Social networking and political campaigns: perceptions of candidates as interpersonal constructs.
Previous research has found a link between television viewing and parasocial perceptions of public figures, but most of these previous studies have been on celebrities or athletes. Little data are available on the interpersonal perceptions of political candidates. This study used the 2008 presidential campaign to test the role of social networks and information seeking on interpersonal perceptions of candidates in terms of credibility, interpersonal attraction, and homophily. The results indicated that voters who engaged in social networking sites related to a candidate had higher ratings on homophily than those not engaged in social networking. In terms of information seeking, there was an inverse relationship between attitudes toward Barack Obama and information seeking on the Internet, i.e., those voters with a negative view of Obama were more likely to seek information about him from the Internet.

Article Type:
Online social networks (Usage)
Online social networks (Political aspects)
Electioneering (Technology application)
Electioneering (Management)
Political campaigns (Technology application)
Political campaigns (Management)
Interpersonal communication (Management)
Interpersonal communication (Technology application)
Powell, Larry
Richmond, Virginia P.
Williams, Glenda C.
Pub Date:
Name: North American Journal of Psychology Publisher: North American Journal of Psychology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 North American Journal of Psychology ISSN: 1527-7143
Date: June, 2011 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Technology application; Company business management
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number:
Full Text:
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. Such sites have experienced explosive growth in recent years, particularly among young people. Websites such as MySpace and Facebook account for the largest usage, with possibly as many as 90% of all college students checking Facebook daily (Rosenbush, 2006). Most college students use Facebook to keep up with friends, but it is also effective at establishing new relationships (Clark, Boyer, & Lee, 2007). Further, students respond to new online acquaintances in terms of homophily. Similarly another study identified the interpersonal communication aspect of these sites as a way to attach social identity and a sense of social inclusion (Urista, Qingwen, & Day, 2008). That effect is important to politics, since social inclusion is a means for increasing civic and voter participation among young people (Edwards, 2008).

As noted earlier when discussing para-social behavior, previous research (Gardner & Knowles, 2008; Rubin & McHugh, 1987; Surlin, 1974; Turner, 1993; Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008) indicates some individuals relate to political candidates on a quasi-interpersonal basis, at least to the extent that social networking via the Internet can simulate that type of communication. The quasi-interpersonal format would imply that some individuals--particularly those who participate in social networking sites related to a candidate--could evaluate those candidates in terms of variables that traditionally fall within the realm of interpersonal communication.

The effects of credibility, attraction, and homophily have received more communication research interest than any other interpersonal perception variables (Wensch, McCroskey, & Richmond, 2008). Credibility refers to how believable we perceive a source to be. It is a multidimensional construct with three components of competence, trustworthiness, and caring/goodwill (McCroskey, & Teven, 1999). Consistent with the image model developed by Nimmo and Savage (1976), credibility was tested to provide an indication of cognitive impressions of the candidates. Interpersonal attraction was initially developed as a measure and studied in terms of three dimensions--physical attraction, social attraction, and task attraction (McCroskey & McCain, 1974). Rubin and McHugh (1987) subsequently identified a relationship between social attraction and para-social behavior. The present study extended the work of Rubin and McHugh by testing a possible relationship between social attraction and para-social behavior related to political candidates.

The principle of homophily holds that the more similar two communicators are, the more likely they are to interact with one another, the more likely their communication will be successful, and the more similar they become (McCroskey, Richmond, & Daly, (1975). The more similar we perceive a source to be, the more likely we are to be attracted to her/his beliefs, the more influence we allow her/him to have over us. The three dimensions of homophily, as identified by McCroskey, Richmond and Daly, are: demographic, background, and attitude. Like interpersonal attraction, previous research had identified a relationship between homophily and para-social behavior (Turner, 1993). Thus, homophily was tested in the study to see if the previous research related to para-social behavior would extend to para-social behavior of political candidates.

