Is political video more powerful than text?

We are about to bombarded with hundreds of thousands of political images, ads and videos.

In the period between now and when Scott Morrison calls the election many of them will be paid for by taxpayers just as he has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years on supposedly informational ads which actually promote his government.

Many of them, if run by the private sector, would probably have breached the Trade Practices laws.

But what if images are not as politically powerful as we all believe? It’s counter intuitive particularly given the huge influence of social media and the ubiquity of commercial advertising.

The question at issue is whether political advertising is actually different from other forms of advertising and whether visual and video political advertising is as effective as traditional forms of political communication such as text.

A year or so ago four US academics set out to evaluate the relative persuasive advantages of political video over text. Chloe Wittenberg, Ben M. Tappin, Adam J. Berinsky and David G. Rand various MIT schools tested the question.

In a PNAS 2021 paper they said: “With the rise of social media, video is more important than ever as a means of political persuasion. Although video has long been a popular tool for political communications, video-sharing sites such as YouTube have created new opportunities for individuals to seek out and encounter political content online.”

They suggest understanding more about this is increasingly important given AI’s ability to generate deep fake videos of events that never occurred.

The authors undertook a literature search which, despite the beliefs of many, indicated that surprisingly little research has so far has examined whether the power of video assumption applies in the political context.

They say: “Outside the domain of politics, a long line of research has yielded conclusive findings regarding the impact of video versus text on the recall of factual information, engagement with and attention to message content, and opinion change.”

They argue that within a political context the relative impact of video versus text is still (surprisingly) an open question although pointing out that some scholars have argued that “video’s audio-visual components can improve the recall political information and facilitate persuasion, others suggest that textual information may more effectively mobilize political action.”

In contrast their literature search showed that while video “can cause sizable and lasting changes in policy attitudes video-based persuasion – particularly in the form of political advertising – seems to have, at most, small and short-lived effects on candidate evaluations and voting intentions.”

The authors concede that this previous research employed different methodologies and focussed on policy attitudes where pre-existing beliefs are significant. “It remains unclear whether political video can meaningfully persuade the pubic, and if so, whether its effects exceed those of equivalent text modalities,” they said.

Their methodology involved drawing a theoretical distinction between two dimensions for which video could be more effective – one’s belief that a depicted event actually occurred and the extent to which one’ attitudes and behaviour are changed. They used a sample size of 7209 and exposed participants to a selection of politically persuasive messaging across a diverse range of clips: a short video, a detailed transcript of the video or a control condition.

The findings: people were more likely to believe an event occurred if presented in video form versus text but the impact on attitudes and behavioural intentions was much smaller.

Their conclusion: “Across two large-scale randomised experiments, we find clear evidence that ‘seeing is believing’: individuals are more likely to believe an event took place when shown video versus textual form. When it comes to persuasion, however, the advantage of video is markedly less pronounced, with only small effects on attitudes and behavioural intentions” challenging “some popular narratives about the unparalleled persuasiveness of political video versus text.”

As the PNAS article headline puts: The (minimal) persuasive advantage of political video over text.

As our election comes nearer it is worth remembering the enormous power of text in getting Morrison into Parliament in the first place. In this case it was blatant and misleading headlines, articles and propaganda- amplified by the Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph – which allowed Morrison to reverse his overwhelming defeat by Michael Towke in the first pre-selection ballot for the seat he now holds.

For a quick recap on how it all happened a combination of image, text and sound which might also help you reflect on the puzzle.

The PNAS research was, as usual, brought to the author’s attention by hisfriend John Spitzer.