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New research at UD finds that political candidates benefit from positive comments about them on social media.
9:19 a.m., Sept. 23, 2015--When Facebook users see favorable
comments on the social media site about a political candidate, those
opinions positively influence their own views of the politician, while
unfavorable comments have a negative effect, according to a new paper by
University of Delaware researchers.
That influence occurred even though the research participants weren’t
Facebook friends or even acquaintances of the commenters. In fact, the
commenters — like the candidate himself — didn’t even exist.
The research team, consisting of faculty and students from the departments of Communication and of Political Science and International Relations, 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.”
The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science,
found that those who saw positive comments or “likes” had a more
favorable perception of the candidate and were more likely to support
him, while those who saw the negative comments had more unfavorable
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.”
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.
Still, Brewer said, “I was surprised that no one had done this kind
of study before, at least not in published research. Campaigns invest
heavily in social media, and this is something that will play out in
Campaigns already sometimes try to influence social media by removing
negative comments from their pages or encouraging staffers and
supporters to post positive comments. This is nothing new, Brewer said,
recalling a pre-social-media campaign in which he worked as an intern
and was instructed to write positive letters to the editor at
“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 concluded in their journal article. “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
Authors of the paper are: Brewer; Michael Habegger, doctoral student,
and Ruby Harrington, a recent graduate, both in political science and
international relations; Lindsay H. Hoffman, associate professor of
communication and associate CPC director; Philip Edward Jones, associate
professor of political science and international relations; and
Jennifer L. Lambe, associate professor of communication and senior CPC
Article by Ann Manser
Illustration by Jeffrey Chase
Photo by Ambre Alexander Payne
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