LOG IN TO ADD A COMMENT: USING SOCIAL NETWORKING WEBSITES IN CAPTURING PUBLIC OPINION ON EDITORIAL CARTOON THEMES.
By: Jimoh, Ganiyu A.
Being paper delivered at the 7th Annual University of Lagos Research and Conference Fair, held between 19th and 21st October, 2011
Cartoon is a propaganda weapon that shapes public opinion and a challenge to the political and social system. It has been established that editorial cartoons affect public opinion and can be used to influence the public on several societal issues. A good reference on this is the Prophet Mohammed Cartoon crisis in 2005 which claimed more than three thousand lives across the globe.
Despite the rhetorical nature of cartoons, it is difficult to capture the audiences’ view on how each cartoon gradually build up their opinions before it leads to collective actions or reactions.
This research focuses on the study of cartoon as a form of ‘visual rhetoric’ through the use of social networking website as a medium of data collection.
Cartoons that address economic, historical, cultural and socio-political issues were uploaded on Facebook (a Social Networking Website) between March 2008 and March 2012, the audience were allowed to pass comments on the cartoons and the themes they address. The comments/feedbacks were downloaded and qualitatively analysed.
It is discovered that social networking websites play a significant role in capturing feedbacks from the audience and getting their unbiased opinion. The research also shows that cartoons reach wider audience through the internet and can easily affect public opinion.
It is anticipated that this study will provide an avenue to capture feedbacks from respondents as regards the study of cartoons. Also, editorial cartoonists can utilise the internet as a platform of taking their ‘sensitive’ political cartoons to the targeted audience and bypass the ‘bottleneck’ of having to be endorsed by Newspaper editors before being published.
Keywords: Cartoons, Art and Politics, Cartoon and rhetoric, Cartoon and Public Opinion, Cartoon and Facebook, Social Networking Site and cartoons.
“When common or shared understanding of a phenomenon is under investigation, mass media representation in general, and cartoon images in particular, are useful reference materials for sociological, historical, or semantic research. Because they represent what is said in the public arena, they might be superior to polls, which can construct rather than report public opinion. Cartoons are a legitimate, interesting, and engaging source of data.”
-------- Giarelli and Tulham, 2003
Most people, young and old, have some familiarities with cartoons, from comics and graphic illustrations in books, to the ‘funnies’ and editorial cartoons found in newspapers around the world. Cartoons can amuse, inform, educate, entertain and have messages that provide current social commentary on the world around (Walker, 2003).
The word ‘cartoon’ is derived from the Italian word ‘cartone’ meaning ‘paper’, the term was used by painters for preliminary drawings on paper which were then transferred, either through tracing or punching, on to a surface which may be a ceiling, a large canvas or a wall (
Jegede, 1990: 2 and Adekanmbi, 1997: 7). In the present usage, the word cartoon is used loosely to describe any drawing published originally in a periodical that makes its own point, with or without a caption. The uniqueness of a cartoon can be clearly distinguished from an illustration or sketch, in that the cartoon strip or comic strip usually tells a story and often appears in periodical publications, whereas an illustration simply illuminates a scene or point accompanying an extended text in a publication.
Editorial cartoon also called political cartoon[i] is a type of cartoon that is satirical by nature, using humour to draw attention to a significant socio-political issue and are usually featured on the editorial page of newspapers (Jimoh, 2010). According to Agberia (1993: 10), Editorial cartoons are designed to satirise current political matters and offer subtle criticism cleverly coated with humour and satire. The common features of such cartoons are a good grasp of current affairs, clearly identifying political issues and problems that are local and international, deft craftsmanship and skills in snappy graphic language (Olaniyan, 2000: 4).
Editorial cartoons are important media for the formation of public opinion on salient social issues (Everette, 1974; Vinson, 1967). They are seen as "both opinion-moulding and opinion-reflecting" (Caswell, 2004; 14), and they provide subtle frameworks within which to examine the life and political processes of a nation (DeSousa & Medhurst, 1982).