The present study tested the variables, in terms of how they were impacted by social media, in the 2008 presidential campaign that featured Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. The use of social media in the Obama campaign has been well documented (e.g., Hendricks & Denton, 2010). The use of social media by the McCain campaign is sometimes overlooked, but McCain was actually a pioneer in using the Internet campaign, first using it in his 2000 Republican primary campaigns (Powell & Cowart, 2003). Young voters were particularly receptive to the Obama campaign (Simba, 2009), and Obama's campaign heavily used online media to communicate with these voters (Hendricks & Denton, 2010). Further, the Obama campaign was an active user of online communication outlets. By the end of the 2008 presidential election, the Obama campaign had more than 13 million e-mail addresses in its computer, sent more than a billion e-mails and had more than one million members in its texting program (Vargas, 2008). As Kenski, Hardy and Jamieson (2010) concluded, "Better than any campaign before it, the Democratic one located channels of direct communication with its supporters" (p. 307).

Thus the dependent variables included in this study were credibility, interpersonal attraction, and homophily--three constructs pertinent to voter perceptions of political candidates. As a result, this study tested the following hypotheses:

H1: Individuals who participated in a social networking site for a political candidate will have higher ratings on (a) interpersonal attraction, (b) homophily, and (c) credibility for that candidate than supporters who did not participate in social networking sites.

H2: Information seeking will be positively associated with perceptions of (a) interpersonal attraction, (b) homophily, and (c) credibility.

H3: Participation in an online social network for a candidate will positively influence the relationship between information seeking and perceptions of (a) interpersonal attraction, (b) homophily, and (c) credibility.



The participants were 265 students in introductory communication classes at a state university. Participation on the part of the students was voluntary. The use of this convenience sample is appropriate in this particular study, given that young people (particularly college students) are active users of the Internet and they also played an active role in the 2008 election (Ruggeri, 2009). The participants were provided with a written summary of the purpose of the study, and assurance of the anonymous nature of their responses. Collection of the data occurred in March 2009. Of the 265 respondents in the study, 65 had participated in a Democratic/Obama social networking site, 45 in a Republican/McCain social networking site, and 155 did not participate in a political social networking site.


Participants were given a questionnaire with a series of questions about the candidates in the 2008 presidential election. The questionnaire included items to test candidate preference, and the dependent variables of homophily, credibility, and interpersonal attraction ratings for both candidates (Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain). Other questions gathered data on information seeking, interpersonal utility, and participation in online social networking groups.

Homophily was measured with the two-dimensional homophily scale (attitude, background) scale developed by McCroskey, Richmond, and Daly (1975). The alpha reliability for these scales is .80.

Credibility was measured with the three-dimensional source credibility scale (character, competence, caring) developed by McCroskey and Teven (1999). The alpha reliability for the three measures ranges from .80 to .94.

Interpersonal attraction was measured with the three-dimensional (social, task and physical attraction) interpersonal attraction scale developed by McCroskey and McCain (1974). The alpha reliability for the three measures ranges from the low .80s to the high 80s.

Interpersonal utility was measured with items taken from the uses-gratification scales in mass communication research (Kaye & Johnson, 2002). The three-item interpersonal utility measure had an alpha reliability of .70.

Information seeking was measured with the five questions previously employed by Kitchens, Powell, and Williams (2003). It previously demonstrated reliability in excess of .80.

Participation in online social networking groups was determined by asking the participants if they had participated in such a group during the election and on behalf of which candidate.


Potential scores for each homophily factor ranged from 4 (low) to 28 (high) with a midpoint of 16. The overall mean for attitudinal homophily in this study was 14.49 (SD = 6.22). The overall mean for background homophily was 12.11 (SD = 5.55).

Scores on the interpersonal (social) attraction dimensions ranged from 6 (low) to 30 (high), with a midpoint of 18. The overall mean for social attraction was 16.17 (SD = 5.39).

Scores on the three credibility dimensions ranged from 7 (low) to 49 (high), with a midpoint of 28. The mean for competence was 29.61 (SD = 8.14). The mean for character was 27.71 (SD = 8.04), and the mean for caring was 27.00 (SD = 7.78).

