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Facebook comments influence at the ballot box

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Could your friends’ Facebook comments on political candidates influence your vote? A new study from the University of Delaware says yes — by a lot.

We’ve grown used to getting cyber-recommendations on hotels or restaurants, but what about deciding who to vote for based on Internet comments and likes on social media?

That’s exactly what researchers at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication tried to find out.

Professor Paul Brewer and his team created a fake Facebook profile for a fake candidate. The study included 183 people and found that voters’ opinions could be manipulated by positive or negative comments posted online about this fictitious candidate.

“So if there were positive comments, the people who were viewing the page thought that they like the candidate more. They thought the candidate had better qualities and they were more likely to vote for the candidate,” Brewer said. “When they saw the negative comments, they were less likely to vote for the candidate, they thought more negative things about the candidate.”

The UD study also examined the effectiveness of a candidate who responded and rebutted negative comments. “We found that what the candidate said didn’t make any difference, it was all what these random commenters said,” Brewer explained. 

So why do comments on social media hold more weight than ones given by the candidate?

“What we think is going on is the voters, they discount what the candidate says because the candidate has an interest in trying to influence you. But these other people, there’s no reason to think that they’re trying to help the candidate or hurt the candidate. Voters just think they’re saying what they really think.”

The impact of this rising influence of online comments could lead to more manipulation of social media by campaigns. “If they encourage their supporters to go on their Facebook page and say a nice thing, it seems like it would help them. If they even create fake Facebook accounts and did it, it could help them,” Brewer said. “It also might pay for them to delete all the negative comments, because they can do that on their Facebook page.”

As the media landscape gets more and more fractured, Brewer expects the role of social media comments to grow even more powerful. “It’s getting harder and harder to reach people through traditional campaign ads, there’s so many outlets that people are watching, and campaigns really have to use all the tools that are available. And so this is something that is part of their campaign toolbox,” Brewer said. “Candidates are going to have to be more and more invested in this way of reaching voters.”

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