In 2015, months before the general election, the Twitter mentions of Ed Miliband were a cesspit. From rows of “fuck off beaker” to less imaginative insults, every tweet posted from the account of the Labour leader attracted dozens of abusive replies.
His Instagram account, on the other hand, was an odd oasis of calm: under each heavily filtered picture, supportive commenters would post messages like “we love u eddy”, or “I believe in you Ed, come on!”
Instagram commenters didn’t manage to get Miliband into No 10, and the account stopped being updated as soon as he lost, but fast-forward two years and the picture-based social media platform has now gained some fans in the Commons.
The most famous example is perhaps Jacob Rees-Mogg. In May, the eccentric Conservative MP posted a picture of him and his son standing outside a tattoo parlour which had put a “Vote Labour” sign in its window. The caption read: “We shall have to take our business elsewhere”, and the post gathered more than 6,000 likes.
Though most politicians aren’t exactly known for being savvy online – one MP would until recently draft a tweet in the notes app on his phone, take a screengrab of it, then email it to his aide so they could tweet it from his account – some are learning, and enjoying it.
“My daughter introduced me to it and I have to say I feel like a complete novice on Instagram, I just know how to put a photo up and a little comment,” Labour MP Caroline Flint admitted.
“People are generally really nice, and just sharing nice snaps, there’s never anything too heavy, so it’s quite a relief from the stuff you get on Twitter,” she added. “It’s a nice little group of people who like the photographs and have a bit of a laugh and that’s a nice space to be in.”
Though she only joined in February, highlights on her account include her practising her ballet skills at the V&A museum, a self-deprecating comment about her “going all Kirsty Allsop [sic] with my dried lavender production”, and countless dogs met on the campaign trail in the spring.
Though Flint manages to mix the personal and professional well on Instagram, the accounts of other MPs can feel a bit more incongruous.
Gavin Williamson, the Chief Whip, is perhaps the most entertaining person on there. On Wednesday, he posted a picture of parliament, along with the caption: “The members cloakroom in the House of Commons always has that smell of something rotting in it. I really must check with the Deputy Chief Whip he has not hidden a body in it, as it seems to be turning.”
Away from the Francis Urquhart persona he has tried to forge for himself, he did also post a picture of his hotel room at Conservative conference a few weeks ago, with the pleasingly pedestrian caption: “The #easyhotel room is not large but at £120 for 3 nights you can’t complain. Typical #easyjet they do charge you £5 extra for a TV remote, as a #yorkshireman I turned down this offer this is obviously aimed more at spendthrift #lancastrians.”
In a way, these two posts encapsulate the reason behind MPs’ newfound enthusiasm for Instagram.
On other social media platforms, politicians have two choices: they can either endlessly post about their surgery meetings and party line on issues, or decide to be themselves and risk attracting the fury of online mobs and headlines from outlets desperate to churn out stories.
If they go for the former, chances are that the accounts will be run by their staff – at least one minister has never logged on to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and “probably wouldn’t even know how to do it”, according to someone from their office.
But if MPs choose the latter, they will almost certainly end up pilloried for being attention seekers or megalomaniacs: though we complain about MPs being grey bots and “all the same”, any show of humanity rarely ends well for them.
For now at least, Instagram can be a place where politicians showcase their hinterland with no fear of reprisal.
“It’s much less aggressive, you tend to post much more human stuff, perhaps less openly political stuff,” Tory MP James Cleverly said. “It’s more about showing people that while you’re a politician, you are also a human, you sometimes go to restaurants, you play with your kids, you sometimes make a mess of something you’re cooking.”
This might not last – while many MPs now have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, most of their Instagrams are still hidden in plain sight, and only attracting the keenest of constituents and nerdiest of Westminster bubble dwellers.
Acknowledging that she does have “very few followers on Instagram compared to Twitter”, Flint did point out that she had so far not received any trolling comments on the platform – “not a single thing”. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry also described it as “relatively troll-free”. Let’s hope this continues.