Hypothesis One predicted that individuals who participated in a social networking site for a political candidate would have higher ratings on (a) interpersonal attraction, (b) homophily, and (c) credibility for that candidate than supporters who did not participate in social networking. Hypothesis One was tested with a series of two-tailed, paired t-tests that compared the ratings for the candidates from supporters who participated and did not participate in an online social networking group for their candidate.

Hypothesis 1a was supported. There were significant differences between social networking and non-social networking supporters in terms of interpersonal (social) attraction ratings. The results were consistent for both Obama (M = 16.49, SD = 6.16 for networking, M = 14.75, SD = 5.01 for non-networking, t = 4.71, p < 001, df = 216, effect size = .019) and for McCain (M = 20.73, SD = 5.21 for networking, M = 17.32, SD = 4.46 for non-networking, t =4.29, p <.001, df = 216, effect

size = .023).

Hypothesis 1b was supported for both candidates on attitudinal homophily and background homophily. Obama's online supporters gave him higher ratings on attitudinal homophily (M = 21.96, SD = 4.92) than did those who did not participate in an online group (M = 15.12; SD = 5.81, t = 6.84, df = 216, p < 001, effect size = .090). McCain's online supporters also gave him higher ratings on attitudinal homophily (M = 19.95, SD = 5.42, versus M = 13.35, SD = 6.03; df = 216, t = 7.53, p <.001, effect size = .090).

Similarly, Obama's ratings for background homophily were higher for those who participated in social networking sites for the candidate (M = 16.44, SD = 5.26) than for those who did not join such social networks (M = 11.97, SD = 4.71, McCain's ratings on background homophily were also higher for social network participants (M = 19.95, SD = 5.42) than for non-social network users (M = 13.35, SD = 5.28) t = 4.20, p <.001.

Hypothesis 1c was supported for ratings of Barack Obama, but not for John McCain. Credibility ratings for Barack Obama were higher among online supporters than among those who did not belong to a social networking group. This result was consistent for character ratings (M = 37.25, SD = 5.03, versus M = 30.18, SD = 8.05, t = 1.97, df = 119, effect = .070, p <.05), competence ratings (M = 37.34, SD = 4.29, versus M = 36.01, SD = 6.33, t = 1.96, df = 119, effect = .047, p < .05), and caring ratings (M = 36.19, SD = 5.14, versus M = 32.78, SD = 7.11, t = 2.90, df = 119, effect size = .105, p <.001).

Hypothesis Two predicted that information seeking would be positively associated with perceptions of (a) interpersonal attraction, (b) homophily, and (c) credibility. Hypothesis Two was tested with Pearson's correlation coefficient to detect the predicted association between information seeking and the dependent variables--credibility, interpersonal attraction, and homophily

Hypothesis Two was supported for ratings of Barack Obama, but not for ratings of John McCain. Information seeking was negatively associated with ratings of Obama on attitudinal homophily (r = -.29, p < .01), background homophily (r = -.29, p < .01), character (r = -.23, p < .05), competence (r = -.22, p < .05) and caring (r = -.24, p < .05). Information seeking was positively associated with ratings of Obama on social attraction (r = 29, p < .01), task attraction (r = .24, p < .05) and physical attraction (r = .22, p < .05).

Hypothesis Three predicted that participation in an online social network for a candidate would influence the relationship between information seeking and perceptions of (a) interpersonal attraction, (b) homophily, and (c) credibility. Hypothesis Three was also tested with Pearson's correlation coefficient, with separate analyses for those who participated in online social networking groups for a candidate and those who did not participate in such activity.

Hypothesis 3a was not supported. There were no significant relationships between information seeking and ratings of interpersonal attraction between participants (r = .20 for Obama, r = .35 for McCain) and non-participants (r = .15 for Obama, r = .01 for McCain) in social networking sites for a candidate. The n for McCain supporters was 50, thus the .35 coefficient barely missed significance at the .05 level.

Hypothesis 3b was supported. For Obama supporters, there was a significant relationship for those who did not participate in online social networks in terms of both attitudinal homophily (r = -.26, p < .05) and

background homophily (r = -.25, p < .05). For McCain supporters who did not participate in an online group, there was a positive relationship on background homophily (r = .20, p < .05).

