Images that Matter: Online Protests and the Mobilizing Role of Pictures

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(2) 360 –375
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918786805
Do images affect online political mobilization? If so,
how? People today are bombarded with more images
than ever before in human history. However, despite
small-N studies and experimental research demonstrating
the effects of images on political information seeking
(Ryan 2012), issue-framing (Corrigall-Brown and Wilkes
2012; Rohlinger and Klein 2012), voting preferences
(Rosenberg et al. 1986; Todorov et al. 2005), political
attitudes (Dahmen 2012; Grabe and Bucy 2009; Wright
and Citrin 2011), and even compliance with authoritarian
regimes (Bush et al. 2016), there is still little work sys-
tematically addressing the role of images in mobilizing
participation in protests and social movements online,1
nor are there studies that have leveraged large, digitized
corpora of real-world protest images. Moreover, those
works that study the more general political effects of
images tend to rely on clear experimental treatments
(e.g., Ryan 2012), while real political images from every-
day individuals are messy and often vary on multiple
dimensions, making large-N observational studies a must.
In this paper, we attempt to fill these gaps in the litera-
ture by presenting and testing a set of hypotheses derived
from a specific mechanism pathway for why images
might affect social movement mobilizations. We first
confirm that, as expected from prior research, images
increase participation in the context of online mobiliza-
tion. Beyond this main effect, we suggest that images are
mobilizing because they generate stronger emotional
reactions than text. Emotions such as enthusiasm, anger,
and fear are known to positively affect participation in a
wide range of political contexts. We argue that images
evoking these three emotions are likely to be strongly
correlated with higher levels of protest participation. We
test the argument with a new, large-N dataset related to
the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. We track the
online spread of general support in Twitter for BLM and
a specific BLM protest, ShutdownA14, that occurred on
April 14, 2015.
The idea that images might matter to social move-
ments like BLM is not new. The Civil Rights movement
in the United States and recent contentious events such as
the Arab Spring became known for its powerful
mobilizing images (Howard and Hussain 2013; Raiford
786805PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918786805Political Research QuarterlyCasas and Webb Williams
1New York University, New York, USA
2University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andreu Casas, New York University, 60 5th Ave., Office 637, New
York, NY 10011, USA.
Images that Matter: Online Protests and
the Mobilizing Role of Pictures
Andreu Casas1 and Nora Webb Williams2
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, and for the presence of frequent image features. Our paper provides evidence supporting the broad
argument that images increase the likelihood of a protest to spread online while teasing out the mechanisms at play
in a new media environment.
images, social movement mobilization, Black Lives Matter, social media
Casas and Webb Williams 361
2007). The issue with studying these cases, however, is
the biasing selection effect of only looking at potentially
rare cases. Our challenge is to study images without
knowing in advance whether any of them will have an
effect on behavior. We chose a case prior to mobilization
to see which images, if any, explained subsequent varia-
tion in the spread of the given protest and support for its
associated social movement. Our paper also speaks to the
urgency of studying images now, in the current new
media environment. With the rise of mobile phones with
cameras, the ability of almost everyone to share images
from or related to a protest has become an important con-
sideration for scholars (cf. Howard and Hussain 2013;
Webb Williams 2015). Today, small or emerging social
movements such as BLM can rely on thousands of par-
ticipants to take pictures “from the trenches” (Payne
1998) and immediately share them.
We focus our efforts on the effect of online image
sharing on online social movement mobilization. We
acknowledge that mobilization in the online arena is
equally, if not more, important for social movements.
Organizations today use hybrid online and online tactics
to achieve their goals (Bimber, Flanagin, and Stohl 2012;
Chadwick 2011; Theocharis et al. 2015). And while some
scholars are skeptical of the role of online activism
(Morozov 2011), others find that online participation is
an increasingly important tool to recruit committed sup-
porters (Hsiao and Yang 2018), increase protest turnout
(De Choudhury et al. 2016), and to set the media and
political agendas (Casas, Davesa, and Congosto 2016;
Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2016b).
We operationalize online mobilization as retweets of
movement-related messages on Twitter. Although
retweeting, like most forms of online mobilization, is a
relatively low-cost form of participation, it still has value
to social movement organizers. A simple action such as a
retweet of a protest message can help drive public,
media, and political attention (Freelon, McIlwain, and
Clark 2016b). We refer to this form of mobilization as
generating movement “attention,” or an increase in the
amount of public discussion about the movement.
Retweeting can also help a movement see who its new
supporters are. If many new Twitter users are engaging
with a movement through its messages and hashtags, this
is a signal that movement themes are affecting, and being
affected by, a broader audience. We refer to this form of
mobilization as generating movement “diffusion,” or the
spread of online support to new members. We discuss the
nuances of treating retweeting as participation in more
detail below.
The contributions of this paper are fourfold. First, we
confirm an image effect in the case of a specific BLM
protest. Second, we derive specific theoretical mecha-
nisms that might make certain types of images more
effective at mobilizing participants. Third, we test these
hypotheses using a large-N observational dataset of
tweets containing protest keywords and hashtags from
April 13 to April 20, 2015, along with all of the images
included in those tweets. The dataset includes approxi-
mately 150,000 tweets and 9,500 manually labeled
images. Finally, we add to the available body of knowl-
edge regarding the BLM movement and the means by
which the movement has spread.
Theoretical Framework and
Social Media Messaging as Mobilization
Treating retweets as participation in a social movement
links our research to a wider conversation about the
nature of mobilization in the digital age. Many scholars
have debated the value of social media for social move-
ments (Bennett and Segerberg 2013; Bimber, Flanagin,
and Stohl 2012; Castells 2012; Earl and Kimport 2011;
González-Bailón et al. 2011; Howard and Hussain 2013;
Kharroub and Bas 2015; Morozov 2011). Internet tech-
nologies have greatly lowered the costs of connecting
with potential supporters (Bimber, Flanagin, and Stohl
2012; Lupia and Sin 2003; Olson 1965), and although
some argue that networked technologies have given place
to cheap and meaningless forms of engagement,2 another
line of research shows that this is often not the case. This
literature argues that, today, simply sharing social media
messages should be seen as a form of participation that
helps social movements achieve their intermediate and
longer-term goals (Barberá et al. 2015; González-Bailón
et al. 2011; Theocharis et al. 2015).
Social movements are groups protesting against a sta-
tus quo and seeking some sort of social change (Tarrow
2011). To achieve their goal, they use a wide range of
tactics (McAdam 2000). Raising awareness about a
movement’s claims is often a necessary condition preced-
ing social change, and as a result, tactics pursuing agenda
setting objectives are seen as crucial by social movements
and organizations (Baumgartner, De Boef, and Boydstun
2008). In the current digital media environment, protest
movements use a repertoire of online but also online tac-
tics to influence the public, media, and political agenda
(Chadwick 2011).
In this context, a high volume of social media mes-
sages (original and shared) can raise awareness about a
protesting group in three ways. First, it helps set public
agendas by exposing the movement’s claims to new
audiences and by keeping engaged those who already
care about the issue. For example, González-Bailónet
et al. show how retweet chains allowed the variety of
claims of the Indignados movement to spread to a

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