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Analyzing Social Media Images used in Political Communication

A graphic image of a smartphone scrolling through Instagram over a word map featuring several political terms.

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant.

Over the past decade, with the sharp increase in social media use and media sharing techniques, social media research scholars have been studying multimedia data in various contexts, lately focusing on the role of visual information. Despite its importance in political science research, how politicians, governments, and citizens make use of visual information communicated via social media have yet to be properly examined. For example, politicians and candidates increasingly seek to profile themselves on the web by uploading more personalized images to make voters evaluate the qualities of politicians’ leadership, including friendliness, sincerity, power, and trustworthiness. This political image-making becomes salient and widespread in the current digital democracy as “modern democratic politics is a non-stop battle of competing images” for attention (Scammell, 2015, p.9). As such, scholars seek to analyze images and multimedia content in social media posts for the clear understanding of digital campaigning and candidates’ impression management.

This project focuses on the Instagram-based visual communication styles as a distinct form of political persuasion and image-making in US context. While Twitter and Facebook have been used as two main platforms for research on online political engagement, there is scarce research on Instagram and its political marketing. Instagram is an image-based social media platform where political players increasingly use still and moving images for attention-grabbing purpose, selfexpression, political messaging, mobilization, and engagement. In today’s visually oriented media environment, the heads of governments and lawmakers are constantly communicating with visual messages designed to influence public opinion on a wide range of topics. This is because visuals have the capacity to present concrete political ideas and political personas fluently. However, little is known about the role and impact of highly personalized forms of visual political communication using Instagram for public image and reputation management as an effective e-communication tool. For example, we have limited knowledge on distinct visual and verbal patterns in Instagram posts of Republicans and Democrats, and whether using a certain visual strategy may provide an edge in competitive election campaigns.

This project analyzes how politicians and political candidates seek to manage their political images using Instagram. Specifically, it addresses the following research questions: (i) how can we automatically discover visual content of Instagram posts? (ii) what types of visual features exist in Instagram accounts maintained by members of US Congress to communicate their desired public persona? and (iii) does visual content affect election outcomes?

Principal Investigators

Seo Eun Yang, Network Science; Yakov Bart, Business; Costas Panagopoulos, Political Science

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