On this note Abraham, (2009) posits that:
Cartoons are intended to transform otherwise complex and opaque social events and situations into quick and easily readable depictions that facilitate comprehension of the nature of social issues and events. In doing so, they present society with visually palpable and hyper-ritualized depictions (selectively exaggerated portions of 'reality') that attempt to reveal the essence and meaning of social events.
Consequently, Cartoons are a legitimate, interesting, and engaging source of data for sociological, historical, or semantic research ( Giarelli and Tulham, 2003 ).
This paper examines editorial cartoons as a means through which public opinion could be framed and also investigates effective channel of collecting these opinions. It takes a cursory assessment of the functions of cartoons posited by cartoon scholars and situates these in the context of cartoon as tool of visual rhetoric[ii].
The internet is investigated as a platform of publishing editorial cartoons and the researcher maintains that for the channel to be used effectively as a tool for data collection the respondents must be made to react voluntarily and their opinions, arguments and dialogue build gradually the way they would in responding to daily events in reality[iii]. This criterion fosters on the use of social networking websites in opinion data collection on cartoons and Facebook is found appropriate for this study.
It should however be noted that this research is not concerned about publishing cartoons on the internet through personal websites, this to the researcher is not effective in reaching out to large numbers of audiences and their responses are also limited and selective[iv].
In carrying out this research, 46 editorial cartoons on social, economic and political state of the country (Nigeria) were uploaded on Facebook over a four year period; 2008 to 2012. Comments from the respondents were qualitatively analysed and situated in the context of the themes of the cartoons and events in the country.
It is discovered that editorial cartoons have opinion moulding attributes and could be investigated for rhetoric qualities. The gradual build-up of public opinions on societal issues can be dissected and their consequent actions can also be predicted. The channel through which the data were captured also proofed effective in gathering public opinions. Through this channel, editorial cartoonists could also reach more audiences and bypass editorial biases that are rampant with traditional mode of publishing cartoons.
Functions of Editorial Cartoon
DeSousa and Medhurst (1982) identify four main functions of editorial cartoons: an entertainment function, which derives from the ability of cartoons to make one laugh at situations and individuals: secondly, an aggression-reduction function, which derives from the fact that cartoons provide a symbolic avenue for the public to vent its frustrations against social leaders: the third is an agenda- setting function, through providing readers with a sense of the most salient issues and topics in society; and the last, a framing function, the product of its spatial limitation (its condensed nature) and therefore its need to distil complex social issues into a single frame that captures the essence of an issue. The authors contend, "The major function of cartoons for readers however, is as a frame for encompassing complex issues and events" (1984; 205).
Williams (1997) further concurs that “cartoons are part of a mediated filtering system that helps construction and framing of social reality”. The mass media have a major role in denning social issues (Spector & Kitsuse, 1977; Best, 1995). Their representations constitute ways of knowing, articulating, and interpreting different facets of our environment, and thus ways of exerting knowledge and power in society (Fiske, 1996). Editorial cartoons, as an integral part of the media, also play an important role in this process. While they occupy a very limited space in the print media, they are considered as playing a very important role in the editorial content of newspaper (Ursitti & Nordin, 1995).
Editorial Cartoon and Public Opinion
Coupe (1969; 82) argues that, "like all journalists, the cartoonist is concerned with the creation and manipulation of public opinion." Cartoons are considered social and political commentary (Pieper & Clear, 1995) and provide a safe avenue for expressing opinions (Conners, 1995). They are journalistic visual commentary designed to influence readers in particular ways. While news reporters, emphasising professional goals of value neutrality and objectivity, strive to create reports, the content of which are "deliberately void of meaningful interpretations of events" (Streicher, 1967:439), cartoonists are free to choose sides.
Caswell (2004:15) sees cartoons as "rhetorical devices, persuasive communication analogous to print editorials and op-ed columns that are intended to influence readers."