Hypothesis 3c was not supported. There were no significant differences in the relationship between information seeking and ratings of credibility between participants (r = .09 for Obama, r = .05 for McCain) and non-participants (r = .13 for Obama, r = .05 for McCain) in social networking sites for a candidate.


Voters made interpersonal judgments about candidates, and those judgments were partially related to participation in an online social network for that candidate. In addition, how voters used information also influenced interpersonal judgments of a candidate. Specifically, there were positive correlations between interpersonal attraction ratings of Barack Obama and information seeking and interpersonal utility. For John McCain, there was a relationship between interpersonal utility needs and ratings of both social and task attraction.

Homophily was a key variable in this study. Seeking information related to Barack Obama was negatively associated with homophily and credibility ratings. The more respondents viewed themselves as dissimilar to Obama, the more likely they were to seek information about him. This relationship was significant for both attitudinal and background homophily) (r = -.29 for each, p < .05), but accounted for less than 9% of the variance in each case. In terms of credibility, information seeking related to Obama was negatively associated with respondents' ratings of his character (r = -.23, p < .05), competence (r = -.22, p < .05) and caring (r = -.24, p < .05). This indicates that information seeking on political candidates may be triggered more by negative campaigning than by interest in positive information about the candidate.

However, seeking information about Obama was positively related to the respondents' interpersonal attraction ratings of the candidate. That effect was consistent for task attraction, social attraction and physical attraction. Information seeking for McCain was significantly but minimally associated positively with his character ratings.

Information seeking was related to participation in a social networking group, but not in a positive manner. Mean information scores were higher for those who were not members of a political social networking group (M = 14.13, SD = 3.92) than for those who were part of an Obama social networking group (M = 12.06, SD = 2.98). Mean scores for those in a McCain social networking group (M = 13.59, SD = 3.33) were slightly below those of non-network respondents. However, there was no significant difference on means of interpersonal utility in terms of social networking participation. This result is counter to previous research on para-social behavior that found that audiences developed positive relationships, or, "friendships" with television characters that increased their susceptibility to attitude change (Surlin, 1974). Still, the current finding indicates that at least some of the concepts related to para-social behavior cannot be directly applied to Internet communication.

The results of this study indicate that information seeking was positively related to the interpersonal attraction the voters felt toward Obama. This is consistent with what would be expected from a highly charismatic campaigner. However, information seeking was not linked to homophily, but to the dissimilarities of the seeker. These were unexpected findings that add to the depth of our understanding of political theory because they are counter to previous work by Surlin (1974) and Kitchens, Powell, and Williams (2003). More research is needed to identify the impact of dissimilarity on information seeking.

There are limitations to the study. The survey pool was young, instead of seasoned voters, and future research should expand the sample beyond college-age participants. However, it should be noted that these are the voters of the present and the future, and social networking is a major part of their lives. Still, the concepts tested in this study need to be replicated with a broader range of participants.

However, this study indicates that there is an interpersonal connection between a candidate and his or her audience. Currently that connection is greater outside of a social network site, but that could change as the Internet becomes a more frequent means of communicating with voters. Future research should continue to examine this relationship. Further, since young people use social media more frequently than the elderly (Urista, Qingwen, & Day, 2008), as the current pool of young voters mature, research should follow them to identify if these findings remain consistent or to verify if social networking has an increasing impact on voting behavior.

In general, these results indicate that respondents do form images of political candidates that can be measured with interpersonal image variables. Further, this study indicates that Internet usage, particularly in terms of social networking, is related to those interpersonal images. However, the specific nature of those relationships appears to vary, depending up the voter perception of individual candidates. Thus additional research is needed to refine our understanding of how the Internet impacts candidate images.


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Larry Powell

Virginia P. Richmond

University of Alabama at Birmingham

Glenda C. Williams

University of Alabama

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Larry Powell, Department of Communications, University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1401 University Ave., Birmingham, AL 35294. e-mail
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