Diplomacy is becoming more visible and more visual through social media and especially Instagram. What was once hidden behind closed doors is now becoming public for everyone to see. History is now being immortalized on the mobile photo and video sharing platform.
Consider the picture of the tense faceoff between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Trump at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Canada. The photo was originally posted on the German Chancellor’s Instagram account and then went viral, totally eclipsing the official summit family photo. Canadian, French, Italian, Japanese and U.S. officials all shared similar pictures of the scene, but none was as expressive and captured the apparent rift between world leaders as the picture posted by the @Bundeskanzlerin.
Instagram has become the fastest growing social media network among world leaders, governments and foreign ministers and is the third most used social media platform after Twitter and Facebook, with 81 percent of the 193 UN member states active on the platform.
All leaders of the G7 and all but two of the G20 leaders have personal profiles on the platform. Only Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping do not have personal accounts on Instagram. However, the Russian government maintains the official @PhotoGovernment channel and the Chinese State Council Information Office seems to have reserved the @ChinaSCIO account. As of October 1, 2018, the heads of state and government of 120 countries have a personal Instagram presence, representing almost two-thirds of all UN member states.
During the summer of 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined the fray and opened his personal Instagram account @SecPompeo «with some @statedept #swagger». His German counterpart, Heiko Maas, activated his personal Instagram account just hours before heading to the annual UN General Assembly in New York. On September 29, 2018, the Foreign Ministry of Romania (@MFARomania) became the latest foreign ministry to set up an official Instagram account.
Over the past five years, governments and world leaders have flocked to the social network to share their official pictures and their private stories with a worldwide audience.
Over the past months, Instagram Stories have become a secondary channel for digital diplomacy and Instaplomacy, where word leaders meet, greet and tag each other. To see what world leaders are doing at international conferences and summits, it is useful to follow their Instagram accounts to glean valuable behind-the-scenes insights into the halls of power.
At the UN General Assembly in September 2018, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov shared a fraternal embrace with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in sitting in the General Assembly hall. The picture, which had no caption, visually illustrated the good relations between both leaders and their countries.
The Belgian Foreign Ministry shared a picture of the brief conversation between Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and Donald Trump after the U.S. President had criticized globalism during his UN speech. «As a founding member of the United Nations, Belgium has always been a staunch defender of multilateralism», the Belgian digital diplomats shot back in the caption, a clear diplomatic broadside against the U.S. administration.
How do world leaders use Instagram? «Just like millennials», posted 68-year-old Sebastian Piñera, the President of Chile on his Instagram story while being interviewed live on Facebook by the President of Costa Rica, 38-year-old Carlos Alvarado Quesada.
And just ‘like Millennials,’ world leaders and government post selfies and pictures with their loved ones, and they have started to use the full gamut of Instagram options, including emojis and stickers and live broadcasts.
As of October 1, 2018, the 426 accounts analyzed in this study, conducted by leading global communications agency BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe), have a combined total of 98,297,274 followers and published 98,372 posts over the past 12 months, which have garnered a total of 860,448,598 interactions (comments and likes). We have highlighted some of the most memorable Instagram posts, Stories and videos in the hope that this study will provide valuable insights on how world leaders engage their audiences on the platform. From beauty shots to selfies, question stickers and Instagram live broadcasts, it is worth following some of the leaders.
Instagram Stories are all the rage among governments and world leaders for sharing daily behind-the-scenes moments. More than a third of the 426 accounts of world leaders and govenments have created ephemeral Instagram Stories. Like Snapchat’s original model, users can add an unlimited number of photos and 15-second videos to their stories which generally disappear after 24 hours.
There are no public statistics on the engagement of Instagram Stories, but their format makes them relatively safe for politicians to use since no one can publicly comment on the posts, shielding them from the widespread negativity present on other social networks.
Publishing Instagram Stories is also the best way to stay top of mind of your followers since the latest Stories will be highlighted with a red circle around their avatar on top of the Instagram home screen. These Instagram Stories will be visible indefinitely when posted as Story Highlights on the profile and 133 accounts have highlighted a total of 989 stories.
Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, features a record 94 highlights on his Instagram profile. The Swedish Royal Household (@Kungahuset) has highlighted 46 stories and the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Britain’s Royal Family have featured more than 30 stories.
Colombia’s new President, Iván Duque (@IvanDuqueMarquez), has even designed custom-made cover pictures for the highlights of his activities and his media interviews.
