Candidates did lackluster youth targeting on Instagram

Presidential campaigns often hinge on which candidates are best at mobilizing those demographic groups who are the most predisposed to support them. For Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, young people were a key group to cultivate and lure to the polls. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 60 percent said they leaned toward Biden, while only 27 percent liked Donald Trump, according to a survey by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School taken late in the campaign. Of course, young people are also the least likely age group to vote, so it takes a lot of effort to energize them enough to fill out a ballot.

One increasingly important way to reach and influence young people is on Instagram. With more than 400 million active users, the mobile photo-sharing application is larger than Twitter and trails only Facebook among social media platforms. Instagram is especially popular with young adults, who see it as the “go-to source of political news,” according to a survey by Business Insider. Recent research shows Instagram’s political influence. Young voters frequently turn to Instagram for information about candidates. Those who follow political leaders on Instagram say the posts can influence their views more than any other source, including friends and family. The main motives to follow political leaders on Instagram are for information and guidance, which helps to explain why followers are so receptive to the messages in leaders’ posts.

While Instagram is a platform that Biden could have used to appeal to young people and convince them to vote, an analysis of his campaign’s Instagram account shows the absence of a focused youth strategy. Of the 450 Instagram posts during the last two months of the race, fewer than 5% visually or verbally targeted those in their late teens or 20s. Targeting the youth vote is defined as whether the posts showed 18- to 29-year-olds, verbally mentioned young adults, or discussed issues from the youth perspective. Trump’s campaign Instagram account practically ignored young voters, with less than 2% of posts focused on youth.

Biden had some posts that attempted to target the youth vote. Examples include a video compilation of several young people excited to vote for the first time. The post, which is addressed to “First-time voters,” says, “Voting is a powerful tool for change.” Another video montage of young people is labeled “Students react to my policies. It’s so important that young people’s voices are heard this election. You are the future of this country.” Two other posts target young African Americans. In one, Biden says: “Historically Black Colleges and Universities are critical to the fabric of our education system. I’ll make it a priority to invest in the diverse talent at HBCUs, make college affordable for Black students, and work toward equity in education.” A similar post compares Biden and Trump on various issues, including education, and Biden says he will “expand access to Pell Grants for millions of Black students.” A few other posts included 20-something celebrities. In one, Biden has a conversation with 28-year-old singer and actress Cardi B. The posts reads: “You might be surprised, but @iamcardib and I have a lot more in common than our passion for talking about racial equality, free college, and affordable healthcare.” Their video conversation goes on to address these issues from the perspective of young voters. These examples show that the Biden campaign was capable of doing youth-targeted posts. They simply did not do many of them.

Of course, many issues mentioned on the candidates’ Instagram pages, such as the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, matter to all ages. But voter targeting is common for other age groups, such as senior citizens, who frequently are shown in political ads while discussing Social Security, Medicare, and other age-related issues. The same effort could be put into targeting young people, but campaigns rarely bother. For example, U.S. presidential TV ads almost never target young voters, which promotes an interpretation among young viewers that political ads, and political campaigns in general, are not meant for them. Focus groups with college students indicate that young people want candidates to address them directly and create ads that stress the importance of voting in general. Doing so could boost the stature of the candidate making the appeal, as well as counteract political cynicism.

The failure to reach out to young voters is not limited to U.S. candidates. Research shows that British candidates are equally guilty. British political ad makers say they rarely pursue a youth strategy, even though low youth turnout concerns them.