The role of digital images in the policy making process

In recent years, digital images have played an increasingly important role in the policy making process. In their article “Visualizations, technology and the power to influence policy,” Rebecca Moody and Victor Bekkers of the University of Rotterdam analyze visuals’ roles in policymaking through a framing theory and storytelling. The starting point from which they illustrate this growing role is the September 3, 2015, photo of the lifeless Syrian child on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey.

The emotions over the photo mobilized European political forces to action.

The photo sparked conversations over the illegal trafficking of migrants that eventually led to the EU-Turkey agreement. European politicians also introduced a measure that dissuaded migrants from traveling on irregular routes to the EU to avoid human traffickers.

With the prevalence of social media, digital images can create emotional reactions that generate “chain reactions” that manifest in online conversations and requests for policy makers to act. Moreover, the narrative of digital images no longer has a single author, but a plurality of voices. While this creates a collective interest on specific issues, it also creates dangers for “pseudo-events.”

“Pseudo-events,” are events that seem real buy can be manipulated by mass media channels.

Knowing these events exist, it is important to consider interpretations of issues prior to the creation of visual content, because images are meant to influence others based on the creator’s point-of-view. Moody and Bekkers find that animations are seen as the most reliable, politically neutral, and truthful types of images, while persuasive stories are trusted the least due to their ability to be “manipulative.”

With the acknowledgement of the power of digital images, actors must develop a long-term strategy for the use of digital images in the policy making process. Collaborative websites, business communities, and podcasts have all found to be successful due to their inclusion of user-generated content. Digital images can be powerful tools for mobilizing the public affairs sector, but they will be better received if presented in a politically neutral way that invites the collective’s thoughts. With so much digital content to take in, persuasive visuals will almost always be met with skepticism before anything else.