Drawing on research into electronic word-of-mouth communication, tie strength, and homophily, this study examines the actions of those who follow political leaders on Instagram as well as followers’ perceptions of the influence leaders’ posts have on their political views. The influence of leaders’ posts, as measured by a survey of followers, was also compared with strong-tie sources of opinion leadership, such as friends and family, and weak-tie sources, including co-workers and acquaintances. Findings indicate that posts from leaders whom followers usually agree with are seen as influencing followers’ views more than any other source, which is noteworthy given the nonexistent nature of the relationship. Implications for the study of tie strength on social media are also discussed.
Opinion leadership, tie strength, and homophily
eWOM and political instagram use
The impact of demographics and political factors on eWOM
Discussion and conclusion
With more than 400 million active users, Instagram is increasingly being used by those in politics and government to spread their message (Lalancette and Raynauld, 2019; Muñoz and Towner, 2017). The mobile photo-sharing application is larger than Twitter and is second only to Facebook among social media platforms (Alhabash and Ma, 2017). Candidates and office holders in most countries regularly use Instagram (Burson-Marsteller, 2017; Sanders, 2015), and millions of people follow the most well-known political figures.
Initial indications are that political Instagram posts have the potential to be influential. Voters frequently turn to Instagram for information about candidates (Eldin, 2016). Images and discussions of political events can quickly spread on Instagram (Al Nashmi, 2017). Research from the 2016 U.S. presidential election found that candidates’ Instagram messages, called posts, affected what issues mainstream newspapers covered (Towner and Muñoz, 2018). What has not been examined are the actions of those who follow political leaders on Instagram or followers’ perceptions of what influence the leaders’ posts have on their political views. Doing so would further demonstrate how valuable Instagram can be as a political tool. It might be that political leaders’ posts often shape their followers’ views on key issues of the day. It is also possible that leaders’ posts regularly cause followers to look for information that is recommended or take actions that are requested, such as voting for, or contributing to, a candidate. The mechanism that explains such effects is found in the theoretical foundations of word-of-mouth (WOM) research.
In both business and political contexts, WOM studies have shown how the beliefs and actions of consumers and voters can be influenced by highly engaged opinion leaders (Chu and Kim, 2018; Parmelee and Bichard, 2012). One key to effective opinion leadership is offering advice in a way that is perceived as credible and personally relatable to followers (Djafarova and Rushworth, 2017). While successful opinion leaders have also traditionally had strong personal ties with followers, some studies suggest that opinion leaders in the social media environment can be influential even when they have no personal ties with followers (Koo, 2015; Steffes and Burgee, 2009). The present study’s exploration of the influence of political leaders’ Instagram posts on followers expands WOM theory by shedding light on what conditions contribute to no-tie sources trumping strong personal ties.
While there is little research on Instagram’s political effects, electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) studies of Instagram’s power in marketing and advertising suggest that posts influence decision making. Referrals on Instagram can increase purchase intentions for products (Danniswara, et al., 2017), and many types of individuals, from celebrities to bloggers, use their Instagram posts to influence buying behavior among their followers (Djafarova and Rushworth, 2017). Political eWOM research on other social media, such as Twitter, also suggests Instagram posts might be quite persuasive. For some users, tweets from political leaders have been found to be more influential on followers’ political views than friends and family members .
Instagram has features that may make it especially influential for politics. Instagram posts focus on visual elements, such as photos and short-form video. Users can apply various filters to alter a photo’s color or tone, which can convey different feelings. As a result, the image-based nature of Instagram posts provides increased intimacy and happiness among users over primarily text-based social media, such as Twitter (Pittman and Reich, 2016). Stimulating emotions with images matters because visual communication research on politics finds that creative imagery is superior at capturing voters’ attention and influencing political behavior (Brader, 2005; Graber, 1996).
