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Politicking and Visual Framing on Instagram: A Look at the Portrayal of the Leadership of Canada’s Justin Trudeau

La création d’images politiques et le cadrage visuel sur Instagram : Un regard sur la représentation du leadership du Canadien Justin Trudeau
Mireille Lalancette et Vincent Raynauld
p. 257-290

Résumés

Si les médias numériques sont devenus un élément central du paysage médiatique de la communication politique contemporaine, de nombreux acteur.trice.s politiques n’ont pas encore pleinement intégré ce changement numérique. Cependant, Justin Trudeau et son équipe ont rapidement compris que ces plateformes étaient de puissants outils de sensibilisation et d’engagement du public. Depuis son élection au poste de Premier ministre du Canada, Trudeau a su exploiter les capacités de création d’images et de cadrage des plateformes de médias numériques pour déployer un récit stratégique sur son leadership politique. En s’appuyant sur une analyse de tous les messages de son compte Instagram au cours de l’année qui a suivi son élection au poste de premier ministre du Canada, cet article examine de près comment Trudeau s’est tourné vers le cadrage visuel de ses messages Instagram pour générer des récits politiques stratégiques qui soulignent et renforcent sept traits de son leadership politique : 1) leader novateur à la tête d’un pays prospère ; 2) leader voué à des politiques positives ; 3) leader voué à l’unité nationale ; 4) leader promouvant et respectant les communautés minoritaires et marginalisées ; 5) leader réconfortant et rassurant ; 6) leader valorisant le dialogue international et le respect ; 7) leader capable d’établir des relations. Ce faisant, ce travail de recherche fournit des aperçus intéressants sur une dimension spécifique de la stratégie de communication politique visuelle déployée par les élu.e.s sur Instagram. Plus important encore, cet article contribue aux travaux universitaires en cours sur la dynamique de la création et du cadrage des images politiques visuelles sur les médias sociaux au Canada et à l’étranger.

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Overview

1At the height of his popularity, Justin Trudeau became the 23rd prime minister of Canada following the longest federal election campaign in that country’s history (ANGUS REID INSTITUTE 2020). His mostly positive approach to electioneering (LINDQUIST and EICHBAUM 2016) helped the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) win the election and oust the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) of Stephen Harper, which had formed the government for almost nine years. More importantly, by securing 184 seats in Parliament, Trudeau’s LPC turned a corner by forming a majority government and elevating its status after falling in third place behind Jack Layton’s New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) during the 2011 federal elections.

2Throughout the 2015 federal electoral contest, Trudeau adopted and refined a campaigning style driven in part by a digitally-infused approach to retail politics. It included taking selfies and engaging with members of the public during rallies as well as other online and real-world outreach initiatives in highly personable ways. In this context, selfies - which replaced and/or expanded on handshakes - enabled Trudeau to broaden, deepen, and mobilize his electoral base. In some cases, it allowed him to connect with a wider audience through the dissemination of selfies on digital media networks (SENFT and BAYM 2015; BAISHYA 2015; DUROCHER and LALANCETTE 2019). In reaction to his public outreach and engagement tactics, he was given several nicknames with negative connotations. Among them include “king of selfie” (PETROWSKI 2016) and “selfie Prime Minister” (PROUDFOOT 2016), which effectively framed him as a self-absorbed politician privileging style over substance (see REMILLARD, BERTRAND et al. 2019). In many ways, his political appeal did indeed rely heavily on specific aspects of his personal and political identities (e.g. charisma, youth, approachability, celebrity status) (MARLAND 2018; REMILLARD, BERTRAND et al. 2019; LALANCETTE and RAYNAULD 2019). A 2017 Angus Reid poll showed that many Canadians believed Trudeau and his government “placed excessive attention on public relations and photo-ops, and that it is not getting things done” (MARLAND 2018, 142; see also ANGUS REID 2017). However, recent research has shown that he was an effective prime minister. Many promises included in the LPC’s electoral platform in 2015 were addressed and fulfilled - in part or fully - during his first term at the helm of the Canadian government (see BIRCH and PÉTRY 2019).

3This article takes a deep dive into Trudeau’s bilingual political outreach and engagement tactics on social media during the year following the 2015 Canadian federal election. The consideration of that period of time is of particular importance because he deployed significant efforts to establish and strengthen his public image as elected prime minister as well as worked on fulfilling the political and policy promises laid out in this 2015 electoral platform (see BIRCH and PÉTRY 2019). This article focuses specifically on the photo and video-sharing platform Instagram, which has gained in popularity among wide-ranging publics in Canada and internationally over the last five years. It breaks down and analyzes how Justin Trudeau and his team utilized textual and visual content to present himself and frame his political leadership to the Canadian public on Instagram. An in-depth analysis of Trudeau’s Instagram posts over the chosen period reveals the clear emphasis given to specific traits of his political leadership: 1) innovative leader at the helm of a prosperous country; 2) leader dedicated to positive policies; 3) leader dedicated to national unity; 4) leader promoting and respecting minority and marginalized communities; 5) comforting and reassuring leader; 6) leader valuing international dialogue and respect; 7) relatable leader.

