Visual Culture And Experiences Of The Pandemic

© Copyright 2021 Neda Huang, Ryerson University.

Visual culture has been at the epicentre of information and culture during the course of the covid-19 pandemic. Visual culture is best understood as the reference to visible expressions that inclusively represents parts of a whole subject. It often represents the identity of the subject both realistically and imaginatively and can take an arguably infinite number of forms. One of the most significant parts of visual culture during the pandemic has been represented through the use of visual media to explain, express, and provide information regarding covid-19 to the mass public. While there has been a vast number of visual media regarding the pandemic from many sources, the visual media provided by public authorities such as the government of Ontario is the most interesting. The use of visual media has allowed for the rapid spread of information, but it has also led to the newly coined “infodemic.” In analyzing the Superbowl advertisements made by the government of Ontario, “Stay at Home – Dinner” and “Stay at Home – Friends,” as well as images from their Instagram page, it is important to understand how visual media has impacted the way that individuals have experienced the pandemic. Lavinia Marin, in her work, “Three Contextual Dimensions of Information on Social Media,” establishes how misinformation and disinformation on social media impacts the emotional reactions of online audiences. She establishes the role of emotional manipulation and the relationship it has with inciting emotional reactions towards news media. To understand how visual media impacts viewers on an emotional level, it is also important to understand what part disinformation and misinformation plays in these reactions. Matteo Cinelli, et al., in their work, “The Covid-19 Social Media Infodemic,” outlines the increase of social media usage during the pandemic. It also maintains how viewers disseminate information for various social media platforms which has ultimately led to the amplification of rumours and questionable information.  In order to fully answer the critical question of how these forms of visual media have impacted the experience of covid-19, it is important to establish the concept of ideology and interpellation. Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology states that it is “a system of representations endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society,” (Tschofen). Stephen Heath builds on this definition by asserting that it is representative of the imaginary relation of individuals to the real relations they live in (Tschofen). Johannes Beetz, in his article, “Bigger Cases, Longer Signifying Chains – Ideology as Structural Limitation and Discursive Practice,” also asserts the role of ideologies and how individuals perceive their positions within the world. In establishing how ideology and interpellation works as a medium for how individuals experience the world, it is evident that viewers carry their subjective consciousness’ in a way that impacts how they relate to, interpret, and experience the pandemic. In using the framework of the infodemic, emotional manipulation through media, and the concepts of ideology and interpellation, it is clear that visual culture has heavily impacted both perceptions and experiences of covid-19.

Visual Media Can Incite Emotional Reactions

A screenshot taken from the referenced advertisements.
OnGov, Stay At Home – Friends, 5 February 2021. @OnGov,

As aforementioned, Lavinia Marin asserts that information on social media has impacted emotional reactions of online audiences through the use of emotional manipulation. Marin outlines how online information has presented two distinct problems, the rapid spread of misinformation and the infodemic. She argues that both of these problems exhibit the root problem of social media (Marin). The deep-rooted problem with social media way in which platforms drive engagement of information through the use of emotional manipulation meant to create emotional reactions. She notes that posted content relating to covid-19 was used to gauge other’s reactions to the pandemic that ultimately resulted in using information that targeted emotional reactions (Marin). This push towards emotional engagement is evident in the Superbowl advertisements made by the Ontario government. Both advertisements begin by showcasing families and friends gathering in ways that would, under normal circumstances, be considered harmless. The video then cuts to graphic scenes of hospitalized individuals and exhausted health care workers with text that clearly states that the impact of these social gatherings is being felt in these moments. It would be difficult to claim that watching these advertisements had no emotional impact as it is abundantly clear that their goal was to provide a strong emotional reaction to the reality of health care workers and victims of covid-19. One can argue that these two advertisements were meant to specifically target individuals who intended to gather to celebrate the Superbowl. However, the advertisements were also used as advertisements on YouTube as well as other social media platforms. The reach of these advertisements was not limited only to people who had attended Superbowl related events. These advertisements also showcase a distinct transition from the government of Ontario’s prior use of social media for providing information regarding the pandemic. Comparatively, the graphics posted on the government of Ontario’s Instagram page have been significantly limited in their reach. In looking at some of the informational graphics that have been posted to the government of Ontario’s Instagram page, much of the information has been provided in the form of plain text or statements paired with simple imagery of relevant objects (such as clip art of masks, handwashing, and vaccines). While these images aim to provide the same useful information as the Superbowl advertisements, the form of the videos rely on emotionally charged graphic imagery to punctuate the information. It would be difficult to determine precisely what emotional impact these two advertisements had on various viewers; however, it is clear that they were intended to create some form of emotional response.

An example of a graphic taken from the government of Ontario's instagram page to highlight the difference between visual media forms.
Government of Ontario, #StayHomeON. January 21 2021. @OnGov.

