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Content Creating Over Policy Making: The Next Instagram Prime Minister

Sascha Lavin explores how branding beats ideas in the Tory leadership election

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss arriving in Latvia. Photo: Simon Dawson / 10 Downing Street

Content Creating Over Policy MakingThe Next Instagram Prime Minister

Sascha Lavin explores how branding beats ideas in the Conservative leadership election

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Over the past week, the two remaining Conservative leadership hopefuls – Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – have embarked on a nationwide campaigning tour. Dubbed the ‘battle of ideas’, the Conservative contenders have pitched their plans at local party associations and have gone head-to-head in televised leadership debates.

However, as both campaigns continue to focus on their social media strategy, it seems that the real battleground is online. Indeed, the latest leadership contest is a battle of Instagrams, not ideas. 

Since announcing their bids to succeed Boris Johnson earlier this month, Truss and Sunak have both used the digital world as a weapon, with the former Chancellor’s glitzy campaign launch video receiving more than a million views within its first hour online. Their social media content is strikingly similar: catchy slogans plastered on placards, surrounded by smiling supporters, with Truss even adopting branding that mirrors the ‘Ready for Rishi’ campaign.

Gone are the days of Truss’s early Instagram posts, where she would share close-ups of croissants. Now, her polished page appears to be professionally handled, and it is: Truss has hired Reuben Solomon to run her social media for the campaign. Solomon’s CV includes heading up the Conservative Party’s digital team, and an almost four-year stint at CT Group, run by Johnson’s favourite election guru, Lynton Crosby.  

Sunak’s social media is spearheaded by Cass Horowitz, the man responsible for ‘Brand Rishi’ – who helped to market former Chancellor as a man of the people when he occupied Number 11. A more polished man, granted, with more expensive suits and sliders.

Horowitz, who runs a branding agency with his brother, uses the same slick, stylised infographics on Sunak’s Instagram as he does on his other clients – from CBD to Japanese frozen delicacies. 

But one of the policies most closely associated with ‘Brand Rishi’ – ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ – is a cautionary tale of clicks driving policy. The heavily-branded scheme, which cost around £500 million and offered discounts to hungry diners in the late summer of 2020, was responsible for 8% to 17% of Coronavirus infections in the wake of its launch, according to research by the University of Warwick.

Alongside Instagram posts, both campaigns have been using targeted adverts on Facebook, with Sunak’s exploiting his competitor’s pro-Remain record, and Truss promising a “true Conservative economic plan”.

A sponsored Facebook advert from Rishi Sunak’s campaign.

While Truss’s messaging reflects the Thatcherite ideals of her campaign, the accuracy of her targeting is notable. Analysis by the social media monitoring group Who Targets Me has found that “the demographics of those seeing [her] ads look pretty much like those of the Tory membership, so her campaign seems to be doing more than guessing”.

Given that the details of Conservative members are not publicly available, this raises the question: what data is she using to target Facebook users?

The Meme Masters

This reliance on digital campaign may not be surprising, given that Truss and Sunak were notorious for their social media savvy while serving under Johnson: they were the only ministers to employ digital media special advisors.

Truss has been accused of being so obsessed with social media that when at the Department of International Trade her then-employees supposedly quipped that it would be better named as the ‘Department for Instagramming Truss’.

Now serving as Foreign Secretary, Truss’s photo-ops are frequently shared on the Government’s official Flickr account: the Guardian previously reported that, on average, more than four-and-a-half pictures a day were uploaded of her, with ministers in all the other top jobs rarely getting a look-in. However, this could be more to do with Truss’s current position: analysis by Byline Times found that her predecessor Dominic Raab uploaded pictures with a similar frequency. 

The Instagram AdministrationHow the Conservative PR ApparatusCaptured the British State

Sam Bright

Under Sunak, the Treasury’s communications budget increased by 62% in two years, with the budget standing at almost £3.4 million by the time he left office. The former Chancellor was also recently accused by Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner of spending taxpayers’ money on “a vanity exercise” after it was revealed that he had handed more than £500,000 to run focus groups and an online poll in an attempt to “rebrand his image”.  

Interestingly, this mirrors a trend within Conservative politics: towards style on social media, and away from policy substance.

Indeed, with the help of New Zealand communications startup Topham Guerin, the Conservative Party deployed self-described ‘shitty’ viral memes during the 2019 General Election campaign, while controversially rebranding the Conservative Twitter account as a fact-checking page during a television debate. While the current campaigns have yet to cross into ‘fake news’ territory, it seems that 2019 was a test case for colourful, online-focused, fact-free campaigning, of the sort that has now been adopted by the current Conservative contenders.  

As much as Truss and Sunak claim to be a “clean break” from the current Prime Minister, with both prospective leaders refusing to say that they would offer him a Cabinet position, at least one Johnsonian hangover remains: a reliance on social media. With the war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis at home, it looks like Johnson’s successor will be a content creator rather than a policy maker.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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