This master’s thesis aims to determine the causes of success of the leading German, Dutch and British social-democratic parties’ pages on SNS in order to establish a political com- munications strategy efficiently bypassing the journalists’ gate and attracting new voters. It combines an explorative content-analysis with a web-based survey among the pages’ users (n=448). The opportunities and drawbacks of politics on SNS are evaluated based on general political communication goals, politicians’ intentions and in light of normative societal expecta- tion. Findings reveal that the pages are primarily populated by party followers; party preference accounts for a large share of success. Results from multiple regression analyses are line with impressions from content-analysis showing that next to non-page related determinants the pag- es interactivity and authenticity significantly predict success on SNS. A final outlook elaborates on two possible scenarios proposing either rededicating parties’ pages to tools of internal com- munication or significant improvements in order to make better use of SNS’ potentials for politi- cal communication.
Whether you love social networking services because of easy-to-use and instant world- wide computer-mediated communication, or you hate them because of privacy issues and re- duced face-to-face social interaction - due to their immense popularity SNS gained societal rel- evance and might even become a centre of all online interaction (Dash, 2010; Farber, 2008; Prescot, 2010; Stöcker, 2010; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). Modern SNS provide an enor- mous range of applications, allowing user-to-user and user-to-site interactions. SNS’ political relevance promises various opportunities for political communication (Kushin & Kitchener, 2009; van Jaarsveldt, 2011).
Interaction on SNS offers politics the chance to bypass the journalistic filter, since political communication on SNS allows direct interaction with citizens (Benoit & Benoit, 2005; Utz, 2009). One of the main targets of traditional political communication, which is - according to Shoemaker and Reese’s (1996) well known paper - initiating favourable media coverage might become partially obsolete due to the capabilities of SNS.
This master’s thesis project employs an explorative content-analysis and a web-based survey among users of social-democratic political parties’ Facebook pages in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. My aim is to determine the causes of success of political actors’ pages on SNS and consequently establish a strategy for online political communication, which is eventually bypassing the medias’ gatekeeping function. The small scale cross-national approach examines the influence of differences in SNS penetration and party system on quality and performance of the pages.
Political communication online - and research in this field - is facing various challenges. Next to keeping pace with the rapid evolution of the Internet, there is a lack of knowledge in 1 setting up and implementing proficient strategies in web 2.0 environments (van Jaarsveldt, 2011). The innovative online campaigning strategy of Barack Obama during the 2008 U.S. Presi- dential Elections arouse respectively intensified interest of both research and politicians (Steger, Williams, & Andolina, 2010; Wattal, Schuff, Mandviwalla, & Williams, 2010; Novy, 2009; Jarboe, 2010; Siri, Melchner, & Wolff, 2012; Karlsen, 2009). Still literature examining politics on SNS of- ten has an Anglo-Saxon bias and findings become, due to the rapid evolution of SNS, quickly ob- solete (Nisbet, 2008). European research focuses on political communication via websites in many cases and disregards SNS. The validity of findings from the U.S. for Europe is limited, since U.S. campaigns are principally aimed to raise funds, which is less relevant in European political systems (Jarboe, 2010).
The following literature review is aiming for the European perspective, though some as- pects have not been covered by local research yet. First, habits in politics-audience interactions will be briefly commented. Second, SNS’ promising new routes of participation will be juxta- posed with the main suggested imperfections. In the following, politicians’ expectations towards communication on SNS plus the general aims of political communication lead to indicators of success on SNS. Next, the determinants of success on SNS are explained taking into account pub- lic and scientific sources. Finally, cross-national differences based on local SNS penetration and the national party power structures are justified based on literature and data.
Politics-audience relations and the role of the Internet
The following quote referring to the 1988 U.S. Presidential Elections illustrates the con- tinuing worries about the relation of the audience and politics: “Voters were increasingly re- signed to occupying a spectator position and perceived campaigns to be more the property of candidates […] and media than citizens.” (Bucy & Gregson, 2001: 358). Although this quote ap- pears dramatizing, it may well describe a type of modern mediated politics-audience relation.