1. Instagram, Visual Political Narratives, and the Building of Leadership

1.1. Instagram Politicking in Canada

4Many academic works have explored politicians’ uses of Instagram for visual self-presentation as well as for public outreach, engagement, and persuasion internationally in recent years (e.g. TURNBULL-DUGARTE 2019; VENETI, JACKSON et al. 2019; MENDOÇA and CAETANO 2020). Lindholm, Carlson et al. (2020) unpacked how Finish politicians leveraged Instagram’s structural and functional properties for visual self-personalization. Among other findings, their research determined that “photos depicting politicians in professional settings are more attention grabbing and effective in shaping trait impressions than photos showing politicians in private life” (LINDHOLM, CARLSON et al. 2020, 1). In the United States, an analysis of Instagram-based politicking during the 2016 presidential primaries showed that “candidates readily adjusted their image attributes to the Instagram platform,” such as by imbedding “patriotic symbols, campaign paraphernalia, and elected officials/influentials in their images’’ (MUÑOZ and TOWNER 2017, 311, 313).

5Comparatively, much less research work has been done on politicians’ communication activities on Instagram in Canada (see LALANCETTE and RAYNAULD 2019; VOSSEN 2019). Remillard, Bertrand et al. (2019) examined Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s uses of visual content - more specifically selfies - to shape and sharpen his public image, influence the news media coverage of his policy positions and political brand, as well as engage with his members of his electoral base. Steffan (2020) explored how candidates running for office in seven western democracies utilized visual materials for self-presentation on different social media platforms. Specifically, he took interest in the 2015 Canadian federal election opposing Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to LPC leader Justin Trudeau. His research, which considered visual politicking on Instagram, revealed that Harper relied on a public image emphasizing his “statesmanlike” qualities as well as other personal elements in order to portray himself as superior to his challenger. Conversely, Trudeau opted for a visual self-presentation strategy highlighting his “populist traits,” which relied heavily on his “image of a youthful, energetic, and likeable candidate” (STEFFAN 2020, 3107, 3111).

6This article builds and expands on work done in the aforementioned studies and, more importantly, addresses and fills gaps in the academic literature. While a large number of studies have focused on broader dynamics of Instagram-based political communication during electoral contexts, this article zeroes in on specific dimensions of visual political image-making tactics deployed by elected officials outside of elections (e.g. EKMAN and WIDHOLM 2017; POULAKIDAKOS and GIANNOULI 2019). This is of particular interest as many scholars have noted in recent years that dynamics of permanent campaigning - or non-stop electioneering - have become the “new normal” in politics in Canada and internationally (MARLAND 2015, 14; JOATHAN and LILLEKER 2020). Additionally, this article takes interest in how Trudeau used Instagram to reach out to and engage with French and English-speaking segments of the Canadian public through the publication of bilingual content.

1.2. Image-Making and Visuals in Politics

  • 1 Political personalization can be defined as a phenomenon characterized by individual politicians be (...)

7Political image-making can be viewed as the strategic use of “symbolic devices, which can be constructed with both visual and verbal messages, that provide a shorthand cue to audiences for the identification and enhancement of specific” attributes of an individual, an organization, a phenomenon, or a cause (STRACHAN and KENDALL 2004, 135, see also: SCHILL 2012). As the last decades have been marked by the intensification and acceleration of the personalization1 of all facets of political processes, image-making has become a mainstay in politicians’ communication efforts (BALMAS and SHEAFER 2014; 2015). Indeed, the weakening of major political parties as well as other institutions coupled with the ideological fragmentation and compartmentalization of the public at large has thrusted individual politicians at the center of the political scene, effectively making the ways in which their personal and political profiles are perceived and evaluated by the public of particular importance (JOATHAN and LILLEKER 2020). Capelos (2010, 10) points out that there are four key facets of a politician’s public image: 1) “issue positions;” 2) “partisanship;” 3) “group-based beliefs;” 4) “personal attributes or traits.”

8Visuals can play an instrumental role in the development and shaping of politicians’ public image, especially when it comes to their personal attributes and traits (STRAND and SCHILL 2019; STEFFAN 2020; MENDOÇA and CAETANO 2020). Building on a review of academic research spanning several decades, Schill (2012) notes that visual content’s capacity to transmit a wide range of sensory stimuli (“flavors, colors, images, and movement”) makes it far more impactful and, by extension, persuasive than textual or verbal content (SCHILL 2012, 122). Visual information is also more likely to be remembered and recalled than other types of information, including textual or verbal cues. Finally, “visual messages override other messages when processed simultaneously” (SCHILL 2012, 122). More broadly, visuals tend to be perceived as “closer to reality” than other types of content, “but also because they have the power to create stronger emotional and immediate cues” (RODRIGUEZ and DIMITROVA 2011, 50; see also NAGEL, MAURER et al. 2012; DUMITRESCA 2016). In that respect, these characteristics make them important elements of public political communication and image-making processes.