Instagram Stories have become the scribbling pad for social media managers and a testing ground for the best picture which will then be shared on the main Instagram feed. EU Council President Donald Tusk capped off his UN leaders’ week in New York with a personal Instagram Story of his run from Battery Park to 44th Street. He summed up his run by posting one picture, culled from his Story on his main feed with a strong political message: «Morning run in New York with the Statue of Liberty behind me…a powerful reminder of what I deeply admire about this country.»
Tusk’s team has mastered the art of Instagram storytelling: In six still pictures with short and punchy captions, the team summed up the challenges the European Union faced over the past years. The entire text was fewer than 280 characters and could have fit in a tweet. In the last picture he invites his followers to «Swipe up to read my report» which opens the EU Council website.
Ahead of the NATO Summit in July 2018 in Brussels, Tusk met with NATO Secretary General @JensStoltenberg and had «an important message to President @realDonaldTrump», encouraging viewers to turn the «sound on» to hear his statement which was also splashed across the video: “The US doesn’t have and won’t have a better ally than the EU”.
For Instagram Stories to have the most impact, they require careful scripting and thorough preparation before assembling them. It is useful to add relevant hashtags, a location and to tag other users in the stories which will allow them to share these stories on their own Instagram profiles.
International summits have become much more fun and entertaining with leaders sharing snapshots in their respective Instagram stories. At the Western Balkans Summit in London in July 2018, the heads of government from Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Poland and Slovenia all shared snippets: From the official family picture to a video of the flyover by the Royal Air Force in addition to the pictures of the meeting.
The social media team of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz found an elegant way of summarizing his daily activities as well as his oversea trips. The Instagram story of his visit to London started with an aerial picture from the plane and included the traditional handshake with the UK Prime Minister Theresa May in front of Downing Street N°10, their bilateral meeting and a short video statement from Kurz wrapping up the discussions.
Instagram Stories are perfect for chronicling the daily activities of world leaders. Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri and Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera each have a dedicated social media reporter following them every day from morning to evening, posting countless pictures and videos of their meetings as they unfold. A typical Instagram Story of Mauricio Macri counts on average 30 and more elements, which all disappear after 24 hours.
Governments and world leaders are clearly having fun with emojis, and not only the flag emojis for their countries. On World Emoji Day the Israeli Foreign Ministry published «nine cool statistics» about the country using only emojis including the three countries which have recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as well as the Eurovision Song Contest which Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won in May 2018.
The European Commission has used Instagram’s “Poll Stickers” in its Stories to poll its followers. The results of these unscientific polls will be shown once a user makes a choice.
The European Commission, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and especially the Austrian government have also conducted Instagram Q&As, encouraging direct feedback from their followers.
The Austrian government regularly engages its followers using Instagram’s “Question Stickers” in its stories and organizing Instagram interviews with the chancellor and other members of his administration. Question stickers allow to capture the questions and answer them at their leisure.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte sat down for a Q&A session via Instagram stories, delivering short answers which are highlighted on his profile.
What do World Leaders Post on Instagram?
All world leaders combined have posted a total of 98,372 photos and videos over the past 12 months. The lion’s share are pictures of meetings such as election rallies, summits, conferences and bilateral meetings with their foreign counterparts.
The picture of newly married Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli and his wife, Indian actress Anushka Sharma meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has become the most liked picture posted by any world leader. Not surprisingly, the picture has received 1,834,707 hearts since all three have a combined following of 55 million on Instagram.
The picture of Narendra Modi standing at a bust stop in snowy Davos ahead of the World Economic Forum 2018 is the second most liked picture with a total of 1,635,978 likes. The unusual shot illustrates that pictures which are out of the ordinary do tend to get the best engagement on the platform.
Pictures from birthdays, weddings and private moments with the family, wife, children and grandchildren on holidays and selfies tend to garner the best interactions on Instagram. The Syrian presidential administration shared an intimate picture of Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma in hospital after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Not surprisingly, the official black & white wedding picture of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has become the most popular picture on British Royal family’s Instagram feed in 2018.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister conquered the Internet with a picture of her partner and their new-born baby girl. Jacinda Ardern has become the second world leader to give birth while in office.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama thanked Jacinda Ardern for bringing her baby to the United Nations General Assembly, adding: “Little Neve in the room is a humbling reminder that the world’s leaders must act not for ourselves, but for the future of our children and our planet.”