Cartoons, therefore, reveal themselves as more explicitly political and constructed rather than as attempts at objective renditions of social events. The cartoonist or caricaturist as an image constructor has the goal of purposefully condensing often very complex meanings "into a single configuration, a striking image" (Streicher, 1967; 434). Within a much abbreviated amount of space, they interpret nations, figures and events (Streicher; 438).
However, Creenberg (2002; 181) notes that, "Sociologists normally dismiss their ideological import on the grounds that cartoons simply offer newsreaders absurd accounts of putative 'problem' conditions and are not likely to be taken seriously." But at the core of the slight and criticism is a consideration of the effectiveness of cartoons as a medium for orienting the public's understanding of social issues. For example, Robert Meadows contends: As elements of the popular culture they are the most explicitly political. But to the extent they offer only a passing chuckle rather than a deep reflection on government, political cartoons and comics offer limited political significance compared to other elements of the popular culture (1980/2003, cited in DeSousa & Medhurst, 1982; 85).
On the other hand, when E. H. Gombrich (1985; 130) contends that "the cartoon is the heir to the symbolic art of the Middle Ages ... when the didactic image was intended by the Church to teach the illiterate layman the sacred word," he expresses a sentiment that runs counter to those expressed by Meadows[v]. He suggests that cartoons are often ignored as a viable tool of opinion moulding because many sociologists are "quite happy to leave these puzzling and ugly images to the historian who may know how to un-riddle their recondite allusions to long-forgotten issues and events" (1985; 127).
This suggests levels of complexity that may mask the "deep reflection" that cartoons are capable of offering on social issues. It is in the nature of cartoons to be complex. They are intended to condense and reduce complex issues into a single, memorable image often ‘pregnant’ with deeply embedded meanings. As Gombrich notes, cartoons fuse disparate elements that "results in an unfamiliar and weird configuration which may hide a lot of sense" (Gombrich, 1985: 130).
To agree with Abraham (2009) assertion, “It would seem that the problem with cartoons is not so much the "lack of deep reflection," but rather how to "un-riddle" the "deep reflection" they may bide. One would not argue with Meadows' assertion that cartoons offer "chuckles"; they are intended to be humorous, and they often make one laugh. But their humorous appeal often derives from an appreciation and deconstruction of complexity: "It is in this condensation of a complex idea in one striking and memorable image that one finds the continued appeal of this great cartoon.
In this light, Diamond (2002) argues that “as political symbols, editorial cartoons employ a range of potential rhetorical tools to define actors and processes of political and societal culture. Although caricature is one of these tools, one that is often directed at the powerful, cartoonists may employ metaphors, narratives, and other devices to create imagined worlds inhabited by other characters in the political scene (Edwards, 1997). These imagined worlds transcend the function of entertainment.
Although editorial cartoons may delight and entertain, more importantly, they tap into the process of creating what might be termed a national imaginary, or fantasia, that substitutes “thinkability” for reason in peoples’ means of organising information (Edwards, 2001). As a result, editorial cartoons condense the meaning of events, personas, and actions into tableaus that provide “thinkability”. Cartoonists define political realities by creating a political world inhabited by the imagined words and actions of real people and representative characters, and these commentators invite us to participate in the “thinkability” of their tableaus. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy demonstrates the power of editorial cartoons to affect public opinion[vi].
The rhetorical devices used in political cartoons can be used to define social groups (Greenberg, 2002); convey values, attitudes, and beliefs (Cahn, 1984); and reveal “the interrelationships of people, events, and power” (DeSousa & Medhurst, 84). This last, according to DeSousa & Medhurst, is the primary sociological function of the political cartoon, which is essentially “a culture-creating, culture-maintaining, and culture-identifying artifact” (84).
Statement of the problems
Despite the perception that cartoons constitute an important medium for framing social issues, they are often dismissed on the grounds of political absurdity and ideological insignificance (Abraham, 2009). E. H. Gombrich, in his 1985 article "The Cartoonist's Armory," commented on the extent to which political cartoons have been slighted as an important medium to be studied.
