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Are politicians social media influencers?

Diane Hall


Boris Johnson at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020

When we think of the term ‘influencer’, we imagine a young man or woman displaying an enviable life across the most popular platforms. Their feeds, full of sponsored advertorials and curated content with the odd family/prank post thrown in, see them parading a version of reality far removed from most of ours.

What we don’t tend to imagine, when thinking of social media influencers, are middle-aged white men tasked with running the country. Yet their actions are ultimately quite similar.

If you’ve watched ‘The Great Hack’ or any one of a number of exposes that explore the general public being seen as nothing more than units of data, you’ll know that the people working in our government acutely understand the power and value of social media. Whilst they may not film their comings-and-goings, selfie style, or tell us in minute detail what they’ve had for lunch, they still pander to the court of public opinion and carve out a media-suitable persona.

The Chancellor’s recent budget announcements seemed to strike a chord with the leader of the opposition, who remarked that Sunak’s proposals and calculations would “look better on Instagram”.

Sunak’s social media feed could indeed be described as curated, with professional videos and well-presented statistics in recent years, worlds away from the digital sputterings of your average MP. 

Maybe this was what Starmer was referring to. Alternatively, he may have been comparing the budget to a typical influencer’s feed, where everything looks wonderful and glossy from the right angle, but which can be miles from true reality.

This government, arguably, do seem to want to be people-pleasers a good portion of the time. Their various U-turns are perhaps evidence of this, as is their practice of releasing a string of measures to the mainstream media to gauge public reaction before going with the most popular (or least complained about).

Boris Johnson in Whites looking at Covid Vaccine

Boris Johnson in Whites looking at Covid Vaccine

Boris likes to give the impression of an affable if not hapless man—a lovable buffoon. His trademark ‘just got out of bed, but I’m much too busy to think about running a comb through my hair’ is not an accident. It’s his attempt at being relatable and not too elitist that the man on the street wouldn’t like or trust him. Everything is carefully marketed these days…every hair on BoJo’s head is that way for a reason.

Journalist Martha Gill believes that Boris’s need to be popular is harming the UK. She suggests that indirectly asking the general public what they think shouldn’t be a formal strategy. After all, Karen on Facebook isn’t regularly briefed by the WHO and she hasn’t got Chris Whitty on speed dial—how can she really know which steps to take to successfully combat the virus?

Gill points out that the government has a responsibility to make the difficult decisions on our behalf, given that they are better positioned to see the bigger picture. She says, “We may chafe at the restrictions, but we don’t like the idea that if we grumble too loudly they might be removed. Home schooling is a drag, but that doesn’t mean we want kids to be packed off back to classrooms if it isn’t safe. After all, what do we know? What if we get it wrong? Can’t the experts make those decisions for us? In a real emergency, we don’t in fact want what we want. We want to trust our leaders to do what works, not just what’s popular.”

The government’s success with the vaccine programme has managed to shift our focus away from some of their poorer decisions. Providing a list of dates concerning the lifting of some restrictions has quietened those people who have always insisted that, as an island, we could—and, indeed, should—have locked down our borders last March/April.

In the interest of a balanced piece of writing, I should point out that the current government has been forced to deal with extenuating circumstances in the shape of a global pandemic. Whilst their predecessors have each had their challenges, it’s fair to say that Covid-19 is one hell of a humdinger. Would Labour have made a better job of managing the crisis? Would they have made (and stuck to) their decisions? We’ll never know.

Andrew Rawnsley of The Guardian states, “The pandemic story Boris tried to tell us last year was of a government doing its best in incredibly different circumstances that were challenging leaders the world over. Some of the electorate, the segment of the public inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to a government tackling a national emergency, bought into this account of the crisis. Many were unconvinced, more so as the tally of government misjudgements and fiascos lengthened. The vaccine programme arrived just in time to rescue Boris from an increasingly alienated public and mutinous Tory party.

“The inoculation programme does not guarantee a happy ending to the crisis. The full severity of the scarring to the economy will only become apparent when the furlough scheme and other support measures have been wound down. Whilst many report that Number 10 has become calmer and more disciplined since the departure of Cummings and his gang, the Prime Minister’s essential character has not changed. He could blunder into another over-rapid easing of restrictions and then be compelled to break his promise that Britain is on a one-way exit to freedom.”

Hmm…it seems that Boris needs to work harder to gain trust from some.

So, would you agree that today’s politicians are media-savvy ‘influencers’? Or are we, the general public, the influencers—as we clearly have an impact on this government’s decisions.

There are many parallels between the government and today’s social media stars. Both present what is largely a false reality to the public. Both appear to thrive on ‘likes’ and any other form of adoration.

Both can switch their opinions if a big enough incentive is offered.

Despite the fact that some government policies appear to have been thrown together in mere minutes, politics today is a product like any other: carefully curated, follows the ‘sales’ figures…and marketed within an inch of its life.

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