Ideology and Visual Culture

To better understand what this response may have been, it is beneficial to refer to Althusser and Heath’s definitions of “ideology” and “interpellation”. Heath asserts that ideology works as a medium for how individual’s experience the world; ideology is representative of the imaginary relation in comparison to the real relations they live in. This is also argued by Beetz who states that ideology operates as a mechanism that enables individuals to meaningfully relate to the social and material reality, they find themselves within (Beetz). He establishes that ideologies determine how one positions themselves within the world on the basis of our identities, culture, beliefs, and social relations. Covid-19 has created something of its own culture that has relied on the production and dissemination of information. With the use of different mediums to express this information, media is being circulated rapidly. As a result, the meaning and context of these various forms of media has been subjected to change as they reach different demographics and individuals who have differing ideologies. In relation to the examples of visual media provided by the government of Ontario, it is clear how the understanding and perception of these different mediums can result in differing experiences of the pandemic. These particular advertisements establish Heath’s conception of the imaginary relation versus the real relations individuals live in. They also establish Beetz’s argument that ideologies establish how one perceives reality on the basis of their social relations. In being confronted with visual media that expresses the reality of many individuals, one’s experience of the pandemic is impacted by the interpretation of this media that is fuelled by the emotional reaction Marin discusses, as well as their preconceived ideologies. The emotional reaction that the advertisements may have caused can fall under a myriad of different categories such as grief, sadness, helplessness, empathy, or anger. Each reaction may be felt by any number of people based on their ideologies. For example, individuals who are currently working in health care, or have access to someone who does, or an individual who is or has seen someone suffer through covid-19 may interpret these advertisements as a depiction of reality. For these individuals, their experiences and interpretations of the pandemic are being accurately reflected in this form of visual media. However, there may be many individuals who have not been in contact with anyone who has experienced the pandemic in a similar way. Rather than the visual media expressing their reality, they may interpret and experience it and the pandemic in a completely different way. This concept is especially true if the individual had never seen these two advertisements but instead had only been presented with the simple, straightforward visual media that is available on the government of Ontario’s Instagram page.

The Infodemic

Despite being unable to determine precisely what emotional reaction viewers may have had to the two advertisements, it is evident that the emotional responses can be impacted by the disinformation and misinformation that has been spreading through social media. Covid-19 and the increased usage of social media as a medium for gathering news has given rise to the “infodemic”. Matteo Cinelli discusses the concept of the “infodemic” in relation to how social media platforms work to amplify questionable information (Matteo et al). The “infodemic” is defined as the consistent spread of misinformation and disinformation that has been circulating online through various platforms. It has impacted the ability of viewers to disseminate important information relating to serious problems such as covid-19 health and safety guidelines. This belief is shared by Lancet Infectious Diseases who state that infodemic has created difficulties for professionals to combat misinformation. They argue that the infodemic has been at the expense of health and safety and is progressed by mass media that has eroded public trust and established a sense of helplessness. This lack of public trust is something that Marin touches on, as she argues that emotionally charged misinformation has resulted in the need for individuals to want to get involved. She states that this causes misinformation to be spread because viewers feel an urgency to combat their feelings of helplessness. The concept that the infodemic is fuelled by feelings of helplessness has impacted the way that individuals perceive, experience, and understand the pandemic and related visual culture. This is further exemplified in the difference between the Superbowl advertisements and other visual media provided by the government of Ontario on their Instagram page. With the goal of the advertisements being to incite emotional reactions amongst viewers, the imagery available on their Instagram page does the opposite. Given the simple and straightforward information provided in these Instagram pictures, each medium of visual media impacts each viewer’s experience of the pandemic differently.


With visual media being one of the most significant means of individuals receiving information regarding the pandemic, it is important to understand how related visual media can affect one’s understanding and experience of the pandemic. More specifically, it is important to understand how various forms of visual media incite differing emotional reactions that impact individual experiences. An inherent part of visual culture is determining how different visual mediums are perceived and understood. It also establishes how particular forms of media can express a wide range of information in impactful ways. By selecting mediums that can distinctly portray emotionally charged information with the purpose of inciting emotional reactions, it is clear that visual media has a strong impact on individual perceptions and experiences. However, it does not connote that the incited emotional reactions are limited to only accurate information. As pointed out by Marin and Cinelli, emotional reactions have played a significant part in furthering the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation. Thus, an individual’s experience of the pandemic is impacted by visual media in three ways, through the use of emotional manipulation, the rise of the infodemic, and one’s preconceived ideologies.

Works Cited

Cinelli, Matteo., et al. The COVID-19 social media infodemic. Sci Rep 10, 16598


Johannes Beetz (2021) Bigger cages, longer signifying chains – ideology as

structural limitation and discursive practice, Journal of Multicultural

Discourses, DOI: 10.1080/17447143.2021.1895179

The Lancet Infectious Diseases. “The COVID-19 infodemic.” The Lancet.

Infectious diseases vol. 20,8 (2020): 875. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30565-X

Marin, Lavinia. Three contextual dimensions of information on social media:

lessons learned from the COVID-19 infodemic. Ethics Inf Technol (2020)

Tschofen, Monique. “Week 3: Seeing Critically: Reading the Picture.” Ideology

and Interpellation, 3 February 2021, Ryerson University. Word document.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.