The 4th of July holiday always brings a summer blizzard of patriotic imagery. TV and the internet abound with flags, fireworks and eagles, all of which tap deep, unconscious emotions around our pride and our desire to connect and belong.
The summer of 2018 brought another class of images to the front of our minds, ones that spoke a different emotional language: fear and loss, separation and despair. Photos and video of children and parents pulled apart at our southern border tore at Americans' hearts, sparking a rare near-unanimity of public condemnation that forced the Trump Administration to back down, at least for now, from a policy that could keep a child from her parents.
Writing in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen compared one of those photos—of a little girl crying beside her mother as she's questioned by a border enforcement agent—with heart-changing photos from the 20th Century, including that of a young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm dropped by American aircraft in that terrible war. One key difference? These new border photos surfaced into a world connected by social media. As Cohen put it, instead of being worth a thousand words, the photo of the Central American child was "worth a million tweets.”
Of course, millions of Americans saw the border-separation photos on broadcast or cable news rather than Facebook or Twitter, and millions more have never seen them at all (particularly if their news diet consists of Fox News only). But Facebook and Twitter create the conditions for images to spread in an instant, and photos and video have a power to connect with us emotionally that dry statistics simply do not. In this case, without social media to share the raw fear of a little girl who wants to be in her mother's arms, those stories might never have ended up on a TV screen.
Campaigns cannot ignore this moment, not least because many people running for office this year will be asked where they stand. The environment around immigration as a political issue will in part be shaped by people's memories of those photos, even if we may not always be conscious in the moment of having seen them.
In a broader sense, politics in 2018 happens in a visual environment. If you're going to campaign this year, you can't ignore the social context in which people will decide how to vote—a context that will be shaped in part by the images and video in a news feed. Even if you're not creating content yourself, others will be, and they may not have the best interests of your campaign in mind.
Think of the divisive imagery spread by Russian trolls trying to exploit divisions in American society in 2016, and the even scarier possibilities of fake video to plant "true lies" in people's minds.
If your campaign becomes a target, how would you respond? On the positive side, how can you take advantage of the power of the visual to shape a campaign?
Do you have a Facebook photo strategy? Are you showing the voters your human side? Are you using images and video to tell the story of your campaign, including the passion and hard work of your supporters? Are you speaking to hearts and minds?
For many years, campaigns could mostly control their visual universe. They created their own ads, distributed their own shots and created opportunities for photojournalists to tell the story the candidate wanted told.
Their scripting couldn't be perfect, and an ill-timed photo or video doomed more than one campaign to defeat. But in a social media-driven media universe, the script goes out the window and everyone's a potential videographer. If you're not filling the content void, who will? Most campaigns don't want to find out.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.