Infographics are practically everywhere, but if you’re looking for sheer volume, look to the issues. There’s good reason for this: infographics are the perfect succinct, persuasive tools. They’re flashy, fun to look at, easy to post or share, and they simplify a complicated issue into something digestible. There may be some nuance lost in these visualizations. They may be so biased and offensive you click directly away. But inciting your passion, anger, frustration, or interest is exactly the point: these visualizations are designed to spark conversation, to engage viewers in debate. There’s no more obvious forum for this type of graphic-driven conversation than Facebook, where users post, share, and comment all day and night, all over the world. Here are some of the ways visualizations are shaping our public discourse on the social networks.
Rallying Support: Building a Following
Social networks are the ideal places to preach to the converted and rally the troops, because one vocal supporter is never just one vocal supporter. Every user has her “friends” and the majority of those friends will probably share her political views – re-posting compelling political visualizations they see in her feed. But friends that disagree are valuable too, even when the goal is to build support. The more engaged people are with an issue, the more likely they are to care about taking action, even if that action goes no further than sharing an image they hate. This is how memes spread, and it’s how public opinion changes over time. The “War on Women” infographic below is designed to fire up supporters and dissenters alike.
The Call to Action
The most effective support-rallying infographics include a call to action that compels viewers to do something: make a donation, sign a petition, write to a senator, or in some other way move beyond the social network with their support. The image below, and ones like it, flooded Facebook in the wake of the Newtown shooting in Connecticut — and Congress was flooded with phone calls.
Ongoing Political Education: Arab Spring
Data visualizations played an important role in the mobilization of a global response to uprisings in the Arab world. In the midst of the violence, protestors and dissidents used Twitter to organize. Everywhere else, visualizations of the situation – where protests were happening, the sites of extreme violence, and maps of connectivity – helped educate the public about day-to-day developments, and about the wider-reaching implications of the political upheaval and violence. The timeline below is just one example of how infographics continue to educate the public about these important events.
Effective Issue Narratives to Convert the Non-Believer
Crafting an effective narrative is always important in an infographic, but political messages must do more than tell a story well. That story has to be convincing without being offensive – convincing and inoffensive enough to sway the opinion of a person who has already made up her mind. Unlike rallying support infographics, these visualizations aren’t created for the believer. They are designed to reach across the aisle with measured, reasoned argument. The “Legalizing Marijuana” infographic below starts by framing the issue in its history with facts that educate the viewer. No viewer is alienated by this education-based approach. The piece ends with some persuasive negatives: points that emphasize the benefits of legalizing marijuana and the costs of keeping it illegal. It’s clearly pro-legalization but contains no vitriol or inciting sensationalism.
The Symbolic Profile Picture
Our online lives have allowed us to publicly align ourselves with ideologies in many ways. One of the crowd favorites: changing Facebook profile pictures to express solidarity. These images aren’t narrative infographics but they do symbolize a narrative. For example, the marriage equality symbol – the two parallel pink bars on a red background – has taken over Facebook news feeds in recent weeks. The symbol represents a user’s support for marriage equality at a time when the Supreme Court is making a potentially game changing decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. The narrative is implied: the long fight for gay rights legislation and marriage equality in this country. And the call to action is implied too: announce your support to your personal sphere of influence, your Facebook community. Anni Murray is a writer, editor, multimedia artist, amateur mycologist, and biology student. She is currently working on Prism, a speculative science fiction story cycle. All opinions expressed in this article are her own. Follow her on Twitter.