9In the era of “image bites politics,” politicians have devoted significant time and resources in crafting and sharing widely visual cues likely to shape in strategic ways perceptions of their personal and professional prowess, competence, and actions among members of the public in order to affect political attitudes and behaviours to their advantage (e.g. levels of political mobilization, fundraising) (GABE and BUCY 2009; see also SCHILL 2012). Critically, identity-centric, user-generated social media channels - which have gained traction rapidly in several national contexts over the past fifteen years - have allowed politicians to engage in these activities on their own terms, without the filter of other media and political players, such as news media organizations (STEFFEN 2020; LALANCETTE and RAYNAULD 2019). This dynamic - also referred to as “political brand image” (e.g. WINTHER NIELSEN 2017; DE LANDTSHEER and DE VRIES 2015) - has resulted in decreasing public attention paid to more substantive aspects of the political process, such as in-depth discussions about political and policy issues (SCAMMELL 2016).

1.3. Framing in Visual Political Narratives

10One dimension of political image-making that is of particular interest for this article is visual framing. While the use of the concept of framing for the study of text-based communication has been researched extensively and is generally well understood, it has also been used to explore dynamics of still and moving-image political communication (RODRIGUEZ and DIMITROVA 2011). More traditionally in the case of textual content, framing has been defined as the process of selecting “some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (ENTMAN 1993, 52; see also: MOY, TEWKSBURY et al. 2016).

11In the case of still and moving-image content, framing can be described as the use of recognizable visual symbols and other cues to accentuate or highlight one of multiple facets of a perceived reality in order to put forth a specific perception, evaluation, and understanding of a situation, issue, event, or individual (RODRIGUEZ and DIMITROVA 2011; MUÑOZ and TOWNER 2017; STEFFAN 2020). As noted by Rodriguez and Dimitrova (2011: 50), visuals tend to “carry ‘excess meaning’ as they activate some related ideas or thoughts, and they have an accepted shared meaning within a culture as they resonate with its members.” Three specific characteristics of visuals make them particularly well suited for framing: 1) their “analogical quality” (ability to foster connexions between specific meanings based “based on similarity or analogy;” 2) their “indexicality” (capacity to be perceived as more representative of the truth than other types of content); 3) their “lack of an explicit propositional syntax” (while they are less likely to offer a specific interpretation like text content, visuals offer “specific visual syntax through the editorial choices they make” (RODRIGUEZ and DIMITROVA 2011, 51-52; see also MESSARIS and ABRAHAM 2001).

12Visual framing has been used extensively by politicians when developing, rolling out, and sharpening strategic narratives - or stories - emphasizing specific dimensions of their public image over mid to long periods of time. Indeed, it can help them attract and keep the attention of, connect with, and make themselves relatable to audiences (LIEBHART and BERNHARDT 2017; POLLETTA 2008; RODRIGUEZ and DIMITROVA 2011; PAGE and DUFFY 2018). Couldry (2008, 374) notes that storytelling has occupied “a distinct stage in the history of mass communication or perhaps in the supersession of mass communication” (see also RICHARDSON 2002; GUPTA-CARLSON 2016). Political storytelling encompasses wide-ranging communication and engagement activities enabling politicians to develop, refine, and blend personal and public narratives in order to create, maintain, adjust, and strengthen their public image. In other words, it allows them to progressively share information over a mid to long period of time in order to roll out compelling narratives that can help them attract and keep the attention of, connect with, and make themselves relatable to audiences (LIEBHART and BERNHARDT 2017; POLLETTA 2008). Over the last few years, storytelling-intensive forms of political outreach and engagement have become a hallmark of many politicians’ presence in the social mediascape (LIEBHART and BERNHARDT 2017; Mclaughlin and MACAFEE 2018; VOSSEN 2019). Of particular note is how the distinct design, properties, and affordances of identity and visual-centric social media channels have led politicians to incorporate more visual elements relating to their personal and political identities - including “individuality” and “visibility” - in their digital political communication activities (MILAN 2015, 887; see also: ENLI and SKOGERBØ 2013; EKMAN and WIDHOLM 2017).

13Political leadership, which is tied closely to competence, is an important component of a politicians’ narrative about their public image (see NOVELLI 2019; WARNER and BANWART 2016). More generally, it refers to the “process where an actor in a formal or informal position of authority uses her power resources in such a way as to guide the behaviour of others towards a common goal” (SCHOELLER 2017, 3). This article takes a closer look at personalized leadership, which is a key feature of contemporary politics (LALANCETTE and TOURIGNY-KONÉ 2017). As several scholars observe (TELES 2015; MAZZOLENI 2017), the public’s view of political leadership is increasingly tied to elements unrelated to formal political institutions and processes. For example, politicians’ socio-demographic background (e.g. ethnicity, gender) and their personal attributes and traits (e.g., youth, personal charisma, competence, and approachability) can shape how the public evaluates and responds to their leadership (BAUER 2020; GOLDMAN 2017; TELES 2015). By extension, these characteristics can impact their ability to fulfill three key aspects of their work, including governing (e.g. “generating policy ideas through negotiation and communicating them through the organisation”), governance (e.g. “developing partnerships and networks of policy delivery and deliberation”), and allegiance (maintaining and strengthening the level of commitment and the energy of supporters) (TELES 2015, 24). The last element is particularly important in the era of non-stop campaigning. Many studies have indeed shown that politicians’ leadership image has played a critical role in their ability to keep their supporters mobilized ahead of or during elections (e.g. MENDELSOHN 1994; WARNER and BARNWART 2016).

