Selfie Diplomacy- Analyzing Profile Pictures of Leaders on Twitter

Studies have shown that profile pictures on social media serve two main functions. The first is the creation of an online identity. SNS users employ their profile picture to construct an identity and to communicate that identity to their online communities. Through images users can express their beliefs and values and identify the political movements or communities they belong to. In addition, profile pictures enable one to manage his/her online impression. Individuals can project a well-crafted image through their profile pictures. Be it an image of popularity, financial success or dedication to a place of employment.

An intriguing question is what profile pictures do national leaders employ on social media? This is an interesting question as national leaders hold three key positions. First, they are national politicians. They belong to a party and often head a coalition of parties. Leaders may thus use social media to manage their domestic political brand. Second, national leaders are heads of state. They personify the nation state when attending national ceremonies, international summits and global sporting events. They are also the leaders of entire nations, and not just one political bloc. Thus, their profile pictures may be used to highlight their status as personified states. Finally, national leaders advance a state’s interests on the global stage. As social media is often used by diplomats and leaders to communicate with foreign populations, their profile images may help create an international brand. Some leaders, such as Justin Trudeau, Narendra Modi or even George W. Bush became global brands, be it due to certain values they espouse or due to foreign policy blunders.

I first examined leaders’ profile images on Twitter in 2016. I found that many world leaders employed profile pictures that ‘looked to the future’. Such was the case with leaders depicted among children, or future generations. Other leaders used profile pictures to send domestic, political messages. Such was the case with leaders whose profile pictures captured them interacting with diverse audiences in terms of ethnicity and gender. A third category included profile pictures that focused on leadership. In these profile pictures, leaders were often depicted addressing a crowd with the national flag flying in the background.

This week I decided to return to my sample of 57 world leaders and re-examine their profile pictures. I sought to understand how leaders’ profile pictures may have altered as leaders increasingly use social media for political and diplomatic communications. Some leaders such as Trump, Biden and Modi have tens of millions of followers. In addition, I wondered if leaders were using profile images to comment on the Covid19 pandemic, a personal, national and international crisis that breeds instability across the world.

In my analysis, I found that leaders’ profile pictures on Twitter could be grouped into five categories. The first category included leaders who use profile pictures to send Covid-related political messages. One prime example is US President Biden whose picture includes the statement “America’s Back Together” while 4th of July fireworks light the sky. The political message here refers to the Biden administration’s success in vaccinating, and gradually reopening America. Another example came from the UK Prime Minister’s Twitter account where the profile picture is used to advance the UK government’s new policy of ‘living with Covid’ and easing public restrictions. Living with Covid includes enjoying free air, being tested in case of symptoms, using masks and regularly washing hands.  

Category Number 1: Covid-political Messaging

The second, and most prevalent category included leaders whose Twitter profile picture showed them wearing masks . These profile pictures may serve three purposes. First, they depict the national leader as setting an example that the nation should follow, as might be the case with the French President Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau. Second, these images may also suggest that national leaders are working hard to manage Covid at both the national and international level. Covid is so central to their current role, that a face mask becomes their calling card. Such may be the case with Indonesia’s leader. Third, leaders may be depicted wearing masks to send a message to international audiences. This is especially true of leaders and governments who have been accused of mishandling Covid, or whose nations have made headlines due to an influx in national Covid cases. Such is the case with the profile picture of Prime Minister Modi, shown below.  

Category Number 2: Masked Leaders

A third category included institutional profile pictures, or pictures that center on the leader as the official head of state. In these instances, leaders’ profile pictures might include other government ministers, national flags, the seat of government, the Presidential Palace and even, in some occasions, simply an image of the national emblem. One notable example is the current profile picture of Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, which consists solely of the state emblem.

Category Number 3: Institutional Pictures

A fourth category, which was also identified in 2016, included political branding. In these instances, leaders use profile pictures to shape their political persona. Some profile pictures include images from election victories. One notable example is Poland’s leader. In other pictures, national leaders are depicted during party functions. Such is the case with New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, seen optimistic and smiling with the logo of the Labor party behind her. Arden herself is surrounded by other political figures yet she is at center stage. Uganda’s leader is depicted as walking across the country promoting his political platform while Pope Francis is surrounded by adoring crowds shaping his image as the popular Pope.

Category Number 4: Political Branding

A final category, which was not identified in 2016 included personal profile pictures. Here the leader is depicted as yet another social media user. These images may be used to make national leaders more personable and to offer global publics a ‘behind the scenes look’ at  international leadership. The King of Jordan, for instance, is surrounded by his family while wearing casual clothes. This is not an image of regal supremacy but of family life. The Prime Minister of Finland, on other hand, is depicted standing on an average street on an average day. She has none of the trappings of political power- no stage, podium or banner. Just a smile and a gentle breeze flowing through her hair. Other leaders with  personal profile pictures included the Lithuanian President and Rwanda’s President. These images are emblematic of a larger shift in diplomatic messaging as Ambassadors, Consuls and even directors of intelligence agencies increasingly use social media to offer followers a glimpse into their personal lives. This transforms Ambassadors into individuals that followers can relate to, and listen to.

Category Number 5: Leaders’ Personal Lives

To summarize, this post demonstrates that over the course of five years, leaders’ use of Twitter profile pictures has altered. The majority of leaders are no longer depicted in global summits, or in political settings. The majority of evaluated leaders used their profile picture to comment on Covid19, be it through political messages or images of leaders  wearing masks. Another prevalent category that did not exist in 2016 includes personal profile pictures in which the leader does not personify the state but personifies an average social media user, with a familiar daily life. That said, as was the case in 2016, some leaders’ profile pictures did cast them as official heads of state or as political leaders. 

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