Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? The Potential of Protest Photographs for Galvanizing Citizens to Collective Action

Ozen Bas (Indiana University, USA)

Summary of the Project


Political scientists and communication scholars share an enduring preoccupation with the ebb and flow of political participation. This voluminous body of research equates political participation with voting and typically finds a decline in citizen participation. Given the eruption of political protests across the globe, some scholars are arguing that voting behavior is not the end-all of political participation. Compelling arguments are emerging that researchers have not paid adequate attention to other forms of political participation. This project seeks to counter this research bias by focusing on political protests. In particular, it looks at the role of visuals in mobilizing political participation.

Social movement literature suggests that shared grievances and perceived injustices are important motivators for protesting. Moreover, visuals are powerful in portraying injustice committed against fellow citizens. Across disciplines, from neuroscience to communication, images, more than words have been shown to capture reality, elicit emotions, and galvanize people for action. The history of photojournalism provides examples where iconic images, (e.g. Vietnam War, Occupy Movement, and the recent race riots) have aroused emotional reactions and mobilized citizens to action, which in turn led to social change. This extends beyond the United States. Recently compelling images of two young victims of government injustice in Tunisia and Egypt are believed to have been important triggers of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions. Yet, the mobilizing role of images is overlooked in social movement research. When images are studied, they are typically analyzed qualitatively as discrete case studies. Given the image-saturated media environment, it is time to systematically assess if images motivate citizens to participate in protests.

Furthermore, kind of images being circulated in media sphere have arguably changed. Undoubtedly, quality of photography taken by photojournalists are bound to be different than have professional qualities to shot and select images for reproduction. When it takes a few seconds to take and share an image by a non-professional photographer (i.e., citizen journalists), the kind of images that are being circulated will arguably different in kind.

Research Questions

How can social media motivate inactive, apathetic youth, who happen to be the main demographic group engaged in using Twitter as a news source?

What are the comparative power of social media images vs. social media text on motivating citizens for political participation and collective action?

Which of the two pathways are more relevant, potent in galvanizing young citizens for political participation and collective action: emotional or collective efficacy related rational routes?

Through which pathways do images and textual messages distributed on social media motivate the audience for political participation and collective action?

Theoretical Framework

The social psychological theory of collective action specifies two motivating mechanisms underlying collective political engagement: Group-based emotions and perceptions of collective efficacy (van Zomeren, Leach, & Spears, 2012). This experiment will test the influence of images in activating each of these mechanisms that afford collective political action.

Findings of this study could give insight into how images distributed through social media are triggering emotions that shape audience behavior during times of political turmoil. Given the frequency of protests across the globe, it is time to consider this a form of political participation every bit as much as the routinized action of voting every few years. In this sense, I hope to contribute to new ways of studying contemporary democratic processes in a media age.


The majority of existing research on social media and protests focused on content analysis of textual messages and surveys of activist use of social media platforms for organizational and recruitment purposes or audience consumption of social media and protest participation. This project, however, is focused on examining the direct effects of exposure to social media content, especially images, for its potential to incite participatory behavior. This question necessitates experimental methodology. Surveys are well equipped for finding underlying associations between variables to advance understanding of perceptions, opinions, and behavior. Yet, controlled experiments are conducive to understanding causal relationships between variables (Grabe & Westley, 2003). In short, a controlled experiment will test causal mechanisms that might be at work in the process of consuming imagery via social media platforms and taking participatory action.

In a preparatory study (Kharroub & Bas, 2015) of Twitter images shared during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, we have identified types of protest images (e.g., displaying large crowds, violence, protest activities, and national and religious symbols) that have potential to spur participation. This project seeks to directly test participatory impact of these image types that are commonly shared on social media. In order to do that, a controlled experimental will be conducted.


Grabe, M. E., Westley, B. H., & Stempel, G. H. (2003). The controlled experiment, In G. H. Stempel, D. Weaver, & C. Wilhoit (Eds.), Mass communication research and theory, (pp. 267-298). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Graber, D. A. (2001). Processing politics: Learning from television in the Internet age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Graber, D. (2004). Mediated politics and citizenship in the twenty-first century. AnnualReview of Psychology, 55, 545-571.

Kharroub, T., & Bas, O. (2015). Social media and protests: An examination of Twitter images of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. New Media & Society (February 23).

van Zomeren, M., Leach, C. W., & Spears, R. (2012). Protesters as “Passionate Economists”: A dynamic dual pathway model of approach coping with collective disadvantage. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(2), 180-199.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

The methodological merits of this project are also worthwhile mentioning. As a legacy of the Enlightenment paradigm, visuals are not believed to be carriers of important political information that can influence citizens’ opinions, emotions, and behaviors (Graber, 2001). As a result quantitative tools for image analysis are not well-developed despite the current image saturated media landscape (Graber, 2004). Visual communication inquiries have typically been conducted through qualitative methods. Specifically, photographs of protest activities have been interpreted through in-depth textual analysis of case studies. This project is designed to bridge a long-rooted divide between qualitative and quantitative methods by being among the first quantitative investigations of political protest images. The goal is to put in place a methodological tool for future systemic analysis of protest images.

Furthermore, by relying on a content analysis (Kharroub & Bas, 2015) to draw the types of stimulus material, this project has potential to bridge visual content analysis to audience research by directly testing affective and behavioral impact of exposure to mediated images on individuals.

Among other potentials of this experiment is the increased generalizability compared to other methodologies such as discourse analysis where limited number of images are being analyzed as case studies.

This study is an attempt to quantify the impact of images.

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