What Makes Politicians’ Instagram Posts Popular? Analyzing Social Media Strategies of Candidates and Office Holders with Computer Vision

Peng, Yilang
The International Journal of Press/Politics

Previous research on the success of politicians’ messages on social media has so far focused on a limited number of platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter, and predominately studied the effects of textual content. This research reported here applies computer vision analysis to a total of 59,020 image posts published by 172 Instagram accounts of U.S. politicians, both candidates and office holders, and examines how visual attributes influence audience engagement such as likes and comments. In particular, this study introduces an unsupervised approach that combines transfer learning and clustering techniques to discover hidden categories from large-scale visual data. The results reveal that different self-personalization strategies in visual media, for example, images featuring politicians in private, nonpolitical settings, showing faces, and displaying emotions, generally increase audience engagement. Yet, a significant portion of politician’s Instagram posts still fell into the traditional, “politics-as-usual” type of political communication, showing professional settings and activities. The analysis explains how self-personalization is embodied in specific visual portrayals and how different self-presentation strategies affect audience engagement on a popular but less studied social media platform.