Social media's influence tracked


Having a Facebook or Twitter account made a “significant difference” to a candidate's chances of being elected to the Dáil in the last general election, a study by a political scientist with an interest in social media suggests.

Dr Ciarán McMahon, lecturer in psychology at Dublin Business School, will present a paper today at the annual conference of the Political Studies Association of Ireland annual conference in Dublin, examining the impact of social media engagement in the general election of February this year.

Figures compiled by the psychologist based on the number of fans, friends or followers a candidate had, show the average number of votes for someone who had a Facebook account in the February poll was 4,402.

The average number of votes for someone who did not have a Facebook account was about 2,100.

Of the 566 candidates, just 120 did not have a Facebook account, while 446 did. Some 325 had Twitter accounts, while 241 did not. Those who had Twitter accounts got, on average, 4,885 votes while those who did not got on average 2,676 votes.

Dr McMahon said he believes the figures suggest there is “no escape” when it comes to engagement with social media for candidates in future elections.

Some 325 (57 per cent) candidates in the general election had Twitter accounts, Dr McMahon says that while the study doesn't show that engaging with social media was definitive in terms of a candidate's chances of getting elected, it suggests such engagement will play a significant and unavoidable part in future elections.

“I’ve been interested in it for a while and I’ve always had an interest in politics. I noticed around the time of the US midterms that [someone had done a study] suggesting you could predict the result based on the candidate’s number of Facebook fans,” Dr McMahon said.

The studies appeared at about the time of the Donegal South West byelection in November last year, and he applied the theory to that poll.

“I gathered the numbers and there was a reasonably good correlation, but there were only four of them in it. So I gradually started collecting the data on for the general election,” he said.

Dr McMahon enlisted the assistance of mapping expert Richard Cantwell to help define urban and rural areas, based on population density.

“The interesting thing is that if you had a Facebook account, you were probably going to get more votes than the law of averages. And if you had a Twitter account, you were going to get more votes. But if you had the two of them there was no bounce - there was no interaction effect,” he said. “Which kind of stands to reason - but there wasn’t really much point in having both.”

Dr McMahon emailed the candidates to establish their ages, and based on information for 372 of the 566, he found the average age to be 48. The ages of candidates ranged from 22 to 75.

Of the total number of election candidates, some 325 had Twitter accounts followed by an average of 467 followers. There were 432 candidates with Facebook accounts, which combined 'friend' accounts and 'fan' pages.

“All of the Twitter accounts were followed by 151,945 other accounts. But all of the Facebook accounts were followed by 315,640 people,” said Dr McMahon.

“There are only about 180,000, maybe 200,000 people in Ireland on Twitter. So that means that either everyone on Twitter is interested in politics, or there was a big overlap and lots of people on Twitter were following more than one,” he said. “But there are about two million people on Facebook and there were only about 316,000 following politicians. So you can kind of deduce that Facebook people aren’t as interested in politics, but it did seem that people were only friending or fan-ning people that they were actually interested in.”

He found a definite urban-rural split between the use of Twitter and Facebook.

“For me, that’s really interesting because they’re just two websites really. I think Twitter is probably easier to use if you are living a fast-paced life. But if you are sitting down in the evening with the laptop on your knee, Facebook kind of suits it a bit better.”

Other Facebook research has shown women to have more friends and to be more 'popular' on the social media site, or on social media generally, Dr McMahon said. But with the general election candidates, “that was not the case”. The women running for election were “slightly more likely” to have Facebook accounts.

“But other than that there was no gender difference anywhere in the data,” said Dr McMahon. “We kind of assumed that younger people would be more interested in social media. [But] we didn’t find any correlation between age and popularity, either on Facebook or on Twitter.”

The study took into account the advantage held by incumbents seeking re-election.

“In terms of actually getting seats, if you had a Facebook account you were more likely to get elected and if you had a Twitter account you were more likely to get elected. But in terms of the incumbents, there’s no difference whether they had a Twitter or a Facebook account,” says Dr McMahon.

However, in terms of challenging for a seat, there was “a significant difference” in success rate both for those who had Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts. “In terms of challengers, there were only four people who didn’t have a Facebook account who actually got elected,” he said.

Some 19 constituency challengers who did not have a Twitter account got elected. Dr McMahon says just one challenging rural TD who didn’t have a Facebook account was elected.

There was no 'bounce' for candidates who had both Twitter and Facebook accounts, he said.

The study, being presented today, also took account of the advantage held by incumbents in terms of the chances of re-election.

Dr McMahon said another striking feature of the study was that Facebook and Twitter appeared to suit different parties in different ways.

Sinn Féin was “well out in front” in terms of popularity on Facebook, alongside Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. “But the least popular on Facebook were the Greens, the Socialist Party and People Before Profit,” says Dr McMahon.

On Twitter, however, the Green Party and Socialist Party proved more popular than Sinn Féin and People Before Profit candidates.

Dr McMahon said Sinn Féin had also “seriously pushed” Martin McGuinness on Facebook during the presidential election, although “perhaps not to the same effect”.

As regards the most recent follower data on the seven candidates in the presidential election, he says Seán Gallagher had looked (as of July) like the only person who “really looked” as if they were running a campaign. Fan and follower data in the last week suggested Mr Gallagher “should be home already”, he said.

Last week, Mr Gallagher added 4,000 new fans to his Facebook profile, while Labour's Michael D Higgins had just 4,000 in total.

Dr McMahon said independent candidate Senator David Norris had added just 420 Facebook fans last week, or 2 per cent of his overall following. In previous weeks, Mr Norris actually lost about 13 fans.

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