Politically suggestive images

13 Aug 2020

Our political representatives have discovered the power of subtle visual cues to motivate their clientele. Communication scienstists based in Munich and Vienna have now experimentally demonstrated the efficacy of such messages.

© Dan/Arendt

It all comes down to the details, deliberately included in or grafted onto the background – subtle hints that signal the political agendas of elected representatives on Facebook, Instagram or on their personal websites. An opening photo might show our member of the parliament apparently engaged in earnest conversation with his good friend the party leader, or giving the current Chancellor the benefit of his insights into the state of the world, in a mountain hut with a checkered tablecloth on the table. Then suddenly, a framed photo of an Alpine panorama with towering summits and juicy meadows appears, which wasn’t there in the original shot.

The question is whether such manipulations, which experts refer to as ‘subtle backdrop cues’ (SBCs), are actually noticed by viewers? Are they really able to convey the ideological message they are intended to deliver? And if so, are they capable of influencing the viewer’s electoral choice? Given that such cues to ideology are a frequent feature of political communication, the answer would appear to be obvious.

“But in fact, and rather astonishingly, no empirical investigations of the impact of this phenomenon have been carried out up to now,” says Viorela Dan, while the effects of subtle cues in texts have been extensively studied and reported in the literature. Dan, who is on the staff of LMU‘s Department of Media and Communication, and her colleague Florian Arendt (University of Vienna) have now undertaken the first study that explores the use and efficacy of SBCs in the political sphere. In their experiment, over 350 participants were confronted with tweets ostensibly posted on Twitter by a fictitious politician (‘Peter Behrens’) who hopes to retain his seat in the upcoming election.

‘Candid’ camera on the campaign trail

Dan and Arendt included visual signals or symbols suggestive of either a liberal or conservative political ideology in the images that show Behrens on the campaign trail. For instance, a photo showing him at a festival in a small town included either the EU banner or the German flag. In all other respects, the two tweets were identical and both emphasized that everyone was having a great time.

In another example, Behrens is giving an interview in his office. – In the background is a photo of his wife, either at work or preparing a meal in the kitchen at home. Here too, the verbal content of the tweet was the same in both cases, and referred to ‘an absorbing conversation about my agenda for the next four years’.

Substantial effects

Having viewed one or other of the two sets of tweets, participants were asked about Peter Behrens’ political orientation, and whether or not they would vote for him. In addition, the experimenters wanted to gauge how much attention their subjects had actually paid to the visual cues included in the tweets. Finally, all members of the test population were asked how much they agreed with the implied political orientation of Peter Behrens.

The results were statistically significant: The study participants were indeed able to conclusively assign Behrens to a specific political party, depending on the nature of the visual signals embedded in his tweets. – And they were more likely to vote for him when this assignment reflected their own political views.

Like subliminal verbal messages, subtle backdrop cues can also have measurable, indeed ‘substantial’ effects, say the authors of the study, “and their use by politicians is paying off”.

The International Journal of Press/Politics 2020

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