Images That Matter: Online Protests and the Mobilizing Role of Pictures
Forthcoming. Political Research Quarterly.
46 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2016 Last revised: 6 May 2019
Date Written: June 4, 2018
Do images affect online political mobilization? If so, how? These questions are of fundamental importance to scholars of social movements, contentious politics, and political behavior generally. However, little prior work has systematically addressed the role of images in mobilizing online participation in social movements. We first confirm that images have a positive mobilizing effect in the context of online protest activity. We then argue that images are mobilizing because they trigger stronger emotional reactions than text. Building on existing political psychology models we theorize that images evoking enthusiasm, anger, and fear should be particularly mobilizing, while sadness should be demobilizing. We test the argument through a study of Twitter activity related to a Black Lives Matter protest. We find that both images in general and some of the proposed emotional attributes (enthusiasm and fear) contribute to online participation. The results hold when controlling for alternative theoretical mechanisms for why images should be mobilizing, as well as for the presence of frequent image features. Our paper thus provides evidence supporting the broad argument that images increase the likelihood of a protest to spread online while also teasing out the mechanisms at play in a new media environment.
Keywords: Online protest, social media, social movements, online image sharing, Black Lives Matter
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