For example the city of Augsburg. It would like to be cool, but this is the city of Augsburg. So what is the city doing on Tiktok? First, she assaults a young woman. The guy who sits next to her on the stone block and tries to touch her is wearing black clothes, a black ski mask and a coronavirus cardboard sign in front of his chest. The virus is circulating, that’s supposed to mean. 222 likes. Next video: Divers from the Augsburg fire brigade exercise on the Lech river bed with an underwater camera. A lot of efforts. 59 likes. How much easier life on Instagram! Simply post a photo of the Augsburg Botanical Garden (“A dream in every season”) and the city will get over 1100 likes. And it also presented itself as a beautiful city – not a city where you can dive in and get infected with Covid.
Admittedly, comparing similar numbers isn’t entirely fair, as Tiktok is still a relatively small network compared to Instagram. But it still points out why politicians feel so comfortable on Instagram – on the other hand, in the fast-growing new territory of Tiktok, where the U-30s are killing their time, they can’t put a foot down. This is also due to the mechanics of the two platforms. What does this mean for today’s political debates? And for the future?
Many politicians also engage in identity politics
With Instagram, a certain discursive culture is currently in full swing that has been changing the world for years. With increasing popularity, the app has moved away from serving only as a representative photo album for users. It has become a hub of pop culture – and because pop always plays with political ideas, Instagram has also become more political. More and more people have started to incorporate political symbols and codes into the photographic staging of their lives – or, conversely, to perceive attributes that already set them apart as politically coded. For example, body shape, sexual characteristics or skin color. This evolution could be observed on various social networks, but none was as systematically dedicated to the sovereign staging of oneself as Instagram. Showing yourself for who you are without regard to social stigma, being proud of it and celebrating it with others who are too, has since developed a formidable political force. This is a significant influx of what is today often pejoratively called “identity politics”. But not only marginalized social groups benefit, but also politicians who know how to skilfully make identity policies without arousing suspicion in this regard, because the identity they associate with their person is that of the majority society.
Markus Söder, for example. He also lets the Bavarian nature speak for him on his Instagram account. Whoever sees Söder sees his house. The image is invaded by something primitive that is not rooted in its office or its merits, but in the unifying power of common symbols: the cross, the white and blue sky over Bavaria, the snack plate. In front of his sublime beauty, even a Markus Söder is just a man with a silly bicycle helmet – that’s the trick, the difference from the kitsch of old-fashioned propaganda. He makes himself small in order to absorb himself into something bigger, from which derives an allegedly natural authority, namely that of the majority cycling and beer-drinking society.
Armin Laschet’s Instagram account, on the other hand, shows a lot of Armin Laschet, speaking mostly in front of a lectern or at a desk. You see a man speaking – the aesthetically pure appearance of a representative. His ego takes a back seat to his function, which means that everyone and no one can feel that his appearance is meant. Laschet’s offer of identity is his policy. He does, Söder is. Laschet: around 63,500 subscribers. Söder: around 285,000.
Many politicians have understood this aesthetic populism and know how to use it. What recipes for success will emerge to refine Tiktok’s public image as a politician is still completely open. Big-party parliamentary groups are only gradually venturing into Tiktok with “It was just a joke, of course” videos and “Da simmering breast” content. Tobias Hans (CDU) was the first Prime Minister to have an account, but he has already deactivated it. Some deputies at federal and state level dare. But many are not. Political discussions take place on the platform – largely without politicians.
Buzzwords on European anthems are not the answer
The duo function plays an important role in this, as scientists from the Technical University of Munich found in a study. It allows users to post their video alongside one another and comment on it simultaneously on a shared screen – this is how retweets work on Twitter, arguably the most political social platform. This makes Tiktok much more interactive than YouTube, Snapchat, or, most importantly, Instagram. It is not so much about the staging of the individual himself, but rather the dialogues between the users. Less being than doing.
How not to do it can be seen at Dorothee Bär. The Minister of State for Digital Affairs is an Instagram user at heart, you notice it right away. The resistance is futile against all the beautiful things she puts aside on the photo app – most of the time without asking because she can’t defend herself: including feminism, the “Sendung mit der Maus”, the forest Bavarian, God, Bravo magazine and, oh yes, Armin Laschet. On Tiktok, on the other hand, on the occasion of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU, she reports how important she thinks it is “that we pay more attention to digitization”, while the European anthem is playing in the background. At the latest when she announced that she wanted to evoke “the questions of the new European cohesion”, the finger began to itch a lot. Suddenly she too is just a talking politician.
19-year-old SPD’s versatile social media weapon Lilly Blaudszun is doing better. Your video consists of the following message: “Tell me you are from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania without saying that you are from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.” For example, she says, she has ducks as neighbors. Haha funny. To support her, she does not invoke identity symbols like on Instagram – but all the other users of the network. It launches a participatory viral trend, inviting interaction. And gets around 175,000 likes for it (Bear with his European video: 75).
What does the politician take from her success as an influencer?
There is a problem with this, however. Because what does Blaudszun as a politician actually get by starting and participating in viral trends – the so-called memes? What does the CDU parliamentary group in the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have with the posting of semi-fun DIY movies, please, still state sponsored? Memes spread spontaneously when they’re funny and fun, and then go away. For those unfamiliar with the meme, they just don’t make sense. Of course, as a politician you can sing a slum song if it’s a big trend on Tiktok, you will break the hearts of anyone currently riding the wave of sea slums but everyone is just wondering what is the target of this nonsense.
The symbols and codes on Tiktok are therefore constantly evolving and only have meaning in ephemeral bubbles. You can’t take it and dress in it. This is why identity politics for majorities doesn’t work particularly well on the platform, despite attempts like Lilly Blaudszun’s Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania memes. That’s why politicians don’t work very well on the platform. Politics, on the other hand, does. Users gossip or applaud politicians, complain about social issues, counter arguments, check facts or present the news. No more pop music and tingles, what’s next. Only Tiktok’s algorithms, which feed memes and wash strangers onto the phones of hundreds of millions of strangers overnight, know that. Everything is going viral. Seen from outside the digital machine room: chaotic.
What will happen to it? Perhaps some sort of political fan culture – as a self-confident counterpart to the aestheticization of politics, which may have found its final expression in Instagram. Fan cultures can become big and powerful, especially on the internet. They can devour the object of their enthusiasm if they don’t resist it – as has happened to Philipp Amthor (CDU) before, who as a meme leads an increasingly independent and ghostly second existence on the internet. In many cases, it’s impossible to tell if fans of this meme think the real politician is great or if he is laughing at him. Maybe they’re applauding an exaggerated and alienated image of Amthor until the real politician walks up to him. Donald Trump also works great as a meme due to his cartoonish personality.
The policies that showcase themselves on Instagram use symbols and codes. A politician, on the other hand, turned into a meme, transformed into a symbol – into a projection surface for algorithmically organized flows of ideas. This could have unforeseeable consequences. But also be a lot of fun.
How biased is Instagram? To learn more about politics and politicians on Instagram, SZ started the #Wahlfilter project with the non-profit research collective Algorithm Watch. Together with you, we want to examine the Instagram algorithm black box in large-scale data research and look forward to data donations. You can participate here: sz.de/wahlfilter – thank you very much!