A Semiotic Analysis of WWF’s Instagram Content

Published in
3 min readMar 19, 2020


Photo by Kris Mikael Krister on Unsplash

We’re less than 10 days to Earth Hour day, and in this spirit, we decided to turn our minds towards analysing environmental NGOs. 200 images from the official WWF instagram page were run through our Cultural AI models.

Sifting through the numerous nature shots on the WWF feed, data from our object identification model showed that images with water appeared more.

‘Water’ as an item had the highest object count out of all other objects, and the count for ‘fish’ and ‘marine biology’ combined had higher total object count than land animals. Our object detection model had also detected images with the entity ‘Underwater’ to be slightly more than images with above-water landscapes.

The meaning of Oceans

Why the (subconscious?) preference for water shots? In literature, music, art and other forms of culture, people have been engaging with and talking about the sea in many different ways. The sea in some contexts, suggests voyage and challenging journeys. In other contexts, the sea stands as a symbol of fantasy, a realm untouchable by humans, where magical creatures exist.

How is the WWF’s instagram audience made to experience the ocean?

We examine images from each of the three aquatic related clusters that our semiotic model detected.

Grey and Gloom

Captions: Warning, call to action, urgent tone

Images: Bleak; evoking dismay

In this image, several key visual signs stand out to us: clouds, plastic waste, the colour gray, and the water body. On the level of connotation, the overcast grey clouds function as a symbol of foreboding and gloom. Plastic waste on land indicates waste, and also suggests a state of ruin.

The water, reflecting the storm clouds, do not inspire feelings of beauty or tranquility, but function to amplify the sombre feeling. And as for the overall tinge of gray in this image: it is the colour of drabness, of moodiness, and dirt. Culturally, this is a colour associated with depression and loss.

Overall, this message in this picture is negative, highlighting to viewers the dire state of the earth as a result of human habits.

Site of splendour

Captions: Narrative, informative tone

Images: Majestic, calm, evoking contemplation

This image has several key signs which connote majesty: first, the ocean taking up the entire bottom half of the image frame connotes a sense of vastness, especially when complemented by the clouds in the top half of the image frame.

The sun rays shining out in the middle of the image frame not only neatly demarcates the boundary between land and sea but also serves as a colour contrast to the overall blue palette. The calm, smooth-textured ocean surface connotes tranquility.

These signs collectively denote a horizon, and together with the vivid colour scheme connotes a certain poignancy, inspiring reflection, skewing the picture’s overall mood towards more neutral-positive territory than negative.

The Strange and Magical

Captions: Narrative, informative tone

Images: Fascinating, evoking wonder

This instagram post type is similarly informative. However, we found that the image in this case functions to pique curiosity. Image-wise, key signs in this shot would be the ocean floor, ocean, and organisms on the seabed. These symbolise ocean life, but also represent the unknown. People do not ordinarily get to access scenes from the seabed. Hence, such images of unfamiliarity trigger curiosity in viewers, which would effectively draw their attention to the caption in a bid to understand more. This shot hence also represents a sort of magical world.

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