a huge role in “likability” and perhaps even electability. Here I argue that Hillary Clinton uses Instagram to self-brand as a means to have voters “buy” her product or message. A few months ago, Hillary posted a very moving photo of herself surrounded by mothers in Chicago who had lost their children to gun violence. Posts of these nature are essential for Hillary’s brand, as she is known to be a champion of the African American community. Instagram posts of racialized violence extract certain feelings from a targeted population. Their everyday reality is packaged, branded, and then sold back to themselves as a symbol for Hillary’s campaign. Not surprisingly then, these feelings mobilize voters to support Clinton, while she utilizes the societal problems this population faces into her carefully crafted appearance and brand name. But what exactly are the implications of a politician as a brand? What does this mean in terms of democracy? In the world of social media sites, profiles are curated and filtered to address a specific audience, but when this is utilized as a means to get votes, is the public responding as a consumer or an informed citizen?


I find this kind of use social media simultaneously disingenuous and fascinating. You're absolutely right -- more than any election before, more than Obama's social media campaigns -- we're looking in this cycle at the brand rather than the person. It also makes me wonder how new this kind of branding is. Instagram and Twitter have allowed the candidates to operate in the same social media spaces as their constituencies, but how is an Instagram feed any more a function of brand than then TV ad buys that have dominated elections for decades? Some of that kind of branding, packaging, and image/sound-byting has been with us our entire political lives. The difference, I guess, is that broadcast media allowed a limited amount of expensive branding opportunities. Twitter and Instagram allow a constant stream. What's become important for us as voters, I think, is watching how those brands are constantly evolving and under what pressures/conditions. And I wonder, when Clinton or Trump pose now they instinctively think: that was a social media moment. Right there :)

As Pete suggests, branding has been a major part of political campaigns for decades, if not for much longer. The constant stream and ability to evolve seems to me the significant shift. The feedback on social media theoretically suggests a more democratic process. Based on thousands of responses from the public, campaigns can change their stance or approach. The response tweets Tess points to though do not reassure me of the promise of this democratic possibility.

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