Elliot’s* Instagram feed features an artfully curated mixture of well-lit selfies and photos showcasing his career as a college athlete. He describes his personal brand as “positive” — a description backed up by the motivational quotes scattered throughout his profile, telling followers to “never give up” and know “your only limit is you.” But in July 2020, Elliot shared a message on his Instagram page that was markedly different from his usual posts. The message addressed his concern for the safety of his friends and loved ones in Brooklyn and urged his 2,000-plus followers to stand against Donald Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act. The post is listed as being sponsored by a left-of-center nonprofit health care group and is targeted at American voters.
But Elliot isn’t an American voter. He’s not even an American citizen. He’s Canadian — a fact he says was never raised in discussions with the progressive group who paid him for the post.
Elliot is one of a growing number of influencers across social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram who are being recruited by political campaigns and partisan groups on both sides of the aisle to spread political content. Small-scale influencers like Elliot are sought after specifically because they have the ability to reach target audiences with messaging that is catered to them. They are adept at sharing personal stories and translating campaign messages into the language understood by their followers.
But it’s not always clear that these political influencers are being paid. It’s also often not clear who is doing the paying. Given that governments and other powerful groups are working to sway people’s political and social decisions using “an influencer army,” it’s important for the social media audiences being targeted with such content to understand and identify it.
Over the last year, the Propaganda Research Lab at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin has studied the use of political influencers on social media. We've interviewed a wide range of people involved in the political mobilization of influencers, including influencer marketing executives, political strategists, academics, journalists, and influencers themselves. We’ve gained unique insight into how influencers are being rallied (and compensated) on behalf of campaigns and other groups on social media. We’ve also begun to interrogate the problems with these orchestrated operations.
Through our interviews, campaign strategists and politically focused marketers tell us that the political world has started to focus on using small-scale influencers (influencers with fewer than 50,000 followers) who benefit from close, personal relationships with their audiences. They describe these “nano” or “micro” influencers’ special ability to affect their audiences’ opinions and behavior as “relational organizing.” Whether such activities are “good” or “bad” tends to be in the eye of the beholder — they are heavily dependent on particular users’ own political perspectives.
In recent months, local governments have turned to these influencers to address vaccine hesitancy in local communities. These influencers are often active in their communities — they might be local activists or church leaders — and they often have a modest follower base concentrated in the area where they live. This following allows campaigns to leverage influencers to target specific geographic areas and communities with focused messaging. They might, for instance, deploy particular accounts to target Cuban Americans in a specific neighborhood in Miami or members of the LGBTQ+ community in northeast Virginia.
“I can deliver to you a more credible messenger, who talks like you, acts like you…I can be really specific in sourcing suburban women in Detroit and African American men in Detroit, and show that content, those ads to each of those populations,” one progressive political strategist tells us.
These small-scale influencers also provide campaigns with the ability to target key audiences via other characteristics, such as shared interests, gender, and age. Since small-scale influencers are much cheaper to pay per post than their celebrity-influencer counterparts, campaigns are able to work with more of them at one time to spread highly personalized messages to many different audiences for one campaign. When paired with readily available tools like influencer marketing platforms and customer-relationship management software, campaigns are able to identify, recruit, and manage these influencers at scale.
“To me it doesn’t matter how many followers they have, it’s about how many people would find them credible and a powerful messenger,” one campaign strategist says.
The strategists using influencer marketing in this way are adamant about their tactics being akin to “digital door knocking,” often comparing it to a canvasser going house to house to rally support for their candidate or cause. But what happens when political influencers don’t disclose that they are being paid? What if the content of their messaging is potentially harmful or contains false information?
The influencers and the influencer marketing executives we spoke with tell us that platforms like Instagram have become more political in the last few years. Conservative and progressive influencers say major events like the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, and the 2020 election acted as catalysts for many of them to begin posting political content for the first time.
For instance, one conservative TikToker tells us that the Black Lives Matter protests motivated him to begin posting political content. At the beginning he wasn’t being paid to post such messages, but he was quickly recruited by a larger group of conservative influencers — showcasing how content that begins as grassroots messaging can quickly turn into coordinated messaging. He now sits on the board of a company that coordinates messaging for several large conservative accounts that amassed millions of followers during the 2020 election. The content posted on these accounts uses catchy songs or popular trends on the platform, like the Duet feature, to create highly engaging, partisan content aimed at young audiences.
“I believe it polarizes people. Our brains react to new ideas in a very interesting way — it cages itself in and it puts itself into defensive mode,” another conservative TikTok influencer tells us. “So if I come to you and you're a liberal, and I make my video and you watch it, your brain will go into defensive mode.”
Local governments and the Biden administration have also recognized influencers as powerful tools to spread their messages. For example, the White House recruited large-scale influencers to spread pro-vaccine messaging to young audiences, while states like Colorado and Oklahoma have recruited micro-influencers to target local audiences with similar messaging on the importance of vaccines. The city of Minneapolis was also considering using influencers to share approved messages from the city government and counter misinformation during the trial of the police officer who killed George Floyd before public pressure caused the city to change course.
As influencers become an increasingly large part of our information ecosystem, it’s important for us to look at the content they post with a critical eye. Questions about where the messaging is coming from, how authentic it truly is, and who is funding these posts are all essential to understanding the kind of information we’re encountering and why we are being targeted. Some political influencers might be paid to spread content that is beneficial to society, akin to public service announcements. But they can just as easily be organized to sow hate, vitriol, and confusion. We must demand that social media platforms and policymakers do more to require political influencers to clearly and consistently disclose when they are paid, and by whom. We must also ask these same powers to ensure that coordinated groups of influencers aren’t being used to inorganically or inauthentically amplify certain streams of information while suppressing others.
Editor’s note: Elliot is a pseudonym.
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