If you were Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, would you choose the top picture or bottom picture above to represent your campaign?
You may have heard about the recent controversy sparked by the Google image search for “three black teenagers” versus “three white teenagers.” The troubling results raise questions about racial bias in society, and whether that is reflected or perpetuated by the media.
Here at PoliticalBank, we stumbled across a similar phenomenon involving Google images for the people seeking to be the leader of the free world: the three main presidential candidates. Simply looking at the cascade of top results, it’s easy to spot some key differences in the nature of the photos of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders right off the bat. The first thing that struck us is how much more frequently Hillary is shown smiling in her photo results vs. her competitors. So we decided to dig in and quantify these differences.
We analyzed the top 100 Google image search results for each candidate as of June 17th, categorizing the portrayal of each photo into one of five options:
A clear expression of passionate outrage, usually indicated by the angle of the eyebrows.
This is when the candidate has a pretty neutral expression, neither smiling nor upset and often when speaking or addressing an audience. Unfortunately, a photo taken at the wrong instant during a speech can capture a pretty weird face, so sometimes we had to choose between Serious and Unflattering, the last category.
A genuine smile, usually the kind that “reaches the eyes” and shows teeth.
This category was sometimes difficult to distinguish from Smiling, and while it could also be interpreted as simply showing confidence, we felt that this expression usually has more of a negative connotation involving condescension, haughtiness, or pride.
This is a broad category that includes a whole range of expressions that don’t show the candidates in a positive light, from alarmed to kooky to disappointed to bored.
Now, our study certainly wasn’t very scientific, but as a non-partisan organization, we strove to be as objective and fair as possible. If we were ever torn between two categories, we did a gut check purely on our reading of the expression. If debating between a positive or negative portrayal, we’d ask ourselves, “Would the candidate choose this as their main campaign photo?”
And here are the results of our study.
Clinton’s photos showed anger far less frequently than Trump or Sanders. Perhaps that’s a reflection of how Clinton chooses to carry herself. There are many studies that show that angry women are viewed less favorably than angry men. This may go hand-in-hand with why her Google results show so many more smiling photos. After all, part of her platform – albeit a small one – is that she is a grandmother. However, many of her photos in the unflattering category show her taking smiles a little too far.
Clinton’s results also have the highest number of smirking photos, which is not very surprising considering that many people do not trust her; in a May New York Times/CBS News poll, 64% of voters said she is not honest or trustworthy. Media outlets seem to reinforce this perception by choosing to display smirking photos of her.
Of Donald Trump’s top 100 Google image results, only two of them involve smiles. Of course, Trump has never really gone for a friendly or cuddly image. He also has the highest percentage of serious photos, reflecting his platform of being tough as well as, perhaps, his efforts to overcome his perceived lack of presidential qualifications; in a May Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58% rated Trump as not qualified to be president. Also, he has a fair number of smirking photos, which belies how many Americans find him to be arrogant.
Trump also has the highest number of unflattering photos, which likely reflects his low favorability; a June Washington Post-ABC News poll showed his favorable-unfavorable split at 29%-70%. In the same poll, Clinton’s split was 43%-55%.
The photos for Sanders include the highest comparative number of angry photos, which we thought was surprising. However, Sanders does have a reputation for having a pretty far out there ideology; a Google search for “Sanders socialist” returns about 12,300,000 results. He’s also faced criticism for not conceding victory to Clinton.
Sanders has the lowest number of smirking photos, which may reflect how he is viewed as the most trustworthy of all the candidates; a March survey by Critical Insights showed that 54% of likely voters found him to be trustworthy. He also has the lowest number of unflattering photos. However, most of the ones in that category show a disappointed expression, which media outlets may have used to illustrate that he is trailing behind Clinton in number of delegates.
We thought this issue was worth exploring because the images that appear online not only reflect voters’ perceptions, but can also help shape them. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the media has the power to emphasize or soften its reporting – or even data findings – based on the image they choose to accompany it.
Google image search results change a bit every day – want to see exactly which photos we analyzed and how we categorized them? Check it out, and tell us what you think via Twitter! Clinton, Trump, Sanders.
DISCLAIMER: With the exception of our pie charts, we claim zero ownership of any of the photos included in this post.