Favourable comments on Facebook about a political candidate can have a positive influence on potential voters' views of the candidate while unfavourable comments have a negative effect, a new study has found.
The influence occurred even though the research participants were not Facebook friends or even acquaintances of the commenters. In fact, the commenters - like the candidate himself - did not even exist, researchers said.
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University of Delaware researchers created a Facebook page for a fictitious candidate using general and nonpartisan "information" about him. Delawareans selected as a test group were sent an online survey, asking them to look at the page and then rate their impressions of the candidate.
Some of the recipients saw a page with two fictitious supportive comments, while others saw two challenging comments.
"A social media campaign is practically obligatory for candidates today, and the key to social media is that it's interactive; it's not one-way like traditional political advertising," said Paul R Brewer, professor of communication and of political science and international relations and director of UD's Center for Political Communication (CPC). "We wanted to test this interactivity between the candidate and citizens," he said.
Researchers found that those who saw positive comments or "likes" had a more favourable perception of the candidate and were more likely to support him, while those who saw the negative comments had more unfavourable perceptions. Whether the candidate responded to the comments had no effect on how he was perceived.
"This showed that people trust comments from their peers more than they trust self-generated comments from the candidate," Brewer said. "It's the idea that what other people say about you is genuine, perhaps unlike what you say about yourself. So comments from some random person on the Internet do shape citizens' perceptions," he said.
Calling the study a first step in researching the effect of social media interactivity in political campaigns, Brewer said that it may have been easier to influence viewers looking at the "blank slate" of a fictitious candidate rather than at a real candidate with whom they may already be familiar.
He also noted that the survey group was asked to look at the Facebook page, while in real campaigns, citizens decide for themselves whether to check out a candidate on social media. "Candidates have long used carefully orchestrated social cues, from endorsements to photo opportunities to stage-managed public events, in their efforts to persuade voters that they are riding a wave of popular support," the researchers said in the study published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science.
"The increasing use of [social networking sites] by voters provides candidates and other actors with new tools for projecting images of popularity or unpopularity in ways that may carry electoral consequences," they said.