Comment: Billion Dollar Boy CEO on the rise of influencers in politics 

By Thomas Walters, Europe CEO and Co-Founder of Billion Dollar Boy

Politicians using influencers is a tale as old as time. From John F Kennedy (JFK) being endorsed by Frank Sinatra and adopting “High Hopes” as his 1960 campaign theme tune, to the 2020 election when Taylor Swift successfully mobilised her young fan base to vote in support of Biden.

Although, the correlation between the celebrity endorsements of JFK and Biden and their successful elections is difficult to quantify, there’s no denying that pop culture icons can play an important role in politics by increasing visibility, credibility, and appeal to more diverse and often politically disconnected voter groups.

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The difference in modern elections is the shift from pop culture to digital pop culture, paving the way for social media native influencers to increasingly enter into the political landscape. As linear media’s effectiveness and reach dwindles, politicians – just like brands – are increasingly moving away from TV, print and radio, and embracing digital media and influencers to reach voters.

The rise of political Influencers

The 2020 US presidential election offered the first true glimpse of political influencers. For example, beauty influencer James Charles, who has over 23 million subscribers on YouTube, partnered with the organisation “Vote Save America” to educate his followers about the importance of voting. Similarly, YouTube star David Dobrik offered free Tesla cars as incentives for his fans to register to vote, resulting in over 100,000 new voter registrations.

More recently, in the run up to the 2024 South African election, TikTok creator, Karabo “Kay” Mahapa was one of many influencers to share content questioning the governing African National Congress (ANC). With almost half (42%) of registered voters under the age of 40, one of his videos gained more than 1.7 million views. The younger demographic proved pivotal in the nation’s election result, contributing to the ANC subsequently losing its majority.

Closer to home, Labour has reportedly appointed its first ever dedicated role to coordinate influencer strategy and has launched its TikTok account too, generating four million likes since.

Navigating the challenges and optimising political influencing

The rise of political influencers is explained in a study by CivicScience. It revealed their ability to influence the voting decisions of more than a third (36%) of the Gen Z population. 

Their native presence on social media and the significant trust they’ve built with large and loyal audiences gives influencers a platform to share information about voting procedures and endorse candidates.

Moreover, influencers can drive grassroots movements. Their personalities are far more relatable than politicians – in whom trust has been eroded – allowing them to mobilise followers in organising rallies and protests, or supporting voter registration drives. 

Influencers can also amplify marginalised voices and bring attention to issues that might otherwise be overlooked by mainstream media. For example, influencers encouraged significant engagement around the Black Lives Matter movement, driving 45% of social media users to take part in civic or political activities in 2020.

These use cases are an indication of the benefits influencers can offer politicians and how they can best be deployed, while also acting as a warning of how not to use them.

Influencers can help to engage younger voters and facilitate conversation around challenging or hard to reach topics for politicians by providing an authentic and accessible point of view. However, they can also backfire if the relationship between the influencer and the politician or cause is inauthentic or overly-commercialised. 

Just like all sponsored content, transparent political influencer marketing is essential to maintain trust; and careful monitoring from advertising standards authorities will be needed to prevent misinformation and respect the integrity of democratic election processes.

Political influencers in the biggest election year ever

2024 is set to be the biggest election year on record, as more than four billion voters – or just over half of humanity – go to the polls to register a vote.

With so much at stake across 76 countries worldwide, social media influencers are likely to play an even greater role in politics this year and into the future, becoming potential political game changers that shape voter turnout, political policy and election results altogether.