Visuals have been part of political communication for a long time. Political TV-advertising, campaign posters, cartoons and even hand gestures have been studied. Over the past five years there has been a substantial increase of studies on visual political communication. Social media in particular seem to be a driver of this development. Instagram and Facebook increasingly focus on still and moving images, and these platforms, as well as YouTube and even TikTok, are nowadays widely used by political actors. On social media, visuals such as photographs, illustrations, memes, gifs, and videos are not just an additional source of communication complementing written or spoken text anymore. Visuals are rather part of almost every post since they raise user attention. Often they are even the main carrier of the message. This leads to questions: what are the best practices for studying visual images on social media, and how do we delineate and define visual images as an object of study or unit of analysis? In a recent publication on “Political Parties and Their Pictures: Visual Communication on Instagram in Swedish and Norwegian Election Campaigns”, Jakob Svensson, Anders Olof Larsson and I present a quantitative content analysis (see also this article for a detailed explanation of the method of analysis) to examine political parties’ use of Instagram as a strategic political communication tool in the 2014 Swedish Election and the 2017 Norwegian Election campaigns. The empirical data of our study includes 150 postings of six Swedish parties and 272 postings of nine Norwegian parties.

Methodological decisions influence our findings and interpretations

Theoretically, we were inspired by the framework of Rose by which visual material can be approached from four sites “at which the meanings of an image are made” (p. 24): the site of the production, the site of the image itself, the site of its circulation, and the site of audiencing. As with all analytical delineations, these four sites may intersect and overlap. To grasp the full meaning of a visual image all four sites have to be analyzed. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever possible in a single study due to the multidimensionality of visual materials (which even multiplies in case of audiovisuals) and the fact that visuals often incorporate multiple meanings. This makes methodological decisions much more complex than in many analyses of written text, and has to be considered when interpreting the findings. This underlines how important it is to make all methodological decisions and their implications transparent when analyzing visual materials on social media. In our study, we focused on two sites. First, the site of the production, because it helped us understand why and how political parties in Swedish and Norwegian election campaigns created and used Instagram posts. Second, we focused on the site of the image itself to focus on the composition of Instagram posts and to know more about the how by attending to the content that political parties post in order to attract supporters and voters. Following this approach, and aiming to analyze the strategic use of Instagram in politics, our study was guided by the following research questions: Do Swedish and Norwegian political parties use Instagram (1) in terms of broadcasting information to parties’ stakeholders, (2) to mobilize supporters, (3) to manage the party’s and politicians’ images (personalization and privatization) and (4) to amplify and complement other campaign material (i.e. hybrid campaign use)? Hence, we conceive visual images not as static photography, but as a locus of interaction. Instagram postings allow political parties to engage in two-way communication to establish and cultivate a relationship between themselves and the public.

Context matters

The unit of analysis in our study is a single picture with caption uploaded by a political party on their Instagram account. We refer to it as posting. We included the captions because sometimes, and this is otherwise rather a challenge in the process of analysis, the (full) meaning of a posting and, hence, the message that a party intents to spread, cannot be detected from the picture alone. Captions usually include additional information and frame the context of a picture. From the perspective of strategic communication practices, the picture and the caption form a unit on Instagram, because strategic communication is about presenting and promoting the party through intentional as well as objectives-driven communication. This is illustrated by the following example, comparing the picture with and without the caption.

The temporal context of the visual materials also matters. The possibilities of using visual materials on social media change very fast. This makes visual materials on social media a moving target for researchers, and brings along the methodological challenge of longitudinal comparisons. We run the risk that our measuring instruments become outdated quite quickly. For example, we analyzed the use of Instagram in campaigns in an early stage when pictures were still dominating on Instagram. In the 2014 Swedish election campaign, parties hardly distributed videos. In the 2017 Norwegian election campaign, videos were already used to a greater extent, but still not very common. We thus excluded videos from our analysis, which we probably would not do when analyzing the 2021 Norwegian election campaign or the 2022 Swedish election campaign. Another example are carousel posts, which were only available since early 2017, but Norwegian parties did not make much use of them in the campaign a few month later. Carousel posts allow to share multiple images (up to 10 pictures or videos) in a single post. If carousel posts were used, we took only the first picture into account.

Multidimensionality as a challenge

Carousel posts also illustrate the methodological problems that come along with the multidimensionality of visual materials on social media. Today, researchers have to face the challenge that Instagram’s carousels allow to share multiple images or videos in one post, and political actors often make use of these. The question arises whether it is sufficient to only analyze the first picture or first video of a carousel post? Further, if a video is longer than one minute, which is often the case on political actors’ Instagram accounts, is it sufficient to only analyze, let’s say, the first minute? The methodological decisions we make will influence what practices we discover and which meanings we capture when analyzing visuals on social media, and they strongly affect the comparability of results across different studies and over time.

Ethical considerations

Finally, when presenting and publishing the findings on visual images such as Instagram postings, we have to consider to what extent we display the visuals of others. Visual images provide an arguably richer source of information than written text, which may raise different ethical and privacy concerns. We do not only have to follow the publisher’s guidelines, but also the regulations of the GDPR. Even when comparing Instagram accounts of owners from non-European countries demonstrating compliance with GDPR will secure ethical and responsible research. In the case of political actors’ Instagram accounts, the owners of the accounts and, hence, the producers of the visual images themselves, make them deliberately accessible to the public as they are using them for their strategic communication. In a presentation or publication, we can blacken user comments, if we want to show the visual image with its caption. However, pictures and videos such as of a campaign event might display citizens in person as well. In this case, we cannot be sure that the account owner has the consent of the citizens that are displayed in the picture or video to show them on Instagram. Likewise, we certainly can not simply take for granted that we have the users’ informed consent to be used in research. The same is true for users who are liking, sharing and commenting on public pages and groups: even if they are probably aware of the fact that everyone on Instagram can see their behaviour, most of them are probably not aware that these materials might be used for academic research. We must take such ethical concerns into account carefully when conceptualizing and conducting a content analysis on visual materials on social media, and ensure that the identity of the person concerned cannot be identified.

Instagram postings contain visual and textual communication, which can sometimes present a double methodological challenge in research. On top of that, Instagram postings can include up to ten still or moving visuals, presenting us with even more methodological challenges. However, despite all challenges that must be overcome, research on Instagram in the field of political communication is still at its beginning. The daily use of Instagram by political actors provides manifold data, and often presents us with new research opportunities.

Uta Russmann

Uta Russmann is a professor at the Department of Communication at the FHWien der WKW University of Applied Sciences for Management & Communication, Vienna. Her research interests include digital communication, (visual) social media, Public Relations, strategic communication, political communication, media and elections.