It is agreed that how a story is framed has the great potential of determining how effectively the message communicates its meanings (Entman, 1993), Greenberg (2000; 2002), discussing the media's role in the construction of social issues, notes that "different modes of news discourse (e,g, 'hard' as opposed to 'opinion' news) solicit different kinds of attitudinal or behavioural 'effects'" from audiences.
Research on the effect of political cartoons on public opinion is incomplete and inconclusive. Few scholars have studied the extent to which readers’ opinions are influenced by the views expressed by cartoonists (or vice versa). While at least one small-scale study suggested that editorial cartoons could cause opinion change (Brinkman, 1968), others (Carl 1968, 1970) discovered that readers seldom received the meaning that the cartoonist was attempting to express. It seems that interpretation of cartoons can be rather subjective.
However, this apparent disconnect between message and reception -- though it requires far more scholarly research to be confirmed or denied -- does not necessarily make cartoons insignificant rather the lack of effective tool of retrieving instantaneous audiences’ feedbacks poses the major obstacle. Because most editorial/political cartoons respond to current events that affects the audience at that particular moment, it is logically and psychologically pertinent to get their opinion at the particular moment as well, not after.
As Walker (2003) notes,
…cartoons are ‘inscriptions’ of a moment in time which is best understood during the same period in time illustrated by the cartoon. The more time passes, the more likely that the cartoon will be understood differently than when it first appeared. On the one hand, the cartoon has an immediate sociological resonance by providing a representation of “now”….the temporal nature of cartoons, therefor, is also limiting to their longevity, a fact which has led to the underestimation of the power of the political cartoon
Most traditional tools of gathering opinions on editorial cartoons are not only limiting because they lack the means of capturing the ‘instantaneity’ of the temporal nature of not only the cartoons as observed by Walker, but also the interactions between the cartoons and the audience as determined by the event of the moment.
Purpose of the study
The purposes of this study are to:
- explore social networking websites as a channel through which public opinion on editorial cartoon themes could be captured.
- establish the rhetorical nature of editorial cartoons.
- investigate how the public dissect, digest and react to events that are being re-enacted in cartoon illustrations.
Based on the existing literature, the specific research questions devised for exploration in this study are as follows:
- do editorial cartoons influence public opinion?
- could public opinion on editorial cartoons be captured instantaneously?
- Is social networking website a viable means of publishing editorial cartoons?
Significance of the study
This study is significant not only in cartoon scholarship but also in the study that requires capturing respondents’ feedbacks using the ‘real time’ social networking websites. Researchers (like Polvika 1988, Clarke 1999, Warburton and Saunders, 1996 etc.) have established the use of cartoons in other professions like medicine, economics and teaching. Devising appropriate means of collecting respondents’ moods on these data which this research focuses on is vital in carrying out scholarly investigation in those fields because capturing relevant public opinions on cartoon themes has always been a setback due to the use of conventional methods of survey research.
Also, this research, investigates new channels of cartoon publishing for the editorial cartoonists. Most cartoonists in the contemporary period are restricted through editorial censorship to publish their objective commentary on the state of the polity in their societies.
In carrying out this research, forty six editorial cartoons addressing different societal issues were uploaded on the internet between a four-year periods ( click here to see the cartoons and comments ). This period (March 2008 to March 2012) witnessed several topical issues in the country; the ailment and eventual death of the late President Umar Yardua, the politics of Presidential race, the Boko Haram saga, Petrol Subsidy removal etc.
This research employs the use of Facebook social networking website as a platform of publishing the editorial cartoons. The choice of Facebook is found appropriate for this investigation because it is one of the social networking sites with the highest numbers of users. Launched in February 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and his college roommates, Facebook has more than 900 million active users as at April 2012[vii]. The site does not only allow user interactions on images posted on the site, it also allows maximum of 5,000 friends to be added on one’s friends list and friends of friends can also pass their comments on uploaded images. Users must register before using the site, after which they may create a personal profile, add other users as friends, and exchange messages, including automatic notifications when they update their profile.
