Self-Image in International Relations

Jackie Kennedy and future US President John F Kennedy (1960)
Pictured during his election campaign
By: Gaurang, Kritika, Rhea, Saumya

This photo essay captures a deep fake of Jackie Kennedy taking a selfie and drawing on this, we analyse the evolving role of self-image and social media in International Relations


            The image above is taken from an ad campaign by the Lowe Agency for South African newspaper, The Cape Times. Followed by the tag line “You can’t get any closer to the news,” this campaign featured several iconic photos reimagined as selfies. The one pictured here is a deep fake selfie of Jacqueline Kennedy (Jackie) and her husband, future President JFK, on his election campaign trail in 1960. Representations in the public space help construct individuals and actors’ images which affect every subsequent aspect of their relations in the international arena ranging from state relations to negotiations. They are represented by their actions as well as their relationships, and this photo is a symbol denoting the relationship between JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Conventional Media and Representation

In terms of media, representation and opinions, there has been a shift in how seriously, popularly and with differing degrees of integrity individualistic beliefs are received in the public domain. On first reading of Jacqueline Kennedy’s column “Campaign Wife”, Maurine Beasley found it to be ‘long on chit chat and short on issues’. However, once a Twitter account for her works was created, people found that Jacqueline Kennedy was well informed about and concerned with political issues in the campaign, particularly education. Conventional media, such as that of print, did not allow for such widespread circulation. Unlike social media and the kind of attention it demands, the consumption of conventional press had to do more with the consumer than with the media itself. As a result of this, Jacqueline Kennedy’s “Campaign Wife” and other material that she put out was not always widely or well-received. To date, historians and rhetorical critics have paid little attention to the original circulation of this column, largely dismissing it as incidental, even insignificant. What is often left unanswered in the broader framework of things is the implications such media coverage had on the public image of actors in the political and international realm. Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to be sure that the image she was creating for herself was something that she controls.. There was a conscious effort being made towards creating the right public identity or persona, which would inevitably affect the politics with which it interacted.

Social Media and Representation

          Social media continues to be a popular outlet allowing accessibility to information for millions of people around the world. It has caused a paradigm shift on how people connect and communicate with each other, on how they express and share ideas, and even on how they engage with products, brands, and organisations. Social media acts as a rapid mode of communication and information sharing which contributes to ways in which the self is represented to others and their impressions. It can affect different people in different manners. The image on social media starts with the representation of the self, which is tied to one’s identity. Goffman assumes that when people interact, they want to present a self-image that others will receive. He called the effort “impression management”, namely the techniques used by actors to cultivate individual impressions in certain situations to achieve specific goals. Impression management is illustrated through content created on social media and the perception of the same by the audience. The perception of audiences on social media then leads to the creation of representations which leads to the formation of the narratives either good or bad, either true or false for different groups. 

Ostracization before Cancel Culture

            Cancel culture is a form of boycott of people deemed to hold backwards or politically incorrect views on sensitive subjects in the public domain. One can argue that the phenomenon of cancel culture has always existed, but social media have just exacerbated it. In earlier times, any such opposition against people had to travel through traditional gatekeepers in the form of TV houses and newspapers in the public domain. However, the lack of easy access to information and connectivity among the general public allowed unsavoury characters to stay in positions of power with their image intact for much longer than is possible in the 21st century. John F. Kennedy, undoubtedly embossed in collective memories around the world as the most charming and well-liked American President, was lucky to have escaped this “social-media inquisition”. He has been documented to have had extramarital affairs and excessive drug usage. However, the obscurity of these facts amongst the public due to filtering of information, he was able to hold onto his credibility as a courageous, handsome family man and loving husband for several decades even after his demise. The contrast between him and later age politicians whose misdeeds faced criticism even before taking office is very stark, and indicative of the role that information accessibility has played in the evolution of personal image and identity of individuals.

Cancel Culture and Social Media

            In today’s age of fast-paced, mostly online media coverage and easy accessibility, platforms like Twitter and Instagram give the public a quick, safe space to propagate this call-out culture. Social media forums are only adding fuel to the fire by blurring the lines between private and public. As we all know, once something is on the internet, it cannot evade consumption by the masses and obtains a shelf life of eternity. “Cancelling” originally started when people began to bandwagon and called out their pop-culture favourites- actors, singers, and other public personas- for problematic actions or statements dredged up from the past. Out of the array of issues that cancel cultures seeks to redress, the asymmetrical nature of male-female power dynamics and the abuse of authority became particularly pertinent. Cancel culture was incorporated into the #MeToo movement seeking justice for individuals who have been victims of such predatory tactics. Social media plays a key part in identity formation for anybody looking to establish themselves as a public figure in the 21st century. Keeping this in mind, cancel culture then also becomes an essential point in making or breaking one’s identity. Several politicians- including both former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump- have spoken out against cancel culture, branding it “lazy activism” or a “threat to American democracy”. Yet, the fact of the matter remains that cancel culture has become an essential avenue for the public to demand accountability. Good or bad, the implications of cancel culture are rapidly paving their way to becoming an unavoidable precondition that politicians must engage with one way or another.  

            The image that leaders craft for themselves online is pivotal in shaping their identity and the values they stand for. By proxy, they also shape the identity of their supporters. Donald Trump famously attempted to project himself as a powerful, alpha-male during his election campaign. He was met with harsh criticism even before he was sworn into the White House. It’s fair to say that Trump’s online presence, both in terms of self-representation and the numerous times he was called out for his private and professional behaviour, played a crucial role in forming a public opinion of him even among other state leaders. Thus, the far-reaching and quick travelling realm of social media is paramount when it comes to determining one’s credibility and reception in the domestic and international arena.


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