Human culture is a visual society. We have often used pictures, from cave paintings to selfies, to tell stories about our lives, experiences and our perception of the world.
These images are particularly powerful when they not only portray but teach us about social norms, when they shape attitudes and behaviors on all aspects from women’s role to nationality ideas.
Nevertheless, the notion that a “never lies” image is a strong and incorrect argument. Because the whole story isn’t always told. And, since images can be strategically constructed, manipulated or carefully selected to impress, the people who look at them often ignore them.
This is a problem because images tap into an important human reasoning aspect. They have a resounding power to trigger powerful emotions — fear, dislike, affection, hate and everything that is between them. Widely shared footage of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation resulted in Tunisia’s first protests and the eventual fall of the rule of Ben Ali.
But to find images of political power, we do not have to look for exceptional circumstances. Migrant photographs were used in favor of anti-immigration positions; displaced veterans were used in photos to condemn government policy on refugees; polar bear pictures were used to advocate environmental policies.
Don’t believe your eyes
Images tap emotions but not for every audience in the same way. Rather, the perceived degree of control of an image is based on “belief.” This is the principle that if we agree, it is wrong if we disagree. And here the influence of photographs intersects with the biggest digital age challenge.
Fake news, for instance, is much stronger if it comes with a credible image that strengthens existing media tropes and public faith.
The easy way to adjust and twist images for a certain political purpose, such as slowing down a video to make a politician appear drunk, however, makes the convincing power of visual evidence extremely dangerous.
Recent work into image control and visual political communication shows that a pluralist society can be positive or negative. How it is used is the dependent factor.
For example , in the context of elections, the digital age encourages a more negative environment. It is easy to create a simple message of attack and gain traction as voters create their own correspondence and related memoranda of elections.
Nevertheless, sites like Instagram can also be used to humanize a nominee. According to the example of Barack Obama and others, numerous politicians have embraced the use of social media and selfies to try to grace the electorate. Another recent example was Rory Stewart, who, during his brief tenure for UK Conservative Party leadership, gained him attention in social media.
However, while these strategies can organize supporters, manipulate expectations and reinforce political messages, political campaigns often become more superficial. The problem is whether voters are more influenced as political communication is further emotionalized in the visual vocabulary of electoral candidates.
These systems are not limited to campaigns of course. Political leaders use visual communication to form their image, and subtle variations in visual representation can affect their public views.