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

Andreu Casas Salleras, Nora Webb Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)360-375
JournalPolitical Research Quarterly
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Cite this