  • 2 According to Rojek’s (2001) typology of celebrity styles, Trudeau can be viewed as a celebrity poli (...)

14Much like other politicians around the world (BALMAS and SHAEFER 2014), aspects of Trudeau’s personal and political identity have been integral components of his political appeal. Before even taking the helm of the Canadian government, Trudeau’s image was built over decades of being in the public eye in Canada and internationally. He is known for being the first son of late Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau2 and for the extensive media coverage he received throughout his life due to his political celebrity status (LALANCETTE and CORMACK 2020). Since first running for office, his public image has been rooted in a specific set of personal characteristics, including his youth, his athleticism, and his open-mindedness. He has also championed causes of importance to LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and feminist communities (MARLAND 2016; MARLAND, LEWIS et al. 2017). Goodyear-Grant (2019) argues that at some point, his public image was deemed too feminine by members of his communication team, leading them to deploy efforts to masculinize his image by having him take part in a boxing match against former conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau. This article takes a particular interest in Trudeau’s storytelling activities on Instagram and how they were instrumental in putting forth a specific narrative emphasizing core elements of his political leadership.

15While a lot of work had been done on visual framing through more conventional, offline-based visual political communication channels (STEWART, EUBANKS et al. 2020; LUNDELL 2010; GRABE and BUCY 2009), a growing number of scholars are taking interest in visual framing on social media platforms with distinct structural and functional properties (MUÑOZ and TOWNER 2017; STEFFAN 2020). This article contributes to this effort by taking a close look at how Trudeau turned to visual framing in his Instagram posts to generate specific political narratives emphasizing and reinforcing specific attributes of his political leadership during the first year following his election as prime minister of Canada.

2. Methodology

16As mentioned previously, this article examines how prime minister Justin Trudeau leveraged Instagram’s structural properties and functionalities to roll out and share visual political narratives emphasizing and reinforcing specific attributes of his political leadership image during the first year immediately following his election. This study is considering this period of time because Trudeau deployed significant efforts to foster his public image of leader of Canada, especially in a context of permanent campaigning where he was already getting ready for the next electoral context (MARLAND 2016). In order to conduct this study, the bilingual content - including pictures, videos, and captions - of 145 posts that appeared on his Instagram feed from the moment he was elected on October 19, 2015 to October 19, 2016 was collected, archived, and analyzed. Under the supervision of both authors, the data collection and archiving process was done manually by U.S.-based undergraduate research assistants with the help of smartphones on U.S. cellular networks during the months of September and October 2016. The data collected in October 2016 does not reflect the entirety of Trudeau’s Instagram activity during that month as data collection was stopped on October 19, 2016 due to the methodological approach developed for this study. It should be noted that digital content shared by Justin Trudeau through the Instagram “stories” function was not considered in the context of this study due to limitations with the tools used for the data collection and archiving process, as well as because the “stories” function was only made available publicly to Instagram users on August 2, 2016. Furthermore, comments made by Instagram users on Trudeau’s posts were not archived in the context of this investigation as it focused solely on Trudeau’s uses of Instagram for political communication and visual image-making. It should be noted that all photos considered for this study were taken by Adam Scotti, the official photographer of Justin Trudeau.

17An interdisciplinary inductive approach was used to identify the visual frames developed and rolled out by Trudeau and his team to shape the image of his political leadership during the first year following his election. This approach was designed through the consideration of a wide range of scholarly works examining visual political communication in the social mediascape through quantitative and qualitative techniques (e.g., visual political framing, political storytelling) (e.g., RUSSMANN and SVENSSON 2016; MUÑOZ and TOWNER, 2017; STEFFAN 2020). The coding rubric was first tested on a smaller sample of Instagram posts and was subsequently adjusted to capture and analyze all intricacies of visual political communication and framing on Instagram. The variables taken into account for this study allowed for an in-depth analysis of the pictures and accompanying bilingual captions that appeared on Trudeau’s Instagram feed during his first year in office. It should be noted that this study takes a hybrid analytical approach as some facets of the analysis are quantitative in nature, while others are focusing much more on qualitative dimensions of Trudeau’s Instagram activity.

18All coding work was done manually by two Canada-based graduate research assistants over the course of a two-week period during the month of June 2017. The coding scheme was designed specifically to unpack the complex structural and functional properties of dynamics of visual political communication on Instagram, including political image-making and framing (e.g., image composition, topics). The first wave of coding that was used for intercoder calibration led to an agreement of 90% between coders. Following meetings between the researchers and the graduate assistants, some adjustments were made to the coding approach, which led to a 100% intercoder agreement between coders during the second wave of coding.

