The Power of Images, Real and Assumed

In the last couple of weeks we've seen two interesting examples of the power of images to change public discussion in a way facts alone often can't. I'm talking, of course, about the video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee unconscious in an elevator, and the images of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff just before they were beheaded by ISIS. You can say that images have a unique power, which is true in some ways but often overstated in others. What's indisputable though, and evident in both these cases, is that the dissemination of a powerful image makes powerful people change the decisions they make. And that can be what changes everything.

Let's talk about Foley and Sotloff first. There's a narrative developing which says that the American people were tired of war and reluctant to act against ISIS, then they saw the pictures of those two Americans moments before their brutal murders, and that hardened their hearts and gave them the thirst for revenge that fed support for military action.

As my Washington Post colleague Greg Sargent has argued, there's been some selective reading of the polls to make the case that Americans are suddenly gung-ho about war. (For the moment, majorities are happy with air strikes, which are perceived as zero-risk, but don't want ground troops deployed.) But even if that's true for now, what often happens is that once the images get reproduced endlessly in the media, elite actors begin acting on the presumption that everything has changed. For instance, here's an article from last week by Peter Beinart, in which he discusses the "Jacksonian" tendency in American life, "the peculiar combination of jingoism and isolationism forged on the American frontier."

In narrow policy terms, the arguments for military intervention have not improved over the last two weeks. It's still not clear if Iraq's government is inclusive enough to take advantage of American attacks and wean Sunnis from ISIS. It's even less clear if the U.S. can bomb ISIS in Syria without either empowering Assad or other Sunni jihadist rebel groups.

But politically, that doesn't matter. What's causing this Jacksonian eruption is the sight of two terrified Americans, on their knees, about to be beheaded by masked fanatics. Few images could more powerfully stoke Jacksonian rage. The politicians denouncing Obama for lacking a "strategy" against ISIS may not have one either, but they have a gut-level revulsion that they can leverage for political gain. "Bomb the hell out of them!" exclaimed Illinois Senator Mark Kirk on Tuesday. "We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age," added Texas Senator Ted Cruz. These aren't policy prescriptions. They are cries for revenge.

True enough. What then happens is that Republican voters see Republican politicians demanding military action, and follow their cues. It isn't necessary for vast numbers of people to have actually been persuaded on an individual basis by viewing those pictures to change their minds about the wisdom of large-scale military action; it's enough for the pictures to start a process that results in the change.

That isn't to say that dramatic images don't actually stick in our memory more than mundane images, because experimental research shows that they do. But they stick in our collective memory not so much because of their inherent power to imprint themselves on our brains, but because they get shown to us again and again. And the more powerful people see the image in the media, the more they assume it's changing people's minds, and the more they react.

Sometimes that's a good thing. For instance, if reports of the torture at Abu Ghraib hadn't been accompanied by vivid, grisly photos, not only would the situation not have gotten as much attention—don't forget that the existence of the images gives news outlets a reason to talk about the story and a visual to accompany those discussions—it's almost certainly true that the Bush administration would have felt less pressure to act to address the abuses.

Something similar happened with the Ray Rice video. NFL and Baltimore Ravens officials knew the facts of Rice's beating of his then-fiancee when they decided to suspend him for two games. When the video was released, did they actually change their opinion of the seriousness of his actions? I doubt it. What's much more likely is that they saw all the coverage the video was getting and made the assumption that the public would be much more horrified by the image than by the facts, and so they made the decision to take more serious action against him.

To return to ISIS, we don't yet know how significant this military operation is going to be. But the story that will be told afterward is that it was the pictures of Foley and Sotloff that started the next American war (if that's what it turns out to be). That story isn't false, but it's as much about how powerful people assumed other people would react to the images as it is about the way everyone actually reacted to them. 

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