Politics taking place online ought to retard (young) people’s disinterest in politics (Al- thaus & Tewksbury, 2000; Norris, 2001). The detachment of politics and citizens may be coun- teracted online, since technological developments of the last decades are considered to increase participation and the flow of political information (Bucy & Gregson, 2001; Bimber & Davis, 2003). Summarized, the Internet is suggested to offer the chance to re-establish a fruitful politics- audience relation, whereby the final effects are yet not consistently identified (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002).
SNS and political participation: Benefits
Turning to SNS, their common layout is allowing eased gathering of political information. All content is automatically integrated into the user’s general newsfeed, actively searching for political news is not necessary. Still this requires what I will call an “initial momentum” of politi- cal interest: In the first instance, users have to become likers1 of pages (e.g. news or parties pag- es) for subscribing to content updates. Research estimates, that this “initial momentum” for the political inactive audience is lower on SNS than with other media (Utz, 2009; Hogan & Lynch, 2010; Steger, Williams, & Andolina, 2010). A similar conclusion is supported by research investi- gating political participation on SNS: compared to traditional means like party conventions or other types of gathering, SNS offer platforms for political discourse with less technical and ad- ministrative barriers (Kushin & Kitchener, 2009). Empirical findings from the U.S. illustrate, that the majority of users (75 per cent) is indeed receiving political content through their newsfeed. More than one third of the users is actively politically participating via posting related material (Rainie & Smith, 2012). Concluding, SNS appear to entail lower barriers for both gathering politi- cal information and political participation compared to traditional channels. This characteristic might invite people to use social networking sites for political activities.
SNS and political participation: Drawbacks
The main issue of politics on SNS deals with the phenomena of users partisan habits (Marshall, 2010). Findings from Denmark illustrate: Facebook pages of local politicians are predominantly used by individuals replicating their offline party preferences (Andersen & Medaglia, 2009). This observation is in line with research investigating content of political discourse on SNS on a larger scale: 73 per cent of users posting political content are active in groups of politically likeminded users (Kushin & Kitchener, 2009). Disagreement with other’s political posts is usually not being articulated (Rainie & Smith, 2012). Discussions breaking political leanings are rare and avoidance of counterattitudinal messages is indicated.
These findings are relevant from both the societal and the political actors’ perspective. As Bennet and Iyengar (2008) warn, the implications of the trend towards strengthening selec- tive exposure are manifold: the free marketplace of ideas as a basis of democratic discourse is threatened, which reduces plurality and fosters extremes (Bennet & Iyengar, 2008; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). From the political actor’s view (which will be specified in the follow- ing) a Facebook page needs to attract users with diverse political preferences to convince new voters. Therefore, the main flaw of politics on SNS as elaborated in this paragraph is suggested to endanger democracies in general and limit the benefits of pages for politicians.
Politicians strategies on SNS
Talking about politicians’ strategies on SNS, it is inevitable to elaborate on their inten- tions. Audiences’ and in particular young people’s attention for politics via offline media is de- clining. The traditional political party system based on voluntary participation is facing shrinkage and disinterest (Lilleker, 2005). This political malaise has coincided “with the rise of political marketing” (Kavanagh, 2003, p. 1) and increased political spin, which is supposed to cause lower perceived authenticity of politicians (Howard, 2005). Citizens have become sceptic about mes- sages send by politicians and doubt their authenticity (Bennett, 2008; McNair, 2004). Therefore, politicians need to “find ways to communicate […] authentic and inviting to young citizens” (Bennett, 2008, p. 18).