3. Findings

3.1. Brief Overview of the Data

19Providing an overview of Trudeau’s patterns of activity on Instagram is important to understand how Instagram was used by Trudeau for political image framing and developing political narratives. First, his levels of activity on Instagram increased progressively over the year immediately following his election. While he posted only three times per month during the last quarter of 2015, he intensified his activities after January 2016. He never shared less than 10 posts during all months considered in 2016, with a high of 22 posts during the month of June and 25 posts in the month of March. In sum, 145 posts shared between October 19, 2015 and October 19, 2016 were considered for this study. Graph 1 offers a detailed breakdown of Trudeau’ Instagramming activities during the time period considered for this study.

20In the spirit of permanent campaigning, Justin Trudeau was active on his Instagram on a large number of days during the period considered for this study. He shared at least one post during 90 of the days considered for this investigation, while posting at least twice on 14 days, three times on 6 days, and four times on 2 times. Comparatively, his Instagram account was not updated for 254 days. This data shows that Trudeau deployed some efforts to engage with his Instagram audience regularly and, as it will be discussed in later sections of this article, lay out a narrative reinforcing specific aspects of his public leadership image. A more recent informal review of Trudeau’s Instagram account has revealed that he has ramped up his activity on this social media platform significantly, whether it is by posting photos and videos or by sharing content through Instagram’s “stories” function. It should be noted that Trudeau’ visual political message has stayed - for the most part - similar to what was analyzed for this article.

Graph. 1 - Volume of weekly Instagram postings during the period considered for this study.

Graph. 1 - Volume of weekly Instagram postings during the period considered for this study.

21Finally, an in-depth analysis of his Instagram posts during the period considered for this study showed that he used all of this social media channel’s structural properties and technical affordance. The vast majority of his posts comprised a still image with a bilingual caption of varying length. Other Instagram postings included short videos with a bilingual caption of varying length, posts that were originally shared by other Instagram users (re-shared posts), an image with no caption, as well as multiple images with a caption of varying length. All of Trudeau’s Instagram contributions featured French and English-language captions in order to appeal to and be understood by voters speaking one of Canada’s official languages.

3.2. Visual Framing and Trudeau’s Leadership

22As Justin Trudeau ramped up his communication activities on Instagram following his election on October 19, 2015, he honed his visual message in ways framing specific aspects of his personal and political identity. This article provides an in-depth analysis revealing that Trudeau’s visual political narratives emphasized and framed in strategic ways seven traits central to his political leadership.

1) Leadership Trait: An Innovative Leader at the Helm of a Prosperous Country

23One of the areas of activity emphasized heavily by Trudeau on his Instagram account in the year following his election is the economy. In a large number of posts, the prime minister was framed as taking an active leadership role in supporting and promoting wide-ranging initiatives related to key areas of the Canadian economy, including transportation, healthcare, and technology. In fact, economy-related matters were referred to in 11 percent of all posts considered for this study. Most posts leveraged visual symbols and cues framing Trudeau as a dynamic leader engaging with all players within the Canadian economy - from workers in an automobile parts manufacturing plant in Guelph (Ontario) (see Fig. 1) to administrators and CEOs of major companies - and who is in full control of all dimensions of the economy. He was also shown interacting with well-known and - in many cases - influential figures of the international economic system, including International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde, effectively framing him as a leader with international influence and gravitas (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 1 - Instagram post shared on April 15, 2016 at 5:38pm

Fig. 1 - Instagram post shared on April 15, 2016 at 5:38pm

24The visual political narrative developed on Trudeau’s account was clearly angled towards framing him as a down-to-earth and approachable politician who can be seen as a “steady hand” who will ensure the economic stability, growth, and prosperity of all segments of the public in Canada. In other words, he portrayed himself as an honest broker committed to engaging with all key players and delivering the economic promises included in his electoral platform during the 2015 federal election.

Fig. 2 - Instagram post shared on September 13, 2016 at 2:54pm

Fig. 2 - Instagram post shared on September 13, 2016 at 2:54pm

2) Leadership Trait: A Leader Dedicated to Positive Policies

25Many of Trudeau’s updates on his personal Instagram account put forth visuals emphasizing the fact that he was a leader dedicated to positive and progressive policies benefiting the Canadian public. This was done by highlighting visually his work through various formal political and policy mechanisms (e.g. House of Commons, LPC caucus, ministerial cabinet, foreign policy initiatives). Many visual cues were used to frame him as a politician ready and eager to work in positive ways.

26Fig. 3 is a great example of this type of visual framing. In this Instagram post, Trudeau is featured discussing with a member of the LPC caucus. The picture comprises visual symbols referring to Canada and its political system. Among them include the flag and a room featuring architectural and design hallmarks of the Canadian parliament. Trudeau is shown wearing a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, effectively portraying him as a hard-working politician focused on tasks that are central to the success of the country. This type of visual framing is often used by male politicians in official settings. Indeed, it is not rare to see visuals relating to male politicians that show them sporting a - usually white or blue - shirt with the sleeves rolled up (see work by GRABE and BUCY 2009).

