As part of Yatterbox’s investigation into local politicians’ use of social media, we thought that we would take a look at their use of a less used but equally valuable communication tool; photographs. As the old saying goes, “a photograph speaks 1000 words”; and throughout political history there have been many photographs that have done just this.
A large proportion of these photographs have been taken by professional journalists, many of whom have had their own agendas. However, the rise of photograph based social media platforms such as Flickr, and functionality on other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which allow users to upload photographs of their own accord, has shifted power into the hands of politicians themselves. Politicians now have the power to use photographs to present an image of themselves which they want online. The question is: what can we learn from these photographs?
We will be taking a detailed look into which of our local politicians are uploading photographs and what these photographs mean to us. Following on from the statistics we gave in our last article, Yatterbox found that only 12% of MPs in the Humber and Yorkshire region use the main photograph-sharing social media platform Flickr. That 12% translates into just six of the 50+ MPs, those are: Ed Balls, Alec Shelbrooke, Craig Whittaker, Andrew Jones, Julian Smith and Julian Sturdy. Out of those six, five are Conservative MPs and only one is a Labour MP (Ed Balls).
The number of politicians on Flickr is clearly low and for good reason; Flickr may be a large photo-sharing social media platform, but the reality is that it is not used by the vast majority of the public. What’s more, those that do use it do so for specific reasons; such as semi-professional or professional photography. Since it is likely that the public will continue to use Facebook and Twitter as opposed to Flickr for uploading photographs, it is likely that politicians will continue to show a preference for them.
A quick analysis of the Flickr accounts created by politicians provides a clear illustration of this trend with a number of MPs not updating them regularly. In fact, only one MP from the Yorkshire and Humber region does upload photographs regularly: Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer. His most recent set of photographs includes several of him during a visit to meet the charity Cancer Research UK. Outside of these photographs, the rest show Julian, amongst other things, visiting local farmers, speaking in Parliament and canvassing.
Due to the lack of content being uploaded by other MPs on Flickr, we have had to broaden our search criteria and have looked at the photographs that MPs have uploaded on Twitter. Taking a detailed look at Ed Balls’ photographs, it is apparent that he has quite a broad range; some of him meeting with local residents at village halls, others of him taking calls at an NHS Direct Centre and some of him speaking at high-profile events. However, due to the way that his photographs have been taken, they give off a far more gritty and down to earth feel than Julian’s.
Taking a quick look at another MP on Twitter, Alex Shelbrooke we find that his photographs concentrate on making himself look like a true local politician with various photographs of him pouring pints, chatting to local residents and eating 99p My Whippy Ice Creams.
This tactic is reminiscent of that used by American presidential candidates who use the classic shot of them drinking in a local American Bar to curry favour with voters. More recently this sort of behaviour has been seen in the exchange of beers between David Cameron and Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in Toronto.
Taking all of this into stock, the vital questions remain unanswered; why do they do this? It is clear from the style of photographs that are being taken and uploaded that MPs want to project a certain image of themselves; whether that is of politicians taking direct interest in their constituents or presenting themselves on a much higher level by interacting with national organisations. However another vital question is, who is looking at these photographs?
It is clear that Flickr images are viewed a lot less and will only be seen by the party faithful. However, by posting photographs through Twitter and Facebook, MPs have a much greater chance of being seen by the wider general public, either by followers, or through retweets of these photographs. The importance of these photographs is paramount as they provide an instant visual insight into what an MP is doing. This is important as it make votes feel more involved in the democratic process. Take the photograph of Ed Balls at NHS Direct; he could have simply tweeted saying he was there, but instead he had a photograph of him taken and sent out instead. This provided voters with a more personal insight into his political activity, something that they do not always get.
In short, whilst only a small number of politicians are uploading photographs, we are confident that there will be an increase in their use in future years, particularly on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. MPs will want to project themselves in a way that carries favour with their constituents and voters will want greater access to their representatives through more dynamic sources.