Accordingly, one of politicians’ key objectives on SNS is to sufficiently present own poli- cies to (new) target groups and young people in a credible way (Siri, Melchner, & Wolff, 2012). Dutch politician Aukje de Vrjes (VVD) pointed that “We reach an entirely different demographic [via Facebook] than we do through other activities.” (Kersbergen, 2010). German MPs praised the opportunity to establish low-threshold and fast contact with and by users. In an optimal set- ting, this may induce fruitful dialogues for both groups (Siri, Melchner, & Wolff, 2012). Irish ma- jor parties rated their activities on SNS as a promising and effective tool to engage with citizens (Hogan & Lynch, 2010).
Success of political communication on SNS
The aim of this section is defining success of political communication on SNS in regard of concepts and operationalization. Ultimately delineating general success of political communica- tion is obviously limited by the scope of this study. For major parties, long-term electoral success and therefore influencing the vote choice is the prime objective (Strömbeck, 2008; Lees- Marshment, 2001; Iyengar & Simon, 2000). Breaking down this substantial claim, mobilization, engagement and identification of citizens with a party - mainly initiated by media coverage - turn out to be essential (Blumler & Kavanagh, 1999; Karlsen, 2009; Baumgartner & Morris, 2010; Lilleker, et al., 2011). In order to measure to what extent these three objectives are achieved via political communication on SNS, I will establish several indicators building the basis for the general concept of success.
Activity & Evaluation
Since liking a Facebook-page does not inevitably inherit reading the content produced by the page admins (respectively creating own content), users activity on the page is a key indicator for a well performing page in three dimensions. First, direct communication with the electorate requires that the audience is actively following your channels and messages (Marshall, 2010). Second, activity is supposed to indicate the degree of mobilization and engagement the party’s page is able to trigger (Jackson & Lilleker, 2009).Third, high ratings for activity propose well de- signed pages and appealing content, as findings related to traditional websites show (Coleman, Lieber, Mendelson, & Kurpius, 1998).
A more detailed indicator for the pages attractiveness is the users’ evaluation of the
page. This concept goes beyond activity on the page and covers the individual’s assessment of the page. The evaluation is less related to the initial goals of political communication, but straightforwardly indicates the users’ appreciation of the page and consequently its success.
Media & Political performance
In order to effectively communicate with the electorate, political messages have to be transmitted to the audience in a credible way (Brants & van Praag, 2006). Since this study focus- es on the medium instead of the message, the concept labelled media performance covers the pages’ perceived credibility, its information value and learning effect. Credibility of information and especially news published online is still considered to be lower than in traditional media (Johnson & Kaye, 2004). The type of online medium makes a difference as well: news websites are generally more trusted than personal or special interest websites (Flanagin & Metzger, 2007). Since pages on SNS are located in a personal environment based on individual profiles, credibility for political parties’ pages on Facebook might be hard to achieve. The similar argu- ment is valid in terms of learning about politics. Political knowledge is positively related to Inter- net use, but users typically do learn more via and gather more political information from tradi- tional media (Xenos & Moy, 2007; Kenski & Stroud, 2006; Althaus & Tewksbury, 2000).
The concept labelled political performance straightforwardly operationalizes involvement and identification with the particular party, which are part of the key objectives of political communication (see above). High values for both indicators - media and political performance - are supposed to be the results of a good communication strategy on Facebook and attest the necessary condition for bypassing journalist gatekeepers.
What makes a party’s page on SNS a successful one? (RQ 1)
The central research question guiding this thesis deals with detecting reasons for suc- cessful political communication on SNS. In other words: What needs to be done by the page admins to achieve high ratings for the concepts media and political performance, activity on the page and a positive user’s evaluation of the page ?
In the following section, determinants for the indicators of success will be presented and discussed based on previous findings. As introduced above, existing research and professional sources often focus on websites respectively on single politicians pages. The purpose of the analyses in this study is to investigate whether these findings can be replicated in the web 2.0 context in general and for parties’ pages in particular. As argued below, sources suggest that next to the users’ party preference and general activity on SNS, three concepts summarized as perceived quality determining success can be identified: interactivity, design and authenticity.
