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Instagram: The New Political War Room?

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush were polite to each other at the first GOP debate. But it's been gloves off since then, especially on Instagram, a social media outlet not known for its vitriol.
Andrew Harnik
Donald Trump and Jeb Bush were polite to each other at the first GOP debate. But it's been gloves off since then, especially on Instagram, a social media outlet not known for its vitriol.

For some time now, Donald Trump has been attacking Jeb Bush, mostly in media appearances or on Twitter. But, over the last few weeks, Trump has been using Instagram in his fight.

Trump has been posting campaign-style short videos to his Instagram feed, attacking Bush's record of support for the Iraq War and even posting a video of Jeb's mother, Barbara, urging him not to run for president.

The attacks on Instagram stand out, because for the most part, national politicians don't use Instagram for attacks. The Instagram pages of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and, until recently, Jeb Bush, among so many others, are usually full of politicians in the act of being friendly politicians and "real people"; just take a look at New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker's feed, where he's documenting his latest diet.

Before Trump, Instagram — for politicians at least — was a place mostly free of outright vitriol. And it seemed for a while at least, that Trump would be an outlier in his use of Instagram for attack ads.

But on Tuesday, Bush used Instagram to post a video hitting back at Trump, with Trump wondering aloud why he is a Republican.

That video was a short clip of a longer, 80-second video Bush's campaign released Tuesday, titled "The Real Donald Trump." It pulled in archival footage of previous Trump media appearances, showing Trump calling himself "pro-choice in every respect," supporting a single-payer healthcare system — saying it worked well in Scotland and Canada — suggesting that a 25 percent tax for high-income people "should be raised substantially," and singing the praises of Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, calling her "a terrific woman."

That video ended with a money quote: Trump saying to a reporter, "Well you'd be shocked if I said that in many cases I probably identify more as a Democrat."

Right before that Instagram teaser video on Trump, Bush posted a photo of a copy of the New York Times signed by Trump, calling former Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi "the greatest."

"I think he's combative when he makes his grocery list. It's just his personality."

After Bush posted his attack video on Trump, Trump responded with another Instagram video, comparing Bush to Clinton, complete with Mr. Bean-style music playing in the background.

Together, those two posts stand in stark contrast to Bush's previous Instragram persona — his last several posts included a group picture after a run with Navy veterans, candid shots of Bush talking with potential voters during campaign stops and even one of him wearing an apron near a grill at the Iowa State Fair.

Is this the new normal? Can political fights take place in any space now?

Maybe so. Political squabbles have already gotten a bit nastier — and more sophisticated, with graphics and the like — on Twitter this campaign season. Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton and Bush had what Wired magazine called "An Epic Photoshop Fight On Twitter."

It's a far cry from even the 2012 election, when perhaps the most iconic Twitter image that season was of Michelle Obama hugging her husband after he won re-election.

But how much of this new social media combativeness can be pinned on Trump?

Kerric Harvey, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, and editor of the Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics said it's complicated. Though, one thing is certain: Donald Trump lives for battles like these.

"I think he's combative when he makes his grocery list," she told NPR. "It's just his personality."

But, Harvey notes, Instagram becoming a space for political fights is just the latest example of the changing nature of all things Internet.

"Every single technology that starts out with one kind of organizational culture to it, some kind of virtual code of conduct and worldview," Harvey said. But she notes, "It never remains the way it began. It always morphs."

She pointed to a few examples, namely, the Internet itself. "The Internet's life divides at about 1995, 1996, when it stopped being a way around paying long-distance charges — and for a small group of people — a very serious tool for sharing specific projects."

"[Around] 1995, '96 the Feds let the Internet go public," Harvey said. "And a lot of things changed. Before that time, you got flamed if you mentioned anything about commerce on the Internet. ... It was an aggressively non-commercial medium. It was incompletely unacceptable to talk about commerce, let alone sell something."

And now the Internet is a commercial beast, full of online marketplaces and big-budget ad sales.

Harvey said Twitter is another example of a medium that has seen its purpose changing over time.

"Twitter went from being notes people passed to each other in conferences, to being an electronic, multifaceted billboard," she said. "First you knew people in real life. ... Now, Twitter is just another way of shouting."

Harvey added that all these media are demonstrating the same basic pattern.

"All these models have moved away from a really personalized form of social media to social media as a public vehicle for public discussion," she said, "and that included political discourse."

That holds for Instagram, which for national politicians at least, has moved from the app you used to share photos of your food with good friends, to a new forum for political attack videos.

And even if Trump didn't start that wave, Harvey said he's well-fit to ride it for a while.

"He's in some ways perfect for social media," Harvey said, "because there's so much clamor in the background, there's so much going on, that to win is not to necessarily persuade, or to communicate, or listen, it is to literally get attention."

Harvey added that, right now, in the world of social media, everyone's trying to do that.

"My vision of where we are in politics, and culture, kind of as a world culture, is, imagine if you could go into a bat cave," Harvey said. "And you could flip a switch and hear what's going on. That's what it's like for us, and we don't realize it. What we're doing as a species is screaming at the top of our lungs while we hurtle through the dark trying to find each other. That's where we are in the social media nexus, universe."

Right now at least, Donald Trump seems to be the loudest bat in the cave. And it doesn't seem like he's going to quiet down anytime soon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.