Ideas with Impact
UNB Faculty of Management

Predicting electoral outcomes with social media

Author: Ideas with Impact

Posted on May 11, 2017

Category: Faculty

Dr. Hsin-Chen Lin's researlch applies social media marketing to politics.If you’re planning to run for office in the next election, you might want to consult with Dr. Hsin-Chen Lin about how to manage your social media accounts. Lin is a marketing professor at the University of New Brunswick Fredericton campus, and has just published a research paper on how political candidates’ use of Facebook has an impact on their campaign success. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have dramatically changed how politicians communicate with their constituents during elections. For example, American presidents traditionally announced their decisions to run for re-election through a formal televised announcement from the White House; however, Barack Obama’s official announcement of his re-election bid for the 2012 presidential election was delivered via Twitter and YouTube. Lin’s research and teaching interests are in social media and the impact of word of mouth in the marketplace. Many studies including her own have found that a company’s social media presence, online posts, and word of mouth increase product sales and brand equality, so her interest in political marketing is an extension of what she is already doing. During a municipal election in Taiwan in 2014, she was following the candidates’ campaigns on Facebook intensively and thought, “Why don’t I collect all the candidates’ Facebook information, do a literature review on political social media campaigns, and run some statistical analysis?” Her curiosity lead to some interesting discoveries.

Page, Profile, Group – what’s the difference?

One interesting discovery suggests that the decisions people make regarding how to manage their Facebook accounts can lead to successful outcomes. One such managerial decision involves which type of Facebook account a candidate uses, as they can choose to create different types of accounts to foster relationships with their supporters, including a “Page”, a “Profile”, or a “Group” that allow fans to “like” a page, “follow” a profile, or “join” a group. A “Page” is designed to be the official account for entities such as brands or political candidates that can have an unlimited number of fans and the option of verifying the account. A “Profile” is designed as a personal account where users can have both friends and followers. A “Group” is designed as an online collective where people can share their common interests and express opinions. A candidate’s choice of the type of account they use is likely to signal how they view and position themselves to their constituents. A “Page” could be perceived by constituents as more professional, as it could be presented as a human brand that allows candidates to focus on the political issues, public appearance, and endorsements. On the other hand, a “Profile” could be perceived by constituents as more of a personal account that might fail to differentiate a candidate from more casual Facebook users. In this regard, candidates may use their original “Profile” account to support their election campaign in the social media environment and they may also post personal life messages along with their political views on this account. A “Group” could be perceived as a less formal community where users can collectively discuss certain political issues. However, the use of a Group might also imply the presence of a boundary between members and non-members that could exclude and alienate many constituents. Groups could also have more ambiguous origins and administrators making them seem like a less official and reliable source. Facebook “Pages” are expected to present a more professional online social media presence (i.e. image) than either Facebook “Profiles” or Facebook “Groups,” making it likely that their use positively relates to election outcomes.

To verify or not?

Another interesting trend Lin noted relates to whether candidates decide to ‘verify’ their identities on their Facebook accounts. Sources labeled “verified page” by the social media platform providers such as Facebook or Twitter are likely to be perceived as being more authentic than non-verified pages because of the presence of a formal verification process. Lin’s research suggests that trustworthy sources are more persuasive than dubious sources and that relevant cues and information shortcuts within the social and political environment can influence voters. Thus, social media pages that provide credible sources and authentic information are expected to have a positive relationship with election success. Being a fan of a candidate’s social media accounts may reflect an individual’s visible online support for the candidate and this support is likely to be signaled to the candidate’s potential voter base given its online visibility. The number of fans, followers, and supporters a candidate has could have a positive influence on the support he or she receives. In this regard, the number of fans that candidates have could echo or signal the support a candidate has from others to emphasize and/or reinforce voters’ perceptions of the candidates’ legitimacy for the elected position.

The impact of Lin’s discovery

Lin’s research suggests that candidates with an online social media presence are more likely than those without to have a greater share of the votes and win the election. The type of Facebook account that the candidate uses also seems to be related to their election outcomes. Specifically, candidates with a Facebook Page tend to have both a higher vote share and a higher chance of winning the election than candidates with other types of Facebook accounts. Among all candidates with a Facebook Page, their authenticity (verification badge) related to their probability of winning the election by 31.19% and related to 60% increases in their vote share. The results also suggest that there is a significant positive relationship between the number of fans that candidates’ have and their election outcomes. Together these results suggest that decisions and actions that candidates make to manage their social media online presence in more professional and authentic ways relate to meaningful election outcomes.

What’s in it for her?

As a result of her study, Lin was able to predict the outcomes of the federal election in Canada in 2015, and the presidential election in the U.S. in 2016. “The fun part of this research,” Lin said, “is that I could actually apply marketing theories to real life events. I was able to test marketing theories and predictions in the actual political campaigns.” This year she also published a research article, “How Political Candidates’ Use of Facebook Relates to the Election Outcomes,” in the International Journal of Market Research. For more information, contact Liz Lemon-Mitchell.