Fig. 3 - Instagram post shared on February 3, 2016 at 2:00pm

Fig. 3 - Instagram post shared on February 3, 2016 at 2:00pm

3) Leadership Trait: A Leader Dedicated to National Unity

27The bilingual and multicultural nature of the Canadian national context (see RICHEZ and RAYNAULD 2019; RAYNAULD, RICHEZ et al. 2018) poses significant challenges to federal politicians wanting to broadcast a leadership image emphasizing unity and cohesion among different segments of the public with narrow preferences, interests, and objectives. Furthermore, Canada has a multilayered political system composed of provinces and local jurisdictions with their own leadership and priorities. While previous prime ministers have adopted a more centralizing and adversarial tone (LALANCETTE and TOURIGNY-KONÉ 2017), Trudeau has opted for a more conciliatory and inclusive approach that was emphasized in many of his Instagram posts (LALANCETTE and RAYNAULD 2019).

28The analysis of his Instagram feed indicates that Trudeau deployed significant efforts to share visual frames highlighting social and political collaboration. He did so in different ways. Fig. 4 portrays Trudeau sitting at a large conference table with premiers of Canadian provinces, some of which are not aligned politically with Trudeau’s LPC. The bilingual caption reinforces the visual narrative: “We’re underway at the First Ministers’ Meeting. Busy day ahead. Notre rencontre des premiers ministres est en cours à Vancouver. Journée occupée en perspective” Fig.5 echoes and reinforces the point made in Fig.4. In this Instagram post, Trudeau is shown discussing privately with Prince Edward Island premier Wade MacLauchlan. Again, he and MacLauchlan are wearing dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up and appear to be very focused on their conversation. Much like in Fig. 4, the bilingual caption reinforces the visual frame developed in the post: “Thank you Premier @WadeMacLauchlan for the productive meeting today as we work together to strengthen communities in PEI. Merci au premier ministre @WadeMacLauchlan pour notre rencontre fructueuse d’aujourd’hui, en vue de renforcer les communautés de L’ÎPÉ.”

Fig. 4 - Instagram post shared on March 3, 2016 at 9:30am

Fig. 4 - Instagram post shared on March 3, 2016 at 9:30am

Fig. 5 - Instagram post shared on August 16, 2016 at 1:41pm

Fig. 5 - Instagram post shared on August 16, 2016 at 1:41pm

4) Leadership Trait: A Leader Promoting and Respecting Minority and Marginalized Communities

29Several authors have indicated over the last five years that matters relating to minority and marginalized communities have been at the core of Justin Trudeau’s progressive political agenda and, by extension, appeal in Canada (CLARKE, GRAVELLE et al. 2017; RICHEZ and RAYNAULD 2020). On numerous occasions during the period considered for this study, Trudeau shared Instagram posts showing in strategic ways his public support for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Canada. Fig. 6 is a representative example of Trudeau’s efforts. Trudeau mentions in the bilingual caption of this Instagram post that he is looking forward to being part of the annual pride parade in Toronto. Another issue of importance for Trudeau is the relations between the Canadian state and Indigenous communities across Canada (see BIRCH and PÉTRY 2019; RICHEZ and RAYNAULD 2020). Fig 7. offers a screenshot of an Instagram post where Trudeau is highlighting his work with premiers of all provinces and Indigenous leaders from across Canada. It should be noted that 4.8 percent of all posts included in the dataset included visual and textual elements directly referencing members of Indigenous communities as well as causes central to their demands to the Canadian state. In sum, Trudeau used a wide range of visual cues in order to frame himself as a progressive leader listening to and interacting with members of a wide range of minority and marginalized communities in Canada.

Fig. 6 - Instagram post shared on February 22, 2016 at 1:41pm

Fig. 6 - Instagram post shared on February 22, 2016 at 1:41pm

Fig. 7 - Instagram post shared on March 2, 2016 at 5:51pm

Fig. 7 - Instagram post shared on March 2, 2016 at 5:51pm

5) Leadership Trait: A Comforting and Reassuring Leader

30Trudeau was faced with several tragic moments in Canada, in the United States, and internationally during the time period considered for this study. This required him to develop tailored communication responses to these situations. Specifically, he needed to shift away from his cheerful and positive approach to politics (see leadership traits 2 and 4, for example) and reposition and frame himself visually as a determined yet comforting leader rising to the occasion and providing physical and emotional reassurances and relief to Canadians.

31Fig. 8 provides a screenshot of his Instagram posts in reaction to the shooting in a nightclub of the city of Orlando in the United States. The black and white picture - which contrasts with the colourful and vibrant pictures included in most of his other Instagram posts - conveys a solemn atmosphere. The picture includes Justin Trudeau’s personal signature, making it more likely to be perceived as personal and genuine. Fig. 9 shows Trudeau attending a Veterans’ Day event, a moment of particular importance for a large number of Canadians whose family members are or were part of the Canadian Army. Both Instagram posts emphasize a narrative supporting the framing of his leadership image, but that is vastly different from other Instagram posts discussed in other sections of this article.