Instagram posts might be associated with followers’ political behavior in several ways. Posts often include requests to take specific actions, such as supporting causes or candidates. Posts also can portray political parties or leaders as heartless or heroic, which may alter users’ political opinions. Instagram users may also react to Instagram posts by “tagging” a political leader in a post, which the leader and the users’ followers can see, or by direct messaging a leader, which only the leader sees. Users also can “like” a leader’s post, which increases the popularity of a leader’s message. However, little research has measured the interplay between political leaders’ Instagram posts and their followers’ views and actions. It is also important to consider the impact of demographic factors and political variables when assessing the power of leaders’ posts. Followers’ demographics and political makeup may predict their willingness to engage in certain actions on Instagram as well as their openness to having their political views influenced by leaders’ posts.
This study draws on theory from WOM, eWOM, tie strength, and opinion leadership research to understand what role political leaders’ Instagram posts play in the lives of their followers in terms of their political views and actions. The influence of political leaders’ Instagram posts is then compared with more traditional strong- and weak-tie sources of opinion leadership, such as friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. The data come from a larger study on political Instagram use in the U.S., which includes a survey of people who follow at least one political leader on Instagram. The findings show which actions leaders’ posts trigger the most, and how demographic and political factors predict followers’ actions. Most importantly, the results demonstrate the conditions under which political Instagram posts can be a dominant form of opinion leadership.
Opinion leadership, tie strength, and homophily
Researchers who have examined the shapers of public opinion, called opinion leaders or influencers, have found how influential communication between people can be in terms of altering views, changing behavior, and setting trends (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955; Gladwell, 2000). Opinion leaders were originally conceptualized as part of the two-step flow process in which a relatively small group of politically interested individuals pass along their interpretation of political news to their less-engaged social circle, known as opinion followers (Lazarsfeld, et al., 1948). Opinion followers, who are influenced partly because they see opinion leaders as knowledgeable in their field, can be anyone from the leaders’ close friends to mere acquaintances (Weimann, et al., 2007). The wide variety of social relationships that leaders have with followers fit within three areas of a person’s social network: strong-tie, weak-tie, and no-tie relationships.
Strong ties can include an individual’s family and friends, weak ties are usually made up of co-workers and other acquaintances, and no ties are strangers. The definitions of strong, weak, and non-existent ties are based on the frequency and intimacy of the interactions. Research over the years has shown that all types of social ties can influence opinions and behavior (Brown and Reingen, 1987; Granovetter, 1973; Steffes and Burgee, 2009; Valenzuela, et al., 2017).
Each type of social tie has certain advantages. Strong ties tend to be more available, motivated, and seen as credible, while weak ties spread information more widely because they act as a bridge between disparate groups (Brown and Reingen, 1987; Granovetter, 1983). The rise of the Internet and social media has made even strangers valuable influencers. In examining the strength of no-tie relationships online, Steffes and Burgee (2009) found that anonymous comments posted on a Web site that rates professors are better able to influence students’ class registration decisions than students’ conversations with friends or academic advisers. Koo (2015) also found online recommendations from strangers to have strong effects, noting that “negative reviews from people with no-tie relationships have a negative impact on brand attitudes” .
Traditional conceptualizations of tie strength have focused mostly on strong and weak ties, but nonexistent ties, which some researchers call absent ties, are important to consider (Brown and Reingen, 1987; Granovetter, 1983; Hagen and Lüders, 2016; Valenzuela, et al., 2017). Granovetter (1983) described absent ties as having “the lack of any relationship and ties without substantial significance, such as a ‘nodding’ relationship between people living on the same street” . Nonexistent-tie sources, such as online recommendations from anonymous strangers and others whom Internet users have never met or conversed with, are increasingly being examined in eWOM studies because they clearly represent a more distant relationship than conversations with co-workers, neighbors, and other weak ties (Koo, 2015; Parmelee, et al., 2011; Steffes and Burgee, 2009).
