The Instagram account of Lauren Hansen, a Wisconsin-based blogger with around 12,000 followers, does not immediately look like a place for politics. But nestled between the fashion tips and baby videos that fill her feed is evidence that Ms Hansen has become part of a new wave of online campaigning.
“I know I personally get really frustrated by the amount of misinformation out there,” reads the caption on a post from May, next to a picture of Ms Hansen in an open field. She goes on to advise her audience to “tune out the noise coming from those who believe we need to sacrifice lives . . . and #stayhome”.
At the bottom of the post sits a small disclaimer: “Paid for by [political action committee] Defeat Disinfo”.
Ms Hansen is one of a growing number of political “micro-influencers”: social media users with moderate followings — typically in the low thousands, as opposed to the millions of the most popular creators — who are paid by political marketing firms and consultants to promote everything from candidates to issues.
“The biggest thing [marketers] are focused on this year . . . is relational organising,” said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas Austin who co-authored a report on the popular campaigning technique, which aims to leverage voters’ personal connections and trust.
Unlike top-tier influencers, whose internet celebrity can risk alienating some older voters, micro-influencers — who typically have day jobs alongside their social media careers — are perceived to be more relatable and therefore more useful for pushing political messages.
“We all know celebrities and top-down stuff don’t have [enough] influence,” said Curtis Houghland, chief executive of Main Street One, a left-leaning political communications firm that has built a network of micro and nano-influencers to boost progressive messages. “The person delivering your message should look like you and talk like you.”
Spheres of influence
The rise of political micro-influencers comes amid a 2020 presidential election cycle that has featured notably unorthodox digital campaigning, from Michael Bloomberg’s use of meme makers to push paid content on Instagram, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s live-stream on the gaming platform Twitch as part of a “get out the vote” campaign.
“It’s a far cry away from the tactics we were seeing four years ago,” said Nahema Marchal, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. “The lines are becoming increasingly blurred with all this different content.”
It also comes as social platforms increasingly crack down on political advertising ahead of one of the most polarising US elections in memory. Twitter announced last October that it would ban all political advertising, while Facebook, which owns Instagram, has moved to tighten its policies, including banning new political advertisements in the week leading up to the US presidential election.
In addition to Defeat Disinfo — of which Mr Houghland is the director — Main Street One’s clients have included the non-profit the Voter Participation Center, which aims to increase voter turnout, the trade union the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, and the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Its roster of 6.3m micro-influencers includes a national network of truck drivers, suburban mothers in Wisconsin, African-American voters in Michigan and Latinx voters concerned about climate change in Florida.
The company finds potential influencers using an automated tool that scours the internet for users fitting particular criteria. It then provides a brief to willing candidates, but encourages them to produce “their own highly personal emotional content,” said Mr Houghland.
Ms Hansen said that Main Street One had reached out to her when they were looking for Wisconsin creators to promote awareness about staying at home during the pandemic, and the need for PPE for healthcare workers. “I only apply to the campaigns with them that highlight issues I am passionate about discussing,” she said, adding that she writes her own captions and chooses the images on posts.
She also said that she had always been vocal about her beliefs. “I don’t necessarily view my partnerships with Main Street One as political,” she said. “For me it is about having the opportunity to amplify my voice and provide valuable information to my audience.”
Main Street One is not alone in the political micro-influencer field. Last year, BuzzFeed reported that United We Win, a Democratic Super PAC, had offered influencers and bloggers money to produce content in support of New Jersey senator Cory Booker. Meanwhile the University of Texas, Austin report pointed to similar work carried out by NextGen America, a PAC founded by Tom Steyer, who ran for the Democratic nomination.
“The question is, can you find the best messenger to [send a trusted message] with enough speed, volume and quality to compete with the right’s weaponisation of the internet,” said Mr Houghland. “Real people telling real stories is more powerful than any bot or sockpuppet or Republican narrative.”
However experts worry that the use of social media creators for political campaigning risks blurring an ethical line, particularly given that their followers are not always aware they are being marketed to.
“If you’re mobilising an army of small influencers who you might legitimately claim are supportive of your political ideas, you’re walking a fine line between grassroots organising or the kind of co-ordinated tactics that could be seen as manipulative or deceptive if not disclosed properly,” said Ms Marchal.
Mr Woolley added that his findings from interviews with marketing firms indicated that they preferred sponsorship not to be disclosed. “In the context of politics, our informants said that they don’t want paid disclosure because it looks inauthentic.”
Micro-influencers were often encouraged to create issues-based posts, rather than explicit endorsements, in the hope of yielding more subtle content, said Mr Woolley. There have been exceptions, however: a paid post last year by influencer Kaelin Armstrong Dunn endorsing Democrat Andy Beshear for Kentucky governor came between posts about toys and self-care products.
Mr Houghland emphasised that all of the paid posts by Main Street One influencers were clearly marked as such, but other campaigns have been less explicit. A BBC investigation this week found that a group of anti-Trump content creators on TikTok had failed to disclose that they were being paid by an advertising company. In September the Washington Post reported that a network of paid teenagers posting co-ordinated messages on Facebook without disclosing their funding was linked to pro-Trump group Turning Point USA.
Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, a partner at Lewis Silkin, said that while even experienced influencers can fall on the wrong side of disclosure rules, micro-influencers are even less likely to be aware of them. Facebook Ireland, which operates Instagram in the UK, committed earlier this month to changes which would make it harder for influencers to post paid content without disclosure.
“[Regulators] do tend to clamp down on the better-known cases,” said Mr Lloyd-Taylor. “The flipside is that smaller influencers have probably been a slightly invisible problem.”