Fig. 8 - Instagram post shared on June 13, 2016 at 4:59pm

Fig. 8 - Instagram post shared on June 13, 2016 at 4:59pm

Fig. 9 - Instagram post shared on November 11, 2015 at 12:29pm

Fig. 9 - Instagram post shared on November 11, 2015 at 12:29pm

6) Leadership Trait: A Leader Valuing International Dialogue and Respect

32Following Stephen Harper’s tenure as prime minister for nine years, Trudeau came into office and promised to usher in a new era in Canadian politics. Specifically, he committed to changing some of the political and policy decisions of his predecessor. Among them include the relationship with then-U.S. president Barack Obama. Interactions between the leaders of both countries changed dramatically when Trudeau was elected, as exemplified by many posts that were included on Trudeau’s Instagram feed during the time period considered for this study. As shown in Fig. 10, the relationship between Trudeau and Obama is framed visually in ways highlighting in strategic ways their complicity, mutual respect, and positivity. The post showcases a strong bond between the prime minister and the U.S. president. Specifically, it conveys the sense that the two leaders and, by extension, the countries they represent have positive and productive relationship. More importantly, it instills a sense of confidence to citizens of both countries. It is particularly important in Canada as the United States is one of the most important military and commercial partners of Canada.

Fig. 10 - Instagram post shared on April 1, 2016 at 3:55pm

Fig. 10 - Instagram post shared on April 1, 2016 at 3:55pm

33From a broader perspective, Trudeau and his team sought to change the way in which Canada was seen internationally. The prime minister presented another kind of leadership to leaders worldwide, but also to Canadians at home. As such, he offered images of diplomatic trips where he can be seen interacting with other leaders in ways showcasing positive strength and respect.

7) Leadership Trait: A Relatable Leader

34Another form of visual leadership framing present on Trudeau’s Instagram feed related to his personal life. This type of political framing is not prominent since only a few posts offer insights into his private life. As mentioned previously, showing elements of a politician’s personal identity is important as the social media public is - in some ways - expecting this type of disclosure.

Fig. 11 - Instagram post shared on March 19, 2016 at 7:00pm

Fig. 11 - Instagram post shared on March 19, 2016 at 7:00pm

35Indeed, McGregor (2018, 1141) notes that members of “the public are primed to experience personal characteristics through social media, so as politicians engage in this expected behavior on social media, voters may be more influenced by it.” In many posts, Trudeau inserted elements to his private life, including his mother Margaret Trudeau, his wife Sophie Grégoire - a former French-language television host - and his children.

Fig. 12 - Instagram post shared on March 27, 2016 at 10:16pm

Fig. 12 - Instagram post shared on March 27, 2016 at 10:16pm

36In fact, more than 18 percent of his Instagram posts referred to some elements of his family life. Interestingly, his children and spouse appeared mostly in official settings, such as during official meetings and events. Some posts also offered a glimpse of private events with members of this family, including Earth Day (see Fig. 11), Easter (see Fig. 12), or birthday celebrations. In these pictures, Trudeau is portrayed as a loving, family-oriented father that a large segment of the Canadian public can relate with. By offering this type of narrative, Trudeau put forth an image of relatability and reliability - family being often an important criterion to judge this characteristic for a politician (see MARSHALL 1997).

3.3. Discussion

37Using Justin Trudeau as a case study, this article examines how Instagram’s distinct structural and functional capabilities can be used by politicians for visual political image-making and framing in the context of strategic narratives. As noted previously in this article, this social media platform is gaining traction among segments of the public in Canada and internationally and is an increasingly core component of politicians’ public outreach and engagement toolkit. This article takes a specific look at the ways in which Trudeau turned to Instagram to frame visually specific dimensions of his personal traits or attributes related to his political leadership image during his first year in office.

38While it was possible to identify seven key traits driving his political leadership narrative on Instagram, it can be argued that the overarching theme of the narrative was that he presented himself as an open, approachable, and authentic leader. As mentioned previously, while all images included in his Instagram posts during the time considered for this study were taken by a professional photographer, they do not - for the most part - create the impression of being staged and overly misleading. It can be argued that the overall narrative is adapted to the Instagram format (LALANCETTE and RAYNAULD 2019) and is likely to be of interest for a social media public yearning for a behind-the-scenes - or more informal and raw - look at politicians’ daily lives (MCGREGOR 2018). Trudeau answers these expectations by framing himself as a leader who is family-oriented, approachable, and relatable, but also involved in and in control of matters of importance to audiences at the local, provincial, national, and international levels. The visual framing used by Trudeau during his first year in office depicts a politician balancing the different qualities needed to perform in a coherent and constant way.

