Research confirms Facebook's influence on election

University Park, Pa. — With midterm elections drawing closer every day, candidates who best harness the Internet might have an advantage, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Communications who have confirmed and quantified the impact of the social media during the 2008 presidential election cycle.

The research team confirmed popular press reports that President Barack Obama used the Internet better than John McCain in 2008. They analyzed 278 user-generated Facebook groups that illustrated the success of the Obama campaign in eliciting positive online support from social network users.
 
Results of the research by graduate students Julia Woolley and Anthony Limperos, along with Distinguished Professor Mary Beth Oliver, will be published in the November issue of Mass Communication and Society.

According to the research, groups that focused on Barack Obama were more actively used, had higher group membership and were more positive than groups featuring John McCain. The average Obama group had more than 10,000 members, while the average McCain group had less than 1,400. Overall, across all groups, Obama was portrayed more positively than McCain.

In addition, the use of race-related, age-related and profane language differed between candidates, but the general prevalence of these types of variables were low across groups. Race-related language was more prevalent in groups focused on Obama, whereas both negative age-related language and profanity were more prevalent in groups featuring McCain. For example, while only 40 of the 278 groups contained any kind of racial reference, nearly 85 percent were in reference to Obama.

“Overall, these findings might not be surprising -- given that Facebook is pretty much dominated by young people, and younger people tended to support Obama,” Woolley said. “However, it does kind of give you pause, in considering the implications for the potential role social media might have in encouraging debate and dialogue between people with different political allegiances.”

“The take-home message really suggests the importance of social media in mobilizing political support,” Limperos said. “Although we can’t really be sure whether it had that effect, given that we were looking only at the content, the data do seem to suggest their importance, particularly as Facebook membership continues to grow.”

Woolley and Limperos regularly conduct research in the Media Effects Laboratory, housed in the College of Communications. Oliver serves as co-director of the lab.

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Last Updated September 27, 2010