How political deepfakes shape reality: a visual framing analysis

In March 2022 a fake and heavily manipulated video depicting Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky circulated on social media. The video showed president Zelensky announcing his surrender to Russia’s invasion. After being soon identified as a deepfake, it was removed from Facebook and YouTube for violating misinformation policies. A few years ago, in 2018, another fake video showing another president, Barack Obama, went viral on social media as Obama called President Trump “a total and complete dips**t” from what appeared to be the Oval Office. Both videos exemplify the threatening potential of “synthetic media” or “deepfakes” (Vaccari and Chadwick 2020), a new type of artificial media, through which highly convincing videos of politicians, currently available online, contribute to the spread of video-based misinformation and deceptiveness by malicious actors.

The present study aims at providing a first attempt to critically analyze political deepfakes using visual framing analysis (Coleman 2010). As a form of framing analysis, visual framing analysis relies on the understanding of visual framing as the selection of one view, scene, or angle (i.e. a frame) in order to make some aspects of a perceived reality more salient and therefore promote a particular “problem definition, casual interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Coleman 2010: 235). Since visual framing studies have traditionally focused on a wide range of news, political and scientific content (Wessler et al. 2016; Grabe and Bucy 2009), we claim that visual framing analysis can be useful in order to investigate political deepfakes as complex methods of textual and visual disinformation, since they construct frames that encode ideologies and make meaning. In other words, what we are interested in is unveiling how political deepfakes build (fake) realities, how these realities are embedded in social practices (i.e. by means of what visual and textual/discursive strategies) and how they mediate authority and power. The study aims at addressing the following research questions:

  1. What frames commonly appear in political deepfakes?
  2. How do visual and textual material construct the frames?
  3. What are the social implications and political functions of these frames?

A qualitative analysis will be conducted on a selection of verified political deepfakes in English, circulated through social media. All visuals will be coded using purposely defined coding schemes based on their visual composition, visual function and textuality. The method will also include textual analysis and content analysis. The ultimate aim of the study is to shed some light onto the role that political deepfakes play in our society and the representational strategies that are employed in the larger landscape of misinformation.

Works cited

Coleman R. 2010. “Framing the Pictures in Our Heads.” In Doing News Framing Analysis: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives, ed. D’Angelo P., Kuypers J. A., 233–61. New York: Routledge.

Grabe M. E., Bucy E. P. 2009. Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vaccari C., Chadwick A. 2020. “Deepfakes and Disinformation: Exploring the Impact of Synthetic Political Video on Deception, Uncertainty, and Trust in News”. Media and Society, 1-13.

Wessler H., Wozniak A., Hofer L., Lück J. 2016. “Global Multimodal News Frames on Climate Change: A Comparison of Five Democracies around the World.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21 (4): 423–45.


Anna Mongibello

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Digital Humanities Tilburg