Party preference and identification, activity on SNS & political engagement.
The users’ party preference, their activity on SNS and political engagement belong to the group of non-page related determinants of success. A strong predictive power of these concepts suggests that a parties page is not performing well because of being an attractive page (see below), but because of individuals’ pre-existing attitudes (party preference) and behaviour (general activity on SNS and political engagement).
As discussed above, research intends that partisan bias is a threat to successful online political communication. Users on SNS tend to avoid counterattiduninal opinions and discuss political issues within groups of likeminded users (Andersen & Medaglia, 2009). This study pro- poses that users politically preferring the page owning party are more active on the page and rate evaluation, political and media performance of the corresponding Facebook page higher.
The degree of identification with the party is suspected to mediate the three dimensions of perceived quality. With including this interaction, the study on hand takes into account that users showing a stronger identification with the particular party are supposed to rate the indica- tors of success higher (Cantijoch, Cutts, & Gibson, 2011). In case of confirming the proposed me- diation, the importance of party identification on the success of page would be testified.
An assumption based on logic proposes that user’s general activity on SNS leads to a higher activity on the page. Users intensely using SNS are expected to make more use of the page as well, e.g. since logging in daily is a prerequisite for daily reading content originating from the page. Still, there might be an interaction effect with general political engagement justified on the basis of Facebook statistics: In 2010, Facebook users liked an average of 80 pages, adding approximately three per month (Facebook Inc., 2010; Todd, 2010). Individuals intensely politically engaging are expected to have a higher chance of being active on the political ones out of the numerousness pages liked. Therefore, this group of users show stronger correlations for the proposed initial relationship of activity on SNS and activity on the page.
Turning to online political engagement, users engaging in politics online do seem to trust online media and online politics more (otherwise they probably would not use the Internet to practice their political engagement) (Johnson & Kaye, 2004). As discussed above, the concepts of media and political performance cover e.g. credibility of information on the page respectively involvement with the party. Based on this assumption, the study on hand proposes that the de- gree of online political engagement interacts with the perceived quality of a page and its media / political performance.
Interactivity. With the rise of the Web 2.0, interactivity is considered to be a major el- ement in evaluating web presences (Facebook Political Team, 2011; Truby, 2012; Zahout, 2011; Lilleker, et al., 2011). While websites are commonly created for the purpose of one-way commu- nication, SNS offer new chances for dialogue with and engagement by citizens (Oblak, 2003). Interactive dialogue-based communication efforts (user-to-site) and the opportunity to com- municate with other users (user-to-user) are supposed to lead to higher engagement with the page (Tedesco, 2007; Lilleker, et al., 2011; van Jaarsveldt, 2011). Politicians seem to gain knowledge of these interrelations as well. In 2010, Labour announced a renewed SNS strategy focusing one two-way communication (Marshall, 2010). According to a blogs assessment of La- bours activities on SNS, these plans have not been implemented successfully (Truby, 2012). Con- cluding, this master thesis assumes that the pages perceived interactivity predicts its various dimensions of success.
Design & authenticity. The user’s overall experience of a web presence is significantly shaped by design and layout of the page (Maul, 2011; Pralahad & Ramaswamy, 2004). Compared to static text, the integration of various media formats including videos and pictures is expected to attract users and foster attention (Sutcliffe, 2001). Ideally, a variance of content should be reached to maintain a vivid and diverse page’s wall (Hart, Ridley, Taher, Corina, & Dix, 2008).
1 The wording concerning users of pages on Facebook might be confusing: until 2010, users “became fans” of a Facebook page when subscribing. Facebook changed the wording, so users nowadays have to “like” a page to get full access. But users can “like” content as well; the term has a double meaning. In order to stick to the official and current wording, a user of a page is consequently labelled “liker”. The total number of users of a page is called “likes” (e.g. “the PvdA page has 2,732 likes”).
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