Over the past decade, politicians in Canada and internationally have been increasingly turning to digital media, including social media, for political communication, mobilization and organizing, in and out of elections. From Donald Trump and Barack Obama in the United States to Narendra Modi in India, Alexander Van der Bellen in Austria and Theresa May in the United Kingdom, they are leveraging these tools’ distinct properties in many facets of their daily work: updating their followers on their personal and public activities, reaching out to and engaging with members of the broader public and garnering traditional media coverage. While Facebook and Twitter are now key components of politicians’ digital communication arsenal, many politicians have intensified their presence on visual-based platforms (such as Instagram and Snapchat) as they seek the support of younger voters who are flocking to these media channels.
Our work on Justin Trudeau’s presence on Instagram explores this dynamic, which is gaining the attention of a growing number of researchers. Referred to as the “first prime minister of the Instagram age” or the “king of the selfie,” he can be seen as one of the pioneers in the field of political image management on visual-based social media. In an era of permanent campaigning and of digital media and branding, it is useful to understand how politicians communicate with the public in a digital media environment where still and moving images are playing a growingly important role. The first stage of our research project, published in American Behavioral Scientist, zeroes in on Trudeau’s uses of Instagram during the year following his election on October 19, 2015. Our international research team composed of Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and Emerson College students collected and analyzed the textual and visual content of 145 posts that appeared on his personal Instagram account during that period. Building and expanding on recent studies on Instagram-based political communication and branding, we developed and used a detailed analytical approach that took into account 125 variables. This allowed us to identify and characterize with great granularity visual political image-making and messaging approaches deployed by Trudeau and his team during his first year in office.
Unpacking images on Instagram
Our analysis first determined that photos shared on Trudeau’s personal Instagram feed, taken by the Prime Minister’s official photographer, Adam Scotti, were edited strategically to showcase the Prime Minister as a dynamic and outgoing political leader who is tending to his duties with seriousness and rigour. Elements of Trudeau’s personal brand, including his youth, athleticism, open-mindedness, sunny disposition, interpersonal skills and support of feminist causes permeate all pictures. This focus aligns with the mise-en-scène of his day-to-day involvement in government and public relations events. Some pictures show Trudeau attending LGBTQ parades (figure 1), giving speeches on the future of girls’ and women’s equality and promoting reconciliation efforts with Indigenous leaders. They reinforce the image of a politician in tune with his beliefs and respecting his electoral promises. His Instagram postings also offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the job of prime minister. He is shown working alone and with others in his office on Parliament Hill and attending caucus meetings. Other posts focus on him representing Canada at international events (such as G7 and UN summits) and interacting with a wide range of Canadians, from members of Parliament to individuals of various sociodemographic backgrounds. The issue of gender equality can be seen as partly driving his approach to Instagramming: an almost equal number of females and males is featured in all pictures considered in our study. A multicultural sensibility also characterizes Trudeau’s posts.
Second, our study looked at the structure of Trudeau’s Instagram posts. They are visually dynamic, featuring a variety of photographic shots, including mid-shots, wide shots, bottom-view shots and top-view shots; they serve a variety of narrative functions and respect the principles of Instagram aesthetics. Almost all pictures are in colour. Most also have a bilingual caption (French and English), while others include short videos.
Finally, we studied the photos’ settings. Sixty-five percent feature interiors. His office on Parliament Hill and the House of Commons make regular appearances, thus highlighting and legitimizing his work as leader of Canada. Many posts show him interacting with citizens in various public locations, such as schools, offices of public and private organizations and restaurants. These posts emphasize his approachability and closeness to ordinary citizens. Exterior settings are featured in only 29 percent of his posts, where he is pictured in a variety of locations, such as in front of Parliament, at memorial sites during commemorations and in national parks. Close to half of all pictures contain Canadian patriotic symbols, which reinforce the prestige and legitimacy of the Prime Minister’s office.
Political communication strategies and social media
Our analysis distinguished three categories of posts serving specific political storytelling functions: 1) official announcements on policy issues, 2) official statements by the Prime Minister in reaction to current events and 3) public relations/feel-good events. The three categories have specific storytelling objectives and strike the viewer at different emotional and rational levels.
The first category offers a look at daily government activities and provides insights into wide-ranging policy issues. For example, Trudeau is shown inaugurating new subway trains in Vancouver in June 2016 (figure 2). These planned posts highlight his effort and dedication to fulfilling his electoral promises regarding economic and social development, environment, health care and youth issues. The broader narrative builds a positive image of the government’s accomplishments, which are leading to a strong economy within an equitable and respectful society. It also strengthens the viewer’s perception of Trudeau’s leadership (nationally and internationally) and of his role in redefining Canadian politics.
Posts in the second category express reactions to immediate and often unforeseeable events nationally and internationally. Trudeau uses these carefully crafted updates to offer condolences and best wishes to people involved in tragedies like the Bataclan terrorist attacks in Paris and the Fort McMurray fires. More broadly, they highlight his compassion, empathy and sensitivity, and show Canada’s solidarity with local and international communities.
In the third, public-relations-focused category, Trudeau is shown taking part in events like the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto, visiting baby pandas at the Toronto Zoo (figure 3) and attending festive events held throughout the country. He also turns to Instagram to offer his best wishes during important holidays and festivals (such as Easter, Canada Day, Christmas, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day), fostering the image of a prime minister who’s approachable and down-to-earth. He is also pictured alongside prominent national and international celebrities such as Prince Harry and Stephen Hawking. Most of these pictures show Trudeau in casual attire — usually a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a tie — and at ease interacting with those around him.
Today I had the pleasure to unveil the names of the Toronto Zoo’s panda cubs! Say hello to Jia Panpan (Canadian Hope) & Jia Yueyue (Canadian Joy). J’ai eu le plaisir aujourd’hui de dévoiler le nom des bébés pandas du Zoo de Toronto ! Bonjour Jia Panpan (espoir canadien) et Jia Yueyue (joie canadienne).
Few of the Prime Minister’s posts provide insights into his personal and family life. His wife and children are mainly shown taking part in public political events, such as international visits (figure 4), although some show a more private side of the Trudeau family, such as trick-or-treating on Halloween (figure 5) or taking part in Father’s Day celebrations. These posts give an impression of normal family life that appeals to voters, who see their own lives reflected in the Trudeau family.
Overall, Trudeau’s Instagram narrative offers an optimistic view of Canada and its place in the world. In a media-saturated environment where rapidly spreading images can be more impactful than words, Trudeau’s social media use proves effective at boosting his popularity, building a positive ethos and strengthening the image of his leadership.
A final note that debunks a tenacious myth: not one of the 145 posts contains a selfie!
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