Instagram influencers: shaping discourse on the Israel-Gaza conflict

Amid the current Israel-Gaza conflict, social media influencers – previously apolitical players – are crafting persuasive narratives. Their posts may be limited in number, but their influence can be significant. We should remain vigilant to their potential effects, warns Jonathan Klüser

The recent Israel-Gaza conflict, sparked by the unprecedented assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip on 7 October, has generated intense debate across political institutions, academic campuses, and civil society. Surprisingly, Instagram influencers, typically associated with fashion, fitness, and lifestyle content, have joined the discourse. The sudden politicisation of such previously apolitical figures raises fears that influencers may spread biased political agendas.

These concerns appear justified. Indeed, several influencers have recently exploited their sizeable platforms to champion specific causes. German influencer Diana zur Löwen, for instance, has been a vocal advocate for mental health awareness. And back in 2019, Swiss influencer Anja Zeidler used Instagram to rally her 300,000 followers against the Mercosur free-trade agreement.

Influencers cultivate 'parasocial relationships' with their followers which render their messages more impactful

There is compelling theoretical evidence supporting the capacity of influencers to shape political opinions and preferences. Influencers often boast tens of millions of followers, numbers that dwarf the circulation of a typical newspaper. But their influence is not merely the result of their platforms' vast reach; it isn't just about the numbers. Instead, influencers wield persuasive power by cultivating 'parasocial relationships' with their followers. On Instagram in particular, influencers foster trust, and create emotional connections, which render their messages more impactful, and ostensibly harmless.

This enhanced level of engagement cuts through far more effectively than traditional media. It positions influencers as trusted virtual confidants as opposed to remote elites. Consequently, when influencers like Nora Achmaoui – who has amassed half a million followers on Instagram – pass comment on the current conflict, their messages carry significant weight, and resonate widely.

Discourse shifts towards the war – a little

Analysis of posts created by Instagram accounts with more than 500,000 followers shows that content had indeed shifted towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, albeit only to a limited extent. Excluding transient posts, such as reels, in the week after 7 October, these accounts generated about 600 posts per day on the topic, accounting for approximately 3% of their total posting activity. This represents a noticeable, though not remarkable, amount of content focusing on the conflict.

Evolution of Instagram posts on Gaza/Israel

The upper plot illustrates the proportion of posts dedicated to the topic. The lower plot breaks down the quantity of pertinent posts across various categories of large Instagram accounts.

Importantly, it is not influencers typically associated with Instagram who authored the bulk of these posts. Instead, those primarily responsible for the content were 'general elites', such as politicians, public institutions, and established media outlets.

Influencers, along with traditional celebrities like actors and athletes, contribute to only around 10% of Instagram content discussing the current situation in Israel. Yet, it may be exactly these accounts whose opinions people buy the most. Users perceive these accounts as messages from a relatable, trusted friend rather than pronouncements from a distant political elite.

The Israel-Gaza content generated by traditional influencers wields a disproportionate effect because influencer accounts are more relatable and trusted than those of elites such as politicians

Influencers call for ceasefires and prayers

A more detailed analysis of Instagram content addressing current events in Gaza reveals that influencers tend to focus on fewer aspects of the conflict than general elites. Influential accounts overwhelmingly call for an immediate ceasefire to alleviate the suffering of people in Gaza under Israeli attack.

General elites, by contrast, delve more deeply into various facets of the conflict. They discuss topics such as the alleged Israeli airstrike on the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, the US perspective on the conflict, and even the potential economic repercussions. Intriguingly, the only narrative that centres unequivocally on the suffering of Israelis pertains to the wellbeing and outlook of Israeli hostages.

Evolution of Instagram posts on Israel-Gaza conflict

Traditional celebrities

Social media influencers

Traditional elites

Topics of relevant posts

Traditional celebrities and influencers, on the other hand, convey a more focused narrative. Nearly half the content posted by conventional influencers, such as fashion or fitness bloggers, calls for an immediate ceasefire to end human suffering. This is often accompanied by religious comments and prayers for the conflict's victims. By contrast, however, influencers display limited sympathy and concern for the Israeli hostages. Only 3% of comments address the conflict from this viewpoint.

Pleas for peace perform better

Determining the motivations behind influencers' biased approach to the conflict, based on currently available data, is challenging. However, it is likely that economic considerations play a significant role. Unlike general elites, influencers must constantly maintain audience engagement. Decreased engagement translates into fewer views, slower growth in followers and, ultimately, to reduced ad revenue. Each post must therefore be crafted meticulously, to maximise impact.

Engagement provoked by different topics

Plot shows performance metrics across various aspects of conflict, segmented by influential Instagram accounts. Green signifies above-average performance; purple/pink indicates below-average performance. 

A deeper analysis of the performance of different aspects of the conflict, segmented by group, offers some insights. 'Performance' is the number of likes and comments a post generates. Values greater than one indicate better-than-average engagement for an account, and vice versa.

Influencers risk losing engagement when posting about violence. Calls and prayers for peace are more successful, and this pushes the Instagram algorithms to encourage more such content

From this perspective, it becomes apparent that influencers risk losing engagement when posting about military violence or terrorist atrocities. Instead, calls and prayers for peace emerge as the more successful strategy. This dynamic sets up a positive feedback loop, or a vicious cycle, depending on one's viewpoint. Whether driven by individual choice or algorithmic influence, audiences on Instagram tend to engage more with the pro-Palestine, anti-war narrative. This prompts influencers to create content around these topics, and, subsequently, algorithms push such content to users' feeds, perpetuating the cycle.

Why we must remain vigilant

Based on the data, it appears that influencers are indeed promoting a less than diverse discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Yet on Instagram at least, the Israel-Palestine conflict discourse may already be subsiding. As a result, concerns about social media feeds being overwhelmed with pro-Palestine content may soon dissipate.

However, this episode offers a crucial lesson: while political content from influencers may be infrequent, and fears of online misinformation potentially exaggerated, it is still essential to remain vigilant. Information from the right source can appear credible, especially when it comes not from a distant elite but, seemingly, from a close friend. Thus, it is crucial to approach such content with a discerning eye.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Jonathan Klüser
Jonathan Klüser
Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Political Science, University of Zurich

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Chair of Policy Analysis at the University of Zurich.

He is affiliated with the Problem Definition in Digital Democracy project and the Digital Democracy Lab.

Prior to joining the University of Zurich's Department of Political Science, he was a postdoctoral researcher for the Varieties of Egalitarianism project at the University of Konstanz.

As a public policy scholar, Jonathan focuses on political agenda-setting, which includes both traditional political elites and emerging political actors on social media platforms.

He also examines how institutional cooperation impacts agenda-setting dynamics and ultimately leads to diverse policy outcomes.

Content Moderation As a Political Issue: The Twitter Discourse Around Trump's Ban
Journal of Quantitative Description

Policy Agenda-Setting and Punctuated Equilibrium in Comparative Perspective
German Political Science Quarterly

Ministerial Policy Dominance in Parliamentary Democracies
European Journal of Political Research

Jonathan earned his PhD in political science from Aarhus University in 2020, completing a dissertation on political agenda-setting in multiparty governments.

He tweets @klueserthan

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram