Political image building in the social media age

In late Spring 2014, Joni Ernst was a relatively unknown candidate in the Iowa Senate race. Then she released a provocative ad that immediately went viral, propelling her to the top of the Republican primary and to an eventual victory in the Iowa Senate race. The “squeal” ad became the talk of cable news and was viewed nearly 4,000 times on YouTube in the first three days. The ad showed Ernst in a hog barn, boasting that her experiences “castrating hogs” on an Iowa farm well prepared her to “cut pork” in Washington. After eschewing her conservative values, the ad concludes with the infamous line, “Let’s make ‘em squeal.” Of the ad, Philip Rucker and Dan Balz (2014) of the Washington Post wrote, “At a time when voters tune out many political messages, the ad was a vivid reminder of the enduring power of a single image.”

Image building in the political communication process is not new (Graber, 1987; Schill, 2012). The new element in the equation, however, is social media. With great speed and reach, social media enable public participation and content, like the Ernst ad, to go “viral,” which can help—or hurt—a candidate (Do, 2014). Calling social media a “foundational change” for political communication, Gainous and Wagner’s (2013) research examined social media in the political communication process, suggesting a new model for communication that shows how social media bypass traditional media by providing a platform for direct, two-way communication between candidates and audiences.

I have authored a chapter about image building in the social media age in a just published book about the 2014 mid term election titled Communication and Midterm Elections: Media, Message, and Mobilization. The book is edited by John Allen Hendricks and Dan Schill. While I study a variety of questions in my chapter, the goal is to understand how Senatorial candidates visually built their image—through person perception theory—via Twitter in the 2014 midterm election.


My research studied images used in leading Senate candidate tweets during the three months leading up to the election. The underlying supposition of my research was that if the candidate (and his/her political strategy team) does indeed have total control over his/her social media communications, it follows that he/she would put forth visuals that presented the candidate in a highly favorable manner, regarding candidate behavior, context, and perspective.

But this was not the case. Generally speaking, the mean scores for the three critical person perception categories were low and, in fact, often had negative values. Regarding behavior, candidates were more often pictured with their arms hanging at their sides or folded, which can lead to a negative impression of the candidate. Considering the context in which the candidates were presented, candidates frequently appeared alone or with an inattentive crowd or without the presence of flags or other patriotic symbols, which can also lead to a negative impression of the candidate. Interestingly, where candidates scored the lowest was in the category of perspective; they were frequently photographed from at a distance and the aesthetic quality of the images was generally quite low. What makes this finding particularly interesting is that in a print news environment, candidates do not have control over which images are used or how they are used. But in the Twitter environment, candidates have direct control over the selection and use of images, yet they willingly used images that did not necessarily picture the candidate in a positive perspective (or behavior or context).

There are several plausible reasons as to why candidates (and their strategy team) used images that did not necessarily present a favorable image of the candidate. The first reason relates to a critical aspect of the nature of social media communications: speed. Generally, tweets are sent out quickly, especially in the case of live-tweeting an event (such as a fundraiser or speech). Content is needed for tweets, and that content must come quickly. The nature (and the expected speed) of tweets does not necessarily allow time to thoroughly think through the message and accompanying image, which is certainly a downside of social media communications that has led to many well-documented social media missteps.

For example, the Twitterverse, and subsequently the national media, publicly ridiculed Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal following a tweet in which he incorrectly used “your/you’re” (Berman, 2015; Petri, 2015). Second, and related, because these social media messages are sent out quickly, readily available content must be used, which often means snapping a quick photo with a camera phone that ultimately results in a low aesthetic quality photo. In a social media environment, there is not always time to consider all photographic aspects, from camera angle and lighting to background and candidate dress. Essentially, a communication team is forced to use whatever images they have available and/or can readily get.

A third plausible reason that the majority of analyzed images were not highly favorable images relates to the potential value and still limited audience of social media. Social media communications are still relatively new, and their political audience (registered voters who engaged with political candidates via Twitter) is still relatively small. Because of this, the effect of social media communications on an election is still potentially limited.

As previous scholars of political communication and person perception theory acknowledge, images certainly have an effect on audiences. This has been well proven. But in the case of person perception data, as previous scholars have stated, subtle (yet statistically significant) differences in the visual presentation of candidates are likely to go unnoticed by voters.

The implications of my findings must also be considered from a scholarly and theoretical perspective. Regarding the perspective category, for the attributes of both proximal distance and aesthetic quality, photos of candidates from both parties skewed toward negative; candidates tended to be photographed from at a distance and photos were of poor aesthetic quality. Republican candidates scored significantly lower in these two attributes than did Democratic candidates; yet in seven of the eight competitive Senate races analyzed for this chapter, the Republican candidate won the race. While social media allow candidates and their strategists to have direct control over the text and visual messages, the nature of social media also requires speed and readily available content, so there is not always time to consider, for example, aesthetic quality of photos.

But perhaps this is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it speaks more to the visual style of social media communications. Consider Instagram’s rapid assent and subsequent market domination. A recent survey suggests that Instagram’s rise in popularity corresponds with “a larger shift to a more visual style of communication” and audiences’ desires “to share photos to describe their life experiences” (Hempel, 2014). Perhaps it is the authenticity, rather than the aesthetics, of photos on social media that makes them powerful communication tools. In a political communication context, perhaps seeing a fuzzy photo of a candidate engaging with voters in a local eatery, per se, creates a more meaningful and authentic connection with audiences than a highly polished newspaper photo. Regarding the application of person perception theory to social media photos, traditional perspective variables may be largely irrelevant in a social media context. Conceivably what really matters, and what engages and motivates voters from a social media perspective, is the visual authenticity seen in the behavior and context categories. As Gainous and Wagner (2013) assert, social media are dramatically changing political communication. But it is a change we are just beginning to study and understand.


Berman, M. (2015, January 20). Bobby Jindal continues to struggle with State of the Union responses. National Journal. Retrieved from http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/bobby-jindal-continues-to-struggle-with-state-of-the-union-responses-20150120

Do, Q. (2014, October 28). Going viral and the Iowa Senate race. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000003202077/going-viral-and-the-iowa-Senate-race.html

Gainous, J., & Wagner, K. M. (2013). Tweeting to power: The social media revolution in American politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Graber, D. A. (1987) Kind pictures and harsh words: How television presents the candidates. In K. L. Schlozman (Ed.), Elections in America (pp. 115–141). Winchester, MA: Allen & Unwin.

Hempel, J. (2014, July 12). Instagram is ready to take its shot. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/instagram-is-ready-to-take-its-shot/

Petri, A. (2015, January 21). No, YOU’RE welcome, Gov. Jindal. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2015/01/21/no-youre-welcome-gov-jindal/

Rucker, P., & Balz, D. (2014, May 11). How Joni Ernst’s ad about “castrating hogs” transformed Iowa’s U.S. Senate race. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-joni-ernsts-ad-about-castrating-hogs-transformed-iowas-us-senate-race/2014/05/11/c02d1804-d85b-11e3–95d3–3bcd77cd4e11_story.html

Schill, D. (2012). The visual image and the political image: A review of visual communication research in the field of political communication. Review of Communication, 12(2), 118–142.


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