Dr Anastasia Veneti, Senior Lecturer in Marketing Communications at Bournemouth University & Co-Editor of Visual Political Communication (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) talks to ENA about the visual dimension of politics, the significance and impact that visualization has on political communication, the Trump phenomenon and political communication state of play in Greece →

A book on visual political communication. A book written by pundits who shed light to the modern trends?  

Images are particularly powerful when they not only depict, but instruct us about social norms – when they shape attitudes and behavior. Even more, they have a resonant power to evoke strong emotions – of fear, dislike, love, or hate. Saying that, visuals have long been a central feature of the dynamics of politics. Taking for example Napoléon Bonaparte’s portraitures to the widely shared footage of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi which led to the protests in Tunisia. Discussing and observing such phenomena, along with my co-editors Dr Dan Jackson and Dr Darren Lilleker from Bournemouth University, we believed that it was crucial at this time, a period characterized by the advent of new media technologies and the growth of social media which have created novel ways of producing, disseminating and consuming visual products, to proceed with this book that would enable a better understanding of the significance and impact visuals have as tools of political communication.

Basically, this book is the first comprehensive work to explore all four dimensions of the role of the visual in political communication i.e. the theories and methods, image use for political campaigning, during governance and citizens’ use. For example, chapters in the volume focus on the editing and manipulation of images; the key functions visuals play in political communication and so in democratic processes; the development of visual political strategies; negative advertising campaigning; the use of Instagram and YouTube in political campaigning and political communication, among others. The book addresses researchers and students in the field, as well as practitioners such as political communication consultants and marketing strategists by offering a holistic coverage of visual political communication and engaging examples based on cutting edge research.

Digitalization & visualization seem to be two of the buzzwords of our times. How crucial is it when it comes to the 21st century politics?

We can think of an image that can be constructed to make a point, manipulated or chosen strategically out of hundreds of similar shots to convey an impression that can go unnoticed by the audience. To illustrate the perceived truthfulness of an image I would like to refer to a quote by a very prominent American scholar, William Gamson, whom writing about media images said that “The information may be correct or misleading, but the immediacy of the experience remains in the images one retains.” Having said that and as I mentioned earlier, politics has always had a visual dimension, and in an age of information overload may be an even more powerful means for grabbing attention than ever before. And here we counter the great challenge of the digital age. Manipulating images involves minimal skill, sharing an image is free and involves having a social media presence. The “fake news” challenge is not simply a problem relating to visual communication. However, a powerful visual becomes a vehicle for making a fake news story have the emotional resonance that results in attitudinal or behavioral impact.

What about the so-called “Trump Phenomenon”? Is it the most characteristic paradigm of a new era for politics or just an idiosyncratic symptom?

To better understand the Trump phenomenon then, we should place it within the context of what in academic terms we call “mediatization”. I am referring here to the blending of politics and entertainment, when basically media come to shape the very workings of the political system. Media played a considerable role in the building of Trump as a political persona, from his participation to American reality TV to the intensive coverage of his political campaign. Various studies have suggested that the media may have fueled an “underdog effect” that prompted several undecided voters to support the “controversial” candidate. Since then Trump has strongly and consistently build on this kind of profile. What Trump is doing is building his own political brand. And this is something that all political leaders seek to do. For the modern politician displays of statesmanship and power have partially given way to displays of authenticity, but public judgments of their leaders based on their performative appearance remains crucial for support and legitimacy.  The new communication agora is filled with images of contemporary leaders. Images that bolster and undermine their credentials and compete for the gaze of an audience. The gestures and facial expressions politicians make on television, the humorous memes that circulate, the posters and the often notorious forms of political advertisement are strategically designed for maximum impact on public attitudes.

In terms of political communication’s visual strategies and practices, how would you describe the Greek political agora?

I would say that both politicians and political parties in Greece have enhanced their communication practices with the electorate and their political campaigns strategies, specifically by capitalizing on the new media technologies. During the last elections, we saw more and more individual politicians using social media to communicate their messages to larger audiences but also to microtarget. Nevertheless, they still lag behind compared to other countries in adopting a clear strategic focus when using digital platforms and do not exploit the full potential of the various affordances that these new media platforms offer. To a great extent this is related to various reasons, such as their lack of skills, a fear of social media as a result of increasing hatred speech and exposure, as well as budget issues. Budget and resources can differentiate dramatically between MPs, new politicians, party leaders and parties as a whole. In a research that we conducted last year, interviewing Greek politicians and political consultants, we found that politicians are quite more conservative in their use of social media compared to consultants. Greek politicians tend to be single platform specialists. Let’s say that some politicians are very confident users of social media but they usually only focus on one particular platform for e. g. Facebook or Twitter. It is important that they start thinking and adopting a cross-platform strategy. Moreover, a lot of politicians set up accounts for the election campaigns and then, once elected, they become invisible. This is obviously wrong not only for political campaigning but because such platforms should be used in a way to facilitate a consistent and more direct communication between politicians and citizens. A careful use of interactive and personal communicative strategies can create a sense of (imagined) intimacy and (emotional) closeness that can facilitate communication with the electorate and even attract voters.