On Facebook and Twitter, the political influence of different types of social ties can vary by platform. In a survey examining which types of ties on social media best influence protest participation, Valenzuela, et al. (2017) found that strong ties are the most persuasive on Facebook, but not on Twitter. The most influential on Twitter turned out to be those who the respondents do not know personally. The results are at least partially due to differences in the social media platforms’ features and structures. For example, Facebook’s emphasis on reciprocal friending gives an advantage to strong ties, while Twitter does not require reciprocity in order for users to follow or be followed, which benefits weak ties and non-existent ties. The findings suggest that because “social network structures are not equal ... their effects across social media platforms are correspondingly unique and distinct,” according to the researchers . Instagram shares features with Twitter, such as non-reciprocal following, and Facebook, such as longer character limits. As a result, it is difficult to predict which types of social ties on Instagram are best at influencing political opinions and participation.
The present study examines Instagram posts from elected officials and other politically involved individuals and groups, so it is important to clarify what type of social tie a political leader’s post represents. According to Granovetter , “The strength of a tie is a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services that characterizes the tie.” Measurements of social tie strength online also emphasize the frequency, intensity, and mutuality of interaction (Steffes and Burgee, 2009; Valenzuela, et al., 2017). As a result, a political leader’s Instagram post would not qualify as a strong-tie source, except for an extremely small handful of followers who may interact frequently and intimately with the leader. Political leaders and followers on Instagram can mostly be described as having no-tie relationships because the vast majority of followers have never experienced any type of mutual confiding with leaders. However, a weak tie might be present among those leaders who are diligent about engaging with their followers. While tie strength can be measured in objective terms, one should be mindful that research into political parasocial relationships suggests that relative strangers, such as politicians, can sometimes be perceived as friends because of the illusion of intimacy forged through seeing them on TV and online (Cohen and Holbert, 2018; Thorson and Rodgers, 2006).
Another factor to consider when examining the potential influence of strong, weak, or nonexistent ties on Instagram is how much homophily exists between users. Homophily is the degree to which individuals share similar attributes, such as age, gender or socio-economic background. Word-of-mouth communication is particularly influential when it comes from someone with a high level of homophily, a homophilous source, rather than someone with low homophily, a heterophilous source (Brown and Reingen, 1987; Steffes and Burgee, 2009; Parmelee and Bichard, 2012). In addition, Brown, et al. (2007) found that traditional types of homophily, such as age, gender, and education, are not as powerful in an online environment as “notions of shared group interests and group mind-set” . As a result, social media users who share a similar political affiliation are particularly homophilous and potentially quite influential on each other. In terms of political leaders on Instagram, posts from leaders whose followers agree with them politically are considered homophilous sources, and posts from leader whose followers disagree with them are considered heterophilous sources.
Measuring the influence of political leaders’ Instagram posts can also highlight the differences between homophily and tie strength, which are separate but related concepts (Brown and Reingen, 1987; Steffes and Burgee, 2009). For example, those who follow Instagram posts from a political leader who has a similar ideology to theirs, which is a nonexistent tie but a homophilous source, may find those posts more influential on their political views than political conversations with a parent who is ideologically different, which is a strong tie but a heterophilous source. Research on political Twitter use has found homophily to be a powerful force relative to tie strength (Parmelee and Bichard, 2012). Survey respondents in the study indicated that tweets from political leaders they usually agree with are as influential on their worldview as interactions with family members . Because no similar study has looked at political leaders’ Instagram posts, the first research question explores the influence of leaders’ posts from the perspective of homophily and tie strength:
RQ1: How much perceived influence does each of the following have on the political views of those who follow political leaders on Instagram: friend and family (strong ties), co-workers and acquaintances (weak ties), Instagram posts from leaders they usually agree with (a no-tie homophilous source), or posts from leaders they usually do not agree with (a no-tie heterophilous source)?
eWOM and political instagram use
One reason opinion leaders can influence followers is that leaders’ conversations are in the form of word-of-mouth communication, which is the act of passing along opinions and recommendations in a way that seems personal and relevant to followers. Political effects of WOM include influencing where people go online for political information (Parmelee, et al., 2011), increasing political learning (Kennamer, 1990), contributing to political participation (McLeod, et al., 1999), and promoting political civility (Price, et al., 2002).
