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How Political Influencers Shape Voter Decisions, Moderate Party Tactics, and Fuel Polarization

POLITICSHow Political Influencers Shape Voter Decisions, Moderate Party Tactics, and Fuel Polarization

The participation of politically-engaged influencers in public debate impacts voters and plays a role in shaping their decisions, especially those who are undecided, say scientists from the University of Pennsylvania. Interestingly, influencers also implicitly force party spin doctors to moderate their electoral tactics, and on the other hand, compel traditional newsrooms, competing for audience, to radicalize their message. This may influence the ever-increasing polarization of social attitudes in public debate.

The researchers wanted to investigate how people known from social media can influence political parties, citizens, and traditional media.

“We have certain players: political parties that want to win elections, and the median voter, who tries to make a decision on which party to vote for in the elections, which usually means a moderate or independent voter. We also have traditional media, which convey news, such as television. Assume that traditional media express support or sometimes oppose certain elements of politics or sets of political strategies. Citizens seek information to make a decision in elections. They usually do not have enough information about the effectiveness of a given policy adopted by political parties, they’re uncertain about the effectiveness of a given tax plan, immigration regulations, or healthcare system. Therefore, they rely on traditional media to get more information”, explained Wael Jabr, assistant professor at the Smeal College of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, during an interview with the Newseria Innovations agency.

In the fundamental scenario, political parties and media have information that is not directly accessible to citizens but is needed by them to make an electoral decision. The research team added influencers to this equation, who also have access to this information and are sharing it on their terms. This enabled to investigate how social media may affect voters.

“Numerous studies indicate that currently citizens are more susceptible to contact with political information shared by influencers on social media platforms than any other media. Therefore, in our study, we dealt with influencers. In the study, we have two groups of them. One gathers people with liberal views who identify with a party that professes such views, i.e., in the context of the USA, it is the Democratic Party. The other group of influencers represents conservative views and in the USA, they lean towards the Republican Party. Influencers do not always have to present their true views on specific issues – they may have opinions on tax or immigration issues, but they do not have to reveal them. Instead, they occasionally resort to distorting facts and publishing incorrect or false information,” says the researcher. “An influencer aims to increase the number of followers and derives value from the victory of the political party he supports.”

It turned out that influencers on social media use distorted political messages, such as disinformation, to gain followers and increase their profits.

“In our model, distortion is not unlimited. An influencer does not distort his message endlessly because he fears his reputation may suffer from not telling the truth. He is afraid that if he commits a serious lie, he will get caught and his reputation will be tarnished,” says Wael Jabr.

Despite this constraint, the message of influencers can prompt political parties to make changes. Wishing to maximize their profits by attracting as many voters and winning elections, the parties adjust their strategies to meet the expectations of influencers.

“Not only political parties use this method – traditional media do so as well,” says the expert. “As they are now threatened by influencers who take away their audience, traditional media are inclined to take a more extreme position in order to gain the attention of a larger audience and increase profits. What’s key is that social media influencers also adopt more radical positions to avoid competition with traditional media and other influencers and to ensure the victory of their party.”

However, this results in even greater distortion of the message, which eventually reaches the voters and is more influential on their views and convictions.

“As a result, citizens’ electoral behaviors will be more distant from each other. This leads to a greater degree of polarization. The question arises, do social media have an impact on polarization? Based on our findings, the answer is yes. Another question is whether they cause polarization – I can say that it is not decided. Polarization has been increasing for several decades, since the days when there were no social media. It’s usually higher in social groups that are least present on social media and have the least contact with them,” assesses the researcher from the Smeal College of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

The research also sheds light on the need to implement mechanisms to prevent influencers from distorting information. This can involve cooperation with social media platforms and utilizing artificial intelligence tools to verify content and marking misleading posts. Scientists are currently working on expanding their work to examine the role of social media platform filtering algorithms in promoting and censoring content and the potential impact of algorithms on elections.

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