Luxemburg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel celebrated his third wedding anniversary to his partner with a powerful political message for LGBT rights: “In over 70 countries I wouldn’t be able to celebrate my third wedding anniversary 🎂today because I would be in jail or even worse.”
Global sporting events tend to unite leaders and in 2018 the FIFA Football World Cup gave them ample opportunities to root for their teams. Iranian President Rouhani was pictured watching his country play from the comfort of his living room and wearing the team jersey. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama celebrated Croatia’s qualification for the finale with a selfie with the Croatian President at the NATO Summit in Brussels and the Belgium Foreign Ministry celebrated the country’s third place with a picture tagging all players of the national football team being greeted by thousands in Brussels.
Italy’s Giuseppe Conte’s most popular picture shows him kicking the ball in his hometown of Volturara Appula, dressed in suit and tie.
The three picture carousel post of President Donald Trump giving a speech in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, threatening to rescind the Iran nuclear deal on October 13, 2017, has become by far the most commented post with 4,129,144 comments.
The second most commented post is the picture of Indonesian President Joko Widodo taking a selfie at a football match where his team Jakmania defeated Bali United 3-0 and which garnered 876,239 comments.
Most world leaders have embraced the selfie culture of their fans, happily agreeing to be featured in selfies – the digital equivalent of an autograph. A group of admirers will generally cuddle up close to their favourite leader to take a selfie. Instagram accounts come alive particularly during election campaigns, with pictures of politicians surrounded by a crowd of admirers wanting to capture a selfie. Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and Slovakia’s President Andrej Kiska often share pictures of these selfie moments with their fans. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was surprised by the last question during an interview with a journalist: “Is it possible to get a selfie?”
A few leaders have taken matters into their own hands, snapping selfies themselves. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri regularly gathers large crowds around his mobile device to capture group selfies. Swiss President Alain Berset — who manages his Instagram account himself — posted a fun selfie with a group of Sumo wrestlers on his trip to Japan.
Colombian President Iván Duque is the undisputed selfie king of 2018. He even has a selfie stick to capture and engage large crowds and took a selfie with Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri and Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez “to reaffirm our bonds of friendship and cooperation.”
Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen took a selfie with his Algerian counterpart, Abdelkader Messahel, while news photographers were capturing the scene.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made history when he snapped a selfie with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un touring the tourist sites of Singapore ahead of the Trump-Kim Summit in June 2018. According to press reports, this appears to be the first time the North Korean leader has posed for a casual selfie.
Instagram is not the most obvious social network to make sweeping policy statements or hard-hitting announcements, however as the saying goes: “A picture is worth a thousand words.’ Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council had a clear message for UK Prime Minister Theresa May. At the EU Summit in Salzburg, Austria, he posted a picture with Theresa May at the dessert tray with the killer caption: «A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries» a thinly veiled reference to the UK’s attempt to cherry-pick the best Brexit deal. His team has clearly mastered the art of Instaplomacy, tagging the UK Prime Minister in the picture and sharing it also as an Instagram Story several hours later.
The portrait of a triumphant Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proudly flying the Russian flag is the most popular picture on the Instagram feed of the Russian Foreign Ministry with the caption: “Apply to sick places on the planet. In a number of geographical areas can cause the effect of exorcism.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most popular post is the picture of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem with Ivanka and Jared Trump.
Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg probably posted one of the best and most unusual pictures on Instagram. Not taking herself too seriously, she happily re-enacted Norway’s most famous artwork, The Scream by Edvard Munch, to promote the painter’s exhibition in Japan. “I don’t know if my contribution helps,” she added in the description.
U.S. President Donald Trump often posts screenshots and quote cards of his tweets on Instagram in the hope of increasing their impact. While that might not be the best visual use of the platform, the tactic does gain him considerably more engagement. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also often posts screenshots of his tweets. Other governments have shared pictures of presidential decrees, or even entire press releases, which require zooming in and are rather hard to decipher, especially on mobile devices.
A couple of world leaders have shown their creativity and Instagram mastery by building collages with a series of Instagram posts.
The Foreign Ministry of Vietnam inaugurated its Instagram feed with a series of three-picture mosaics, and the presidential administration of Honduras captured the meetings of President Juan Orlando Hernández with Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera in six-picture collages. While these mosaics look good on the main page, they are unlikely to drive significant engagement as few users will visit the main profile page.
Barack Obama was the first world leader to set up an Instagram account, on January 4, 2012, followed by Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri. Many politicians take to Instagram during election campaigns and use the network to show a lighter side of their personality, but once elected their personal accounts go into abeyance. Donald Trump has mothballed the @POTUS account set up under President Barack Obama for the use of the U.S. President, concentrating his efforts on his personal account @realDonaldTrump. Almost a quarter of all the accounts surveyed have either been dormant for more than a year or have never been active. The personal Instagram account of Polish President Andrzej Duda for example, has been dormant since becoming President in 2015.
The share of video posts on the accounts of world leaders has tripled over the past two years, from four percent in our first study in 2016 to 12 percent in this year’s edition. On average, video posts tend to get slightly more likes than photo posts and three times as many comments. More than half of the publications of the Somali Prime Minister, the Presidency of Panama and the government of El Salvador are video posts.
The most popular video, watched almost 4 million times, is a repost by President Donald Trump of a Fox News video showing a police officer rolling up an American flag which was dangling from the side of a building. The second most watched video is the arrival of the Indonesian presidential plane at the newly opened Kertajati International Airport in West Java with 3.9 million views.
The most liked video, with 787,201 likes, was posted by Indonesian President Joko Widodo celebrating Indonesia’s success at the Asian Games 2018 in which the president also does a selfie with an athlete proclaiming “For Indonesia”.
The second most liked video, with 589,003 likes and watched 3.2 million times, was posted by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a plane to celebrate the first day of Ramadan 2018. The only video posted by the Turkish President has obtained an interaction rate of 18 percent, far better than any of his picture posts.
An excerpt from Donald Trump’s 2017 UN speech, posted in December 2017, warning Iran that: «Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice» has become the most commented video with more than 98,194 comments and watched 735,037 times.
The video of Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović cheering her team ahead of the Football World Cup Final in Moscow has been viewed more than 2 million times. The videos of both presidents were shot on hand-held mobile devices and while flying with sub-optimal sound conditions. However, quality doesn’t seem to matter as much as the emotional and passionate messages of both leaders.
The Russian Foreign Ministry mocked UK Prime Minister Theresa May in a video comparing her dance moves on her recent visit to Africa to those of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen shared a scary video of him standing on the edge of the open hatch of a transport plane looking at the Danish F-16 pilots controlling the airspace over the Baltics.
Since videos in the main Instagram feed are limited to 60 seconds, the company has rolled out Instagram TV (IGTV) which allows users upload up to 60-minute-long videos. Sixty-three of the 426 accounts have set up bespoke Instagram TV channels and posted a total of 335 videos in vertical format.
So far Instagram videos have relatively few viewers. The three-minute video of the electronic music festival in the grounds of the Elysée Palace has only had 1,769 views and three comments. French President Emmanuel Macron was more successful with the four-minute video summary of his activities in July 2018 which garnered 45,827 views and 41 comments. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau clocked up 50,932 views on his Instagram video about Canada Day 2018.
Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri, who often records video statements for his followers, has become the first world leader to organize a live Q&A session on his Instagram channel. A video summary of his live conversation with some of his followers is still available on his main feed. Live video conversations are a rarity since you never know what kind of questions will be asked.
Instagram Live broadcasts are also difficult to catch, as they disappear immediately at the end of the broadcast unless the user saves the video to the camera roll and posts the video on IGTV or edits a 60-second highlight video on the main Instagram feed. Given the ephemeral nature of Instagram live videos, it is impossible to say how many governments have already used this broadcasting functionality.
French President Emmanuel Macron is sometimes live on Instagram meeting constituents but does not save his broadcasts.
However, with the introduction of Instagram TV and Instagram Live video, the number of video posts is bound to increase as governmental community managers take full advantage of all Instagram functionalities.
Finally, it is important to note that Instagram live broadcasts do not support horizontal video and should therefore be shot holding the mobile device vertically. It is equally important to be as close to the speakers as possible, or to use an external microphone for optimal sound quality.
Who is the Most Followed?
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most followed world leader on Instagram with 14.8 million followers. He is closely followed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo @Jokowi with 12.2 million followers who more than doubled his followers over the past 12 months. With 10 million followers U.S. President Donald Trump is in third position.
Pope Francis, who started his Instagram journey on March 19, 2016, is in fourth position with 5.7 million followers, just ahead of Queen Rania of Jordan, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the White House account with more than 4 million followers respectively.
The UK Royal Family has almost tripled its followers over the past 12 months in large part thanks to the pictures of the #RoyalWedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle which increased the followers by 570,000 on May 19, 2018.
Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo is Sub-Saharan Africa’s most followed leader on Instagram with 431 thousand followers, ahead of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari with more than 160 thousand followers each.
Jordan’s Queen Rania is the most followed Arab leader with more than 4.8 million followers, surpassing Sheikh Mohammed, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates with more than 3.3 million followers.
Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri is the most followed Latin American leader on Instagram with 880,000 followers ahead of outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Paraguay’s Mario Abdo Benítez who each boast more than half a million followers, respectively.
The British Royal Family tops the Instagram ranking in the European Union with 3.5 million followers, far ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron, with 1.1 million followers and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel with 684,000 followers.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo leads the rankings in East Asia. He has seen his followers more than double to over the past year to more than 12 million followers. Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia is a distant second with 1.5 million followers ahead of South Korean President Moon Jae-in who has almost doubled his followers double over the past 12 months.
Who has the Most Interactions?
Large follower numbers do not necessarily translate into better engagement and interactions. U.S. President Donald Trump leads the rankings in terms of total interactions (comments and likes). Over the past 12 months, @realDonaldTrump has garnered more than 218 million interactions, more than three times as many as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has more followers but only 69 million interactions over the past year. Admittedly Donald Trump is more active having posted 20 times as many pictures and videos as the Indian Prime Minister.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has posted only 80 photos and videos – 20 times less than the 1,556 posts posted by Donald Trump – but over the past 12 months, Modi has enjoyed a far better interaction rate, with 7.11 percent compared to Trump’s 1.58 percent.
Surprisingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in third position with 127 million interactions on his 1,008 posts, almost twice as many as Narendra Modi, while having six times less followers.
However, considering the number of interactions (comments and likes) per post, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most effective world leader on Instagram, with each of his 80 posts receiving on average 873,302 interactions. Turkey’s President is in second position with 413,934 interactions and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo’s Instagram posts receive an average of 411,673 interactions per post.
Pope Francis is in fourth position with 198,432 average interactions per post ahead of Mahathir Mohamad with 176,335 interactions per post. The new Prime Minister of Malaysia has an extraordinary interaction rate of 23 percent, which is the total number of interactions divided by the number of posts and the average number of followers over the past 12 months. The @chedetofficial account which counts 1.5 million followers has only posted 37 posts over the past twelve months. Korean President Moon Jae-in has also an interaction rate of 20 percent since he only posted 13 photos over the past 12 months. Posting less is the best way to increase engagement.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s 1,556 posts have received 140,244 average interactions.
Who is the Most Active?
The Information Department of the Government of Brunei is the most active government account, with more than 17 posts per day on average. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister is in second position with more than 10 posts per day and the Foreign Ministry of Kuwait is the third most prolific with more than eight posts per day. The government of Pakistan and Ricardo Rossello, the governor of Puerto Rico, complete the Top 5 list with eight and six posts per day respectively.
The most active governments and world leaders have discovered Instagram as a formidable channel to post pictures of their leaders’ daily activities and their Instagram accounts have become the central repository for all official government pictures. However, few of the pictures are particularly riveting and many are of staged handshakes, which get few likes, and which would possibly be better used as Instagram “Stories” where they disappear after 24 hours.
About this Study
World Leaders on Instagram is BCW’s latest research into how world leaders, governments and international organizations communicate via social media. The research builds on BCW’s highly acclaimed annual Twiplomacy study. Initially focused solely on Twitter, the study has been expanded to other social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram.
For its third edition of the World Leaders on Instagram study, BCW has identified a total of 426 Instagram profiles, 168 of which have been verified by Instagram and carry a blue verification mark. The 259 remaining accounts are not verified, but we believe that they can be considered official pages. Interestingly, 69 accounts have been dormant for more than a year and 29 are inactive and have never posted a single photo. Eight accounts are private, and we could therefore not retrieve any data.
We did not include accounts set up by private individuals, such as a fan account for Pope Francis (@Pontifex_es) which, despite its 327,000 followers, is clearly not official, nor the fan accounts of Russian President @President_Vladimir_Putin and @Kremlin_Russian despite having more than 245,000 and 1,187,000 followers, respectively. Finally, we have not included inactive pages without profile pictures as it was virtually impossible to determine their authenticity.
Data was collected on October 1, 2018, using Crowdtangle.com to analyze the 426 world leaders’ Instagram accounts covering their publications over the past 12 months.
The full data set can be downloaded here.