Additionally, users may join common-interest user groups, organised by workplace, school or college, or other characteristics. With its availability on many mobile devices, Facebook allows users to continuously stay in touch with friends, relatives and other acquaintances wherever they are in the world, as long as there is access to the Internet. These make the website suitable for this investigation.
The cartoons were uploaded and users were allowed to add comments spontaneously. Over 1879 comments were generated over this period of time with each cartoon generating an average of thirty feedbacks. These were captured and downloaded through screen shot software; snipping tool[viii]
A qualitative document analysis of the cartoons and feedbacks were carried out. Qualitative content and document analysis is a useful tool for the study of cartoons and other visual texts because it enables researchers to discover, compare and contrast ‘relevant situations, settings, styles, images, meanings and nuances’ (Altheide, 1987: 8). For this study, a protocol based on Altheide’s (1996) qualitative document analysis was developed. The unit of analysis was the cartoon. The following items were coded: the theme of each cartoon, captions and written texts, type of cartoon (single-panel or comic strip), the date of publication and the audiences’ comments.
This study indicates that the audience understanding of the thematic cluster of an editorial cartoon depends largely on their familiarity with the event which is being presented by the cartoonist[ix]. Though most respondents find all the cartoons amusing, they nevertheless, through their dialogue made some decisive views on the state of the social-political realities in the society[x]. Their feedbacks reinforced the functions of editorial cartoon as posit by DeSousa and Medhurst (1982); as entertainment, aggression-reduction , an agenda- setting and as a frame for encompassing complex issues and events" (205).
The investigation also shows that opinion of the public can be measured accurately and instantaneously on cartoon themes without editorial censorship barrier that are the bane of conventional approach in cartoon and audience opinion research. The cartoons were published on the internet objectively without any media screening and the respondents added their comments freely in response to the realities of their society.
This study has established that:
- Editorial cartoons can influence public opinion and could be regarded as a form of visual rhetoric.
- Public opinions can be captured instantaneously and analysed accurately through the use of social networking website.
This study which investigates the process of capturing public opinion on editorial cartoon themes shows that cartoons are viable tools of propaganda and can highly influence what the public perceive about a phenomenon. It argues that for captured opinions to be valid they must be captured instantaneously and the platform to be used must allow natural ‘build-up’ of conversation.
The research finds social networking websites appropriate for carrying out opinion research and also discovered that they serve as a great platform for publishing cartoons.
[i] The words “editorial cartoon” and “political cartoon” have the same connotations and many studies including this one use the terms interchangeably.
[ii] Though it is observed through the review of relevant literatures on cartoon scholarship that the effectiveness of editorial cartoons as a viable tool of opinion moulding is contestable, this study however argues that it is the means of primary data collection that undermines the study and not the data itself.
[iii] See appendix ( screen shots of the captured comments )
[iv] Several websites and blogs (like wonkie.com, artwriteups.com, caglepost.com, zapiro.com, ziba.oldiblog.com etc.) where cartoonists publish their works exist. These websites are limited in reaching wider audience. Though some sites like caglepost.com and wonkie.com expand their coverage by providing service of sending cartoon via emails for free, it does not ensure adequate interactivity on the cartoons the way it would on a social networking websites.
[v] For extensive arguments on cartoons and opinion framing see Effectiveness of Cartoons as a Uniquely Visual Medium for Orienting Social Issues by Linus Abrham
[vi] In 2005, over 3000 people were killed across the globe during a religious riot fuelled by a Danish editorial cartoon publication which satirized the Islamic religion leader, Mohammed (S.A.W ).
[viii] A software embedded in Microsoft Windows7 and later, that allows screen contents to be captured and downloaded as a photograph.
[ix] See appendix, ( comments )
[x] See appendix