Instagram is notoriously the social media outlet of the ‘self.’ Where other social media platforms are angled at conversing with others online, Instagram’s primary angle is the sharing of oneself by a growing number of tools to do so. What was once a photo-sharing app now allows you to share stories, ‘reels’ and IGTV videos. However, the growing political use of Instagram stories appears to be interrupting the culture of the selfie.
Regarding the politics of Instagram stories, specifically I am referring to the feature of the app that allows you to ‘add posts to your story.’ Although it is a relatively new feature, I believe this has contributed to a wave of political consciousness that wasn’t taking place on the app before. This in turn provokes a number of questions about the fusion of politics to Instagram- the fusion of politics and social media usually being attributed to Twitter. Has this feature made Instagram inherently more political? By sharing politically leaning content on their Instagram stories, do users consider this a form of online activism? Or has this feature simply shed light on what people were already thinking offline?
This political tone of Instagram stories came to a head following the death of George Floyd last year, in turn igniting a spark for the Black Lives Matter movement. Another event that sparked outcry was the news of abortion being made illegal in the US state of Alabama, which reignited the pro-life vs pro-choice debate online. More recently, the news of the death of Sarah Everard has also provoked a wave of online discussion about sexual violence towards women. These are two prominent examples of how Instagram stories have recently been used to share information about things happening in the news. Following the death of George Floyd, users were reposting petitions, details about police brutality in America, individuals were sharing their experiences of institutionalised racism, as well as users reposting artwork to express their allyship. Similarly, with the news of Sarah Everard, women have been reposting details of petitions regarding sexual harassment, statistics about the frequency of sexual harassment in the UK, and artwork to mourn the injustice of Sarah’s death.
These examples alone provoke a number of questions. For example, is the surge in this level of political consciousness online largely due to these events happening during a pandemic? It is possible that circumstances of lockdowns and social distancing mean people are spending more time online and interacting with the news online, and this may not have been the case if we were not living in a time of social distancing. It is interesting to consider how people register their sharing of this content on their Instagram story. Has this feature of the app encouraged people to regard their sharing of a black square as a form of activism? Do users simply regard the sharing of topical content on their story as an expression of their political values, liberal or conservative? Pro-life vs pro-choice? It is equally possible that users do not regard sharing Instagram posts to their stories with either of these, perhaps they don’t comprehend why they do it at all.
I think a difficult question we need to ask is why the numbers of people sharing content of solidarity with Sarah Everard and affirmations of racial allyship are not matched by those engaging in other forms of activism. It is difficult to firmly decide if sharing posts to Instagram stories qualifies as a form of political activism. We can at the very least conclude that it contributes to the discussion of issues offline. For example, the outrage that Sarah Everard’s death caused among women online provoked national news outlets to keep talking about the issue of sexual violence against women. The problem is that contributing to a discussion in such an ambiguous way as an Instagram story does not create legislative change. Unfortunately, even when we donate to charities, sign online petitions, and write to our MPs, we are not always promised the necessary legal change, even in the case of such an inherent and obvious problem like institutional racism. There are occasional moments where this grassroots activism pays off Gina Martin is testimony to the effect of change from the bottom-up. In this way, she managed to get the government to produce legislation to make upskirting a criminal offence. However, it is important to recognise that this change was not caused by Instagram stories alone.
The politics of Instagram stories produces more questions than can be answered. Given that Instagram have considered removing the ‘add post to your story feature,’ it will be interesting to see if the political consciousness of Instagram will disappear completely and be replaced by another feature on the app, or if another app will take up this role entirely.
This article was written on the 17th of March 2021.