39While one key element of the visual framing approach that Trudeau deployed on Instagram was its appeal to social media audiences, it can be argued that it also played an important role in shaping some aspects of the mass media coverage he received during his first year in office. Indeed, pictures shared on his Instagram feed were regularly used by journalistic organizations and - on some occasions - impacted the tone of their coverage (see also MARLAND 2012). This trend might gain some traction in the future as traditional news media organizations are increasingly faced with financial and operational challenges. While many scholars are taking interest in some aspects of this dynamic, which is more broadly known as “intermedia agenda-setting” (e.g. ROGSTAD 2016; TOWNER and MUÑOZ 2018), more work is needed to fully unpack and understand these dynamics of visual political communication.

Conclusion

40Visual framing on Instagram is of particular interest because of the rapid intensification of dynamics of personalization of politics and permanent campaigning. As politicians are seeking to make their political appeals more personal, relatable and ongoing, the development of robust visual politicking strategies outside of elections allows them to foster and strengthen an almost personalized bond with members of the public. As mentioned previously, visual content is particularly well suited for this form of political communication as it tends to be captivating, emotional, and entertaining (ESSER 2008; SCHILL 2012). As text-based social media platforms’ popularity is plateauing and visual-centric platforms are gaining in importance among the general public (e.g. Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, Byte), politicians are likely to follow the audience to these digital media channels and will adapt their messaging accordingly.

41The work presented in this article lays the foundation for more research on visual political communication on social media. For example, scholars could take interest in Justin Trudeau’s use of other visual-centric social media platforms for visual political communication. It could be worth examining the ways in which and to what degree other Canadian elected officials, whether they are at the local, regional, provincial, or national level, use similar or different approaches to visual framing to introduce and shape their public leadership image. It would also be worthwhile to compare dynamics of visual political communication in Canada to those deployed by elected officials in other national contexts. This would help to gain a better understanding of the effects of elements of culture on visual politicking. Finally, more research could be done on uses of visuals by female elected officials for political communication on social media. This would be helpful in order to determine if the structuring elements of the visual construction of political leadership are similar or different.

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Notes

1 Political personalization can be defined as a phenomenon characterized by individual politicians becoming the primary gateway through which members of the general public are exposed to, learn about, understand, make sense of, and participate in all facets of political processes (BALMAS and SHEAFER 2014; 2015).

2 According to Rojek’s (2001) typology of celebrity styles, Trudeau can be viewed as a celebrity politician who inherited his fame from his family lineage.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Graph. 1 - Volume of weekly Instagram postings during the period considered for this study.
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Titre Fig. 1 - Instagram post shared on April 15, 2016 at 5:38pm
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Titre Fig. 2 - Instagram post shared on September 13, 2016 at 2:54pm
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Titre Fig. 3 - Instagram post shared on February 3, 2016 at 2:00pm
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Titre Fig. 5 - Instagram post shared on August 16, 2016 at 1:41pm
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Titre Fig. 10 - Instagram post shared on April 1, 2016 at 3:55pm
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Titre Fig. 12 - Instagram post shared on March 27, 2016 at 10:16pm
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Mireille Lalancette et Vincent Raynauld, « Politicking and Visual Framing on Instagram: A Look at the Portrayal of the Leadership of Canada’s Justin Trudeau »Études canadiennes / Canadian Studies, 89 | 2020, 257-290.

Référence électronique

Mireille Lalancette et Vincent Raynauld, « Politicking and Visual Framing on Instagram: A Look at the Portrayal of the Leadership of Canada’s Justin Trudeau »Études canadiennes / Canadian Studies [En ligne], 89 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 24 septembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/eccs/4273 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/eccs.4273

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Auteurs

Mireille Lalancette

Mireille Lalancette est professeure titulaire en communication politique à l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Elle a publié sur la construction de l’image médiatisée des politiciens, le genre et la représentation, et a étudié l’utilisation et l’impact des médias sociaux par les citoyens, les organisations populaires et les acteurs politiques canadiens. Chercheuse pour le Groupe de recherche en communication politique (GRCP), elle est l’auteure, avec Marie-Josée Drolet et Marie-Ève Caty, de l’ABC de largumentation pour les professionnels de la santé ou toute autre personne qui souhaite convaincre (PUQ). Elle est également l’éditrice, avec Vincent Raynauld et Erin Crandall, de Whats #Trending In Canadian Politics? Understanding Transformations in Power, Media, and the Public Sphere. (UBC Press). Ses travaux ont été publiés dans des publications de recherche canadiennes et internationales.

Vincent Raynauld

Vincent Raynauld est professeur agrégé au département de communication d’Emerson College et professeur associé au département de lettres et de communication sociale à l’université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Il est également chercheur associé au sein du Groupe de Recherche en Communication Politique (GRCP). Ses intérêts de recherche et de publication comprennent la communication et les campagnes politiques, la contestation politique, les médias sociaux le marketing politique, la politique en ligne et le journalisme. Ses travaux ont été publiés dans plusieurs revues scientifiques anglophones et francophones avec comités de lecture, dont Social Media + Society ; Terminal: technologie de linformation, culture & société ; Journal of Information Technology & Politics ; Information, Communication & Society et American Behavioral Scientist.

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