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University of Basel

Follow me! (02/2022)

Making politics visual.

Text: Jonas Frey

Those seeking to win favor with voters are well-advised to be present on social media. How exactly politicians go about this – and how successful they are in their endeavors – is the subject of research by a team of political and computer scientists.

man rejoices about a "like"
Illustration: Christina Baeriswyl

On Instagram, a video shows politician Flavia Wasserfallen, from the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SP), appearing on the Arena program of Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF), where she argues against the proposed reform to the "old age and survivors’ insurance” (OASI). A photo shows her practicing yoga on holiday with the sea and Mediterranean plants in the background, while another shows her giving a podium speech to an audience in a rural setting to mark Swiss National Day on 1 August. In other posts, she is seen wearing Switzerland’s national soccer kit or enjoying a spot of cross-country skiing in the mountains. Together, the posts present a smorgasbord of political statements and everyday personal experiences, making her appear serious, dedicated and relaxed at the same time.

As young people in particular look to social media for their political information, platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook provide politicians with a means of communicating directly with potential voters. They can publish information without having to go through traditional media channels – and can therefore present themselves in any way they like.

In a recent study, this phenomenon has been described by political scientist Stefanie Bailer from the University of Basel in collaboration with Nathalie Giger and Maxime Walder from the University of Geneva. The article was based on surveys conducted in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom and revealed that politicians enjoy less popularity with voters if they don’t use social media.

In another study, however, the authors also show that politicians don’t automatically become more popular by maintaining their social media profile. Rather, their popularity depends on the manner in which they present their actions and personality.

Take Twitter, for example: Through a series of surveys and analyses, Bailer and other researchers found that voters are less interested in personal tweets and more so in political topics, which they get involved in through discussions in the comments.

Obstacles to data acquisition

It was relatively easy for the researchers to collect data from Twitter, where it can be downloaded on a large scale. “This platform was therefore the focus of our work,” says project manager Stefanie Bailer. “We had a much harder job with Facebook and Instagram, however, because the data needed to be saved practically on a daily basis in order to build up a dataset.” The researchers are now seeking to tackle this problem by working with Silvan Heller and Heiko Schuldt, computer scientists from the University of Basel. In other words, research of this kind is dependent both on collaboration with social media platforms and on technical means of overcoming obstacles to data acquisition. Among other reasons, this is why analyses have for a long time focused only on textual data – to the exclusion of photos and videos.

Another ongoing research project aims to remedy this problem. Launched in early 2021, the “Visual Politician” project asks: What role do images play in online communication between party members and voters? The research team led by Stefanie Bailer and Heiko Schuldt focuses on images, adopting an interdisciplinary approach based on both political and computer science – in a process that is fraught with technical challenges.

While considerable progress has been made in terms of textual analysis – to the extent that it is now possible to use text recognition methods, keywords and dictionaries – researchers often still rely on the options developed by Google when it comes to image recognition, says Bailer. These applications are apparently very good at recognizing facial expressions and can distinguish between a sad expression and a cheerful smile, for example. Accordingly, researchers can conduct a quantitative analysis of how friendly politicians seem to be. For example, the algorithms also recognize whether patriotic symbols appear in the image, whether people are wearing ties, whether the image shows other people, or whether the scene takes place in the countryside.

For this project, the research teams were granted enhanced access to data from Facebook and Instagram and were therefore able to focus their efforts on imagery. “The reason why images are so important is that they trigger emotions, which play an increasingly important role in politics,” says Bailer. Next to friendliness, fear and anger play a role, according to the political scientist. “These emotions are also expected to have a real impact on citizens’ political behavior.”

Bailer is therefore keen to propose that future analyses include both images and text. In this context, initial analyses of Swiss and German politicians explore how often they show their own face in a selfie or how often they portray themselves together with other people – for example, with leading figures from their party. As Bailer explains, photos of this kind give voters a sense of proximity.

Shaping the perception

Gender is another line of research. “In this context, we’re interested above all in whether women depict themselves differently than men on Instagram,” says the political scientist, who believes that social media offers women in particular the opportunity to present themselves as they would like to be seen. “Traditional media continue to portray women in a biased manner that is laden with cliches. They’re often asked about their children, and the emphasis is often placed on their social characteristics rather than on their leadership skills.”

The politician mentioned earlier, Flavia Wasserfallen, is a good example of this. “She has a spontaneous and authentic approach to her Instagram profile, where she presents herself as a multifaceted woman,” says Bailer. She demonstrates not only that she is a serious politician — both in parliament and on the Arena program from Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF), for example — but also that she has fun and a family life. In Bailer’s view, this combination sends a successful signal that female politicians can be authentic all-rounders.

When asked about how she presents herself on social media, Flavia Wasserfallen says that she doesn’t adhere to a fixed concept: “I post lots of things spontaneously or based on how I’m feeling. Whereas I use certain channels strictly only for political content, I use Instagram to post a mix of the personal and political — although even there, I’ve set myself some red lines that I don’t cross.”

Wasserfallen hopes that it will continue to be possible for people to be politically active without disclosing personal information, but she says this is a decision that everyone has to make for themselves. “You also have to bear in mind that the greater the insights into your private life, the more public and media demand there will be for such insights — in the good times and the bad.”

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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