Social Networking and Political Campaigns: Perceptions of Candidates as Interpersonal Constructs

Article excerpt

Research in political communication recognizes the role of interpersonal communication in the campaign process, with research looking at interpersonal influence, opinion leadership, and anticipated conversations with other individuals (Powell & Cowart, 2003). Voters discuss political topics with others (Huckfeldt & Sprague, 1995), using those discussions to evaluate information while forming their own opinions (Mutz, 1998). Their conversations include exchanges of information, political arguments, and issue-specific news (Wyatt, Kim & Katz, 2000). Other research has found a link between television viewing and interpersonal attraction of public figures (Antecol, 1998). Media audiences often respond to celebrities and television characters on a quasi-interpersonal level similar to that of an interpersonal friendship (Powell & Anderson, 1984). Surlin (1974), for example, argued that media audiences consider television characters to be surrogate friends. Similarly, television characters can be perceived as if they were real people under a social facilitation paradigm (Gardner & Knowles, 2008), particularly when the individual has unfulfilled social needs (Ashe & McCutcheon, 2001; Giles & Maltby, 2004; Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008). Rubin and McHugh (1987) reported that such behavior was related to social attraction, while Turner (1993) identified homophily as a factor in the strength of para-social relationships. Homophily, is what Barker (2008) described as an affinity for "people like me" (p. 21). However, past research has focused primarily on media celebrities (Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985; Turner, 1993) or athletes (Brown & Basil, 1995; Brown, Basil, & Bocarnea, 2003; Brown, Duane, & Fraser, 1997). Little research has looked at the effect in terms of political candidates. This is an oversight, considering the implications of both interpersonal communication and Internet communication in political campaigns.

With the Internet playing an increasingly important role in both mass and interpersonal communication, the need for research in the area has also grown (Morris & Ogan, 1996; Newhagen & Rafaeli, 1996). However, the relationship between the Internet and political communication has been limited in that many political campaigns often relied on traditional media when communicating with voters. That changed with the 2008 presidential election, which became the first presidential election in which both candidates were positioned to use social networks as a campaign tool (Hendricks & Denton, 2010).

Previous research has identified four primary motivations for seeking online political information: guidance, information-seeking, entertainment, and social utility (Kaye & Johnson, 2002). Of primary interest to this study is social, or interpersonal, utility, i.e., "using the Internet to reinforce decisions and arm individuals with information to use in discussions with others" (p. 62). The concept involves the need to keep up with current political events for the purpose of discussing them with friends and co-workers (Swanson, 1976). Social utility motivations have been reported more often for individuals with a high interest in political campaigns and issues (Kaye & Johnson, 2002). One by-product of social utility is that it can increase information seeking and knowledge of political events (Kitchens, Powell, & Williams, 2003). Diddi and LaRose argue that this behavior is particularly common among college students, since college students read more news online than their non-college peers and turn to the Internet more often than any other source. Students who seek out news and political information on the Internet are more politically active than other students, more likely to be politically involved, and reported higher informational motivation--including motivation for social utility (Park, Kee, & Valenzuela, 2009). These results indicate that online social networking sites could influence interpersonal images in the political arena. …


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