WOM can be positive, negative, or mixed, with negative comments often spreading faster than positive ones (Hornik, et al., 2015). In addition, WOM recommendations that are planned and coordinated by an organization can be just as effective as WOM that comes off-the-cuff from friends or neighbors (Godes and Mayzlin, 2009). As a result, it is likely that political organizations and individual politicians can use Instagram posts to engineer WOM activity among their followers, which can lead to a variety of political effects, such as mobilizing Instagram users to contribute to a campaign or advocate a particular viewpoint. However, political leaders may not be so ambitious, at least for now. One study found that political parties rarely attempt to use their Instagram posts to mobilize their followers by including a call to action. Instead, their posts broadcast their political opinions (Filimonov, et al., 2016).
Instagram has particular advantages because it is primarily used on mobile devices. Instagram use on a smart phone allows for asynchronous communication on the go from virtually anywhere, and the posts can reach millions of users at once. In addition to a high level of convenience and reach, mobile-based word of mouth also can lead to more referrals than face-to-face word of mouth (Okazaki, 2009).
Research on the political uses of eWOM, such as with candidates’ blogs and politicians’ social media accounts, suggests that substantial influence can be achieved. Candidates’ blogs are especially persuasive when users are able to interact with candidates and other politically interested individuals (Thorson and Rodgers, 2006). A survey of those who follow political leaders on Twitter found that more than 50 percent of respondents said they either “often” or “always” look for information that is recommended in leaders’ tweets. More than 60 percent of followers also took other actions recommended in leaders’ tweets, such as contributing to a candidate or signing a petition, at least sometimes. Also, more than 60 percent said they retweet leaders’ tweets at least sometimes . No eWOM research has yet attempted to measure the influence of political Instagram posts in such detail, which leads to the second research question:
RQ2: How often do followers engage in the following actions on Instagram: direct message a political leader, share a leader’s post, look for information recommended in a leader’s post, take requested action, post comments on a leader’s post, like a leader’s post, or tag a leader’s post?
The impact of demographics and political factors on eWOM
When measuring the influence of political leaders’ Instagram posts on followers’ views and behavior, it is important to be mindful that there are a number of factors that may make some followers more easily swayed than others. Ideology and demographics can shape word-of-mouth behavior. Those who are ideologically intense tend to share political information most often (Pan, et al., 2006), and women are more likely than men to pass along e-mail messages (Phelps, et al., 2004). Research question three explores how political Instagram followers’ demographic profiles and political attitudes influence what they do with leaders’ posts:
RQ3: To what degree can followers’ political makeup (political party affiliation, interest in politics, political efficacy, trust in government, past voting behavior, and likelihood of voting) and demographic profile (gender, age, race, education) predict their willingness to engage in subsequent activity (such as direct message or share leaders’ posts)?
Demographic factors also contribute to the influence that political tweets can have. Parmelee and Bichard (2012) found that several demographic groups have their political beliefs influenced more by tweets from leaders they usually agree with than by friends, family, or co-workers. The groups include women, Hispanics, those older than 40 years old, those making US$100,000 or less, and those with less than a college degree . The final research question examines what connections exist between the demographics and ideological orientation of followers and the ability of leaders’ posts to influence their political views:
RQ4: To what degree do followers’ political makeup and demographics predict the types of social ties that followers say are influencing their political views?
The data come from a larger project on various aspects of political Instagram use, though only this study uses the data that relate to eWOM (Parmelee and Roman, 2020, 2019). Survey participants were recruited from March to September 2017 by encouraging Instagram users to click an online link to an academic survey on political Instagram use. Recruitment was conducted using convenience sampling of the study’