Instagram stories: John Tass-Parker on social media and politics

Alumnus John Tass-Parker has already had his fair share of career highlights.

He's worked for two Australian Prime Ministers in Canberra, in the movie industry in Los Angeles, and as a wedding photographer. But for the past five years, Tass-Parker has worked for Instagram's Politics and Government team in New York – and he's recently been listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30.

So what's the common thread stringing these seemingly disparate interests together? According to Tass-Parker, it's stories.

"I've always been attracted to stories", he says. "Originally I was really interested in production and Hollywood, but I wasn't quite clicking with that world. Gradually I became attracted to the idea of working in government."

In late 2012, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Melbourne, Tass-Parker took a job as Digital Communications Adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister of Australia – a role he describes as "a daily exercise in humility".

"Ultimately politics comes down to listening really hard to people and then being able to help them communicate a message on why something is important … It's just a different kind of storytelling."

At the time, social media as a political tool – in the Australian context at least – was in its infancy.

"These days there are multiple people involved in the digital presence of most high-profile political leaders", he says, "but back then it was the wild west."

Tass-Parker was the 'one-stop-shop' responsible for shaping Julia Gillard's online presence during her time as Prime Minister, from production to distribution. "This meant being working closely with the PM all the time, being her photographer day-to-day, producing longer form videos, engaging with bloggers and shaping all of that into a cohesive strategy."

John Tass-Parker working as Digital Communications Adviser to Prime Minister Julia Gillard
John Tass-Parker working as Digital Communications Adviser to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Image supplied.

Tass-Parker's first foray into the world of politics left a lasting impression. After the end of the 2013 federal election, he moved to the US to take on a role working in Instagram's Politics and Government Outreach division.

While moving from Canberra to New York might have daunted some, for Tass-Parker, the transition was smooth. Having been on exchange to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. while studying at the University of Melbourne, he already had a network. "I had a lot of friends who I was able to reconnect with which made it really easy to be away from home", he says – although he adds, not quite joking: "as much as I felt like they welcomed me with open arms, I think they all got a little sick of me telling stories about Australian politics."

Instagram: frivolous or serious?

In just seven years, Tass-Parker's 'wild west' has been left far behind.

On Instagram nowadays you'll see US Congresswomen sharing their stances on healthcare and social inequality, environmental agencies engaging with issues on animal poaching, and investigative journalists challenging idle scrollers to stop with a compelling video or single, arresting photograph.

Social media is now a key way in which we communicate with one another, and politics has well and truly caught up.

Tass-Parker takes this evolving role of social media seriously. “With Instagram’s prominence comes a lot of responsibility to protect the integrity of elections and civic discourse around the world”, he says. “Along with our work to promote civic engagement, Instagram is doing a lot of work to increase account transparency, improve efforts to detect bad actors, expand election information operations, and fight misinformation on Instagram.”

A front row ticket

Actor Reese Witherspoon
Actor Reese Witherspoon was one of many celebrities who used Instagram’s “I Voted” sticker feature to promote voting in the US election, where voting is not compulsory. Image supplied.

In his role as Instagram's Head of Politics and Government, in 2016 Tass-Parker had a "front row ticket and backstage pass" to the whole US presidential race, right when Instagram's potential in the political sphere was being realised. Inspired by a partnership he developed with Fairfax media in the 2013 Australian election to capture portraits of Australia's political leaders, he helped develop a similar partnership between Instagram and US broadcaster CNN.

But more than creating opportunities for politicians to communicate with the people they hope will vote them into office, Tass-Parker argues that social media can also act as a platform for people with shared political interests to find likeminded communities. He also maintains that it's "a powerful tool for communities who traditionally haven't had a voice or have been underrepresented by traditional media", citing a recent New York Times article about how an Afro-Latina group forged an Instagram community as one such example.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it can also provide a means of engaging more with the democratic process. During the 2018 midterm elections in the US, Tass-Parker was part of the team that built a product designed to help voters connect with important voting information. At its peak, over 1000 people – including celebrities – using Instagram's 'I Voted' sticker per minute.

In the months since, this feature has been rolled out in numerous elections by Instagram, and Tass-Parker was part of the team to bring some of those new products to Australia for the recent federal election. Instagram collaborated with award-winning Australian artist Tony Albert to create four election-themed stickers for use in Instagram Stories, including, of course, a 'democracy sausage' – something Tass-Parker had a lot of fun explaining to his US colleagues.

Looking back, and forward

The days of being a student are far away for Tass-Parker, but he says he draws on his university experiences daily.

"Whether in politics or technology, a lot of the work I do is operating in new or rapidly changing environments," he says.

"My arts and commerce studies gave me a strong foundation of knowledge to draw on day-to-day, but they also taught me how to think about complex issues, approach problem solving and have a healthy dose of empathy when making decisions."

When asked to give some advice for this year’s graduating students, he doesn't hesitate. "Don’t panic, and consider your options", he recommends. "When faced with a job opportunity, think about what the job allows you to do next. I've always gravitated towards jobs that broadened rather than limited my ability to do interesting work with impact in the future."

And with that mindset, Tass-Parker is definitely one to watch.

Banner image: supplied.

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