Unpacking the Role of Images in Digital Diplomacy / Corneliu Bjola

Corneliu Bjola, Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies, University of Oxford
@cbjola, cbjola.com

There is little doubt that images are becoming increasingly popular in online communication, in general, and digital diplomacy, in particular. Visual content helps maximize the reach and engagement of the online message as users do tend to spend more time looking at images than they do reading text on a webpage. Partly this is a reaction to the problem of information overload amplified by the rise of social media, but cognitive factors cannot be ignored either. Studies show that people possess the capacity to retain visual information better than text as our brains work much better as image rather than word processors. Most importantly, images exhibit a unique ability to evoke strong emotional responses, as demonstrated by the powerful photo of the drown two-year old Aylan Kurdi, which has been largely credited with changing public perceptions and policy responses to the refugee crisis in 2015.

That being said, in order to understand the role that images play in digital diplomacy, we first need to make sense of what digital images actually mean, what are they made of, and how their intrinsic components come together to inform and shape digital diplomacy. Simply put, images are cognitive frames that people use to structure social perceptions in a visual rather than textual manner. They allow us to read and interpret the visual signals that reach us, fill information gaps, and provide possible templates for social interaction. The welcoming photo of the UK FCO Twitter account is supposed, for instance, to highlight the longstanding tradition of the British diplomacy, the global reach of its prestige as well as its capacity to adapt to the new conditions of the digital age.

The visual power of images stems from the nature of the elements that constitute them and the relationship suggested or established between them. Most images include at least four components: the protagonist, the message, the context and the moral angle. Images used in digital diplomacy usually tell a visual story about a particular character (a state, a policy-maker, a group of people), who has something important to convey to the target audience. The message draws meaning from the background of the situation that is being discussed and it often projects a moral position. The photo of Air Force One preparing to land in Havana in March 2016 vividly captured, for instance, the significance of the historic visit of President Obama in Cuba. It signaled the dawn of a new era of cooperation between the two countries and the promise that the economic distress caused the long-lasting trade embargo against the island might be soon alleviated.

Most importantly, the quality of digital images varies significantly and that has critical implications for the way in which they are received. Provocative images obviously draw a lot of attention as they are intended to provoke strong emotional responses, but their impact on diplomatic relations is arguable less impressive. The tweet sent by the Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in July 2015, may have served the purpose of warning US negotiators not to seek extra concessions from Iran, but the provocative and personal nature of the image likely hardened the position of the opponents of the nuclear deal in the US. By contrast, the image posted by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately after the terrorist attack in Jerusalem on Jan 8, 2017 sent a powerful signal of support to Israel thus strengthening the relations between the two countries.


To conclude, as the role of images in digital diplomacy will likely continue to amplify, the strategies that inform their usage need close examination. More specifically, it is important to understand how the constitutive elements of images are aligned together in a consistent fashion and how the emotional responses that they evoke can help improve not undermine diplomatic relations.

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