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Inside the growth of the political microinfluencer

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 between the fashion tips and the baby videos that fill her feed, there is evidence that Mrs Hansen has become part of a new wave of online campaigns.

"I know I personally get very frustrated by the amount of misinformation out there," reads the caption in a May post, next to a picture of Mrs. Hansen in an open field. She goes on to advise the audience to "stop the noise from those who think we need to sacrifice lives… And #stayhome".

At the bottom of the post is a small disclaimer: "Paid by [political action committee] Defeat Disinfo"

Mrs Hansen is one of a growing number of political "micro-influencers": moderate-follow social media users ̵

1; typically in the low thousands, as opposed to millions of the most popular creators – who are paid by political marketing firms and consultants to market everything. from graduates to editions.

"The biggest thing [marketers] is focused on this year … is relational organization," said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas Austin who co-authored a report on popular campaign techniques, which aims to exploit voters' personal connections and trust.

Unlike top-level influencers, whose Internet celebrities may risk alienating some older voters, micro-influencers – as usual ice has day jobs alongside his career on social media – perceived as more relatable and therefore more useful for making political messages.

"We all know celebrities and top-down things have no [enough] influence," said Curtis Houghland, CEO of Main Street One, a left-leaning political communications firm that has built a network of micro- and nano-influencers to increase progressive messaging. "The person delivering your message should look like you and speak like you."

Spheres of Influence

The emergence of political micro-influences comes amid a presidential election cycle in 2020 that has featured particularly unorthodox digital campaign, from Michael Bloomberg's use of meme producers to push paid content on Instagram, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & # 39; s live stream on the gaming platform Twitch as part of a "get out the vote" campaign.

"It is far 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 diverse content."

It also comes as social platforms increasingly crack down on political advertising ahead of one of the most polarizing US elections in memory, with Twitter announcing in October last year that it will ban all political advertising, while Facebook, which owns Instagram, has moved to tighten policies, including banning new political ads in the week before the US presidential election.

In addition to Defeat Disinfo – of which Mr. Houghland is director – Main Street One & # 39 ;s clients have included nonprofit the Voter Participation Center, which aims to increase turnout, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees and the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Its list of 6.3 m microinfluences includes a national network of truck drivers, suburban mothers in Wisconsin, African American voters in Michigan and Latinx voters concerned about Florida's climate change.

The company finds potential influencers using an automation rt tools that search the internet for users who meet certain criteria. It then gives a brief to willing candidates, but encourages them to produce "their own very personal emotional content," Houghland said.

Hansen said that Main Street One had reached out to her when they were looking for Wisconsin creators to promote awareness of being at home during the pandemic, and the need for personal protective equipment for health care professionals. "I only apply the campaigns with those that highlight issues I am passionate about discussing," she said, adding that she wrote her own captions and selected the images on posts.

She also said that she had always been vocal about her faith. "I do not necessarily see my partnership with Main Street One as political," she said. "For me, it's about having the opportunity to amplify my voice and provide valuable information to the audience."

Main Street One is not alone in the field of political micro-influencers. 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 report from the University of Texas, Austin pointed to similar work done by NextGen America, a PAC founded by Tom Steyer, which ran for the Democratic nomination.

"The question is, can you find the best messenger for [send a trusted message] with enough speed, volume and quality to compete with the right – wing arms of the internet," said Houghland. "Real people who tell real stories are more powerful than any fine or sock puppet or Republican tale."

Unclear lines

However, experts are concerned that the use of social media, which creates a political campaign, risks becoming blurred on an ethical line, especially given that their supporters are not always aware that they are being marketed to.

“If you mobilize an army of small influencers who you can legitimately claim to support your political ideas, you are drawing a fine line between grassroots organization or the kind of coordinated tactics that can be seen as manipulative or misleading if they do not revealed properly, ”said Mrs Marchal.

Woolley added that his findings from interviews with marketing companies indicated that they preferred that sponsorship not be disclosed. "In the context of politics, our informants said they do not want to disclose paid because it looks unauthentic."

Micro-influencers were often encouraged to make topic-based posts, rather than explicit endorsements, in hopes of yielding more subtle content, Woolley said. However, there have been exceptions: A paid post last year by influencer Kaelin Armstrong Dunn, who supported Democrat Andy Beshear for the governor of Kentucky, came between the posts about toys and self-care products.

Houghland emphasized that all paid posts from Main Street En influencers were clearly marked as such, but other campaigns have been less explicit. A BBC poll this week found that a group of anti-Trump content creators on TikTok had not revealed that they were paid by an advertising company. In September, the Washington Post reported that a network of paid teens who posted coordinated messages on Facebook without disclosing funding was affiliated with the Trump group Turning Point USA.

Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, a partner in Lewis Silkin, said that while even experienced influencers may fall on the wrong side of extradition rules, micro-influencers are even less likely to be aware of them. Facebook Ireland, which runs Instagram in the UK, committed earlier this month to changes that would make it harder for influencers to post paid content without publishing.

"[Regulators] tends to crack down on the better known cases," Mr. Lloyd-Taylor said. "The flip side is that minor influencers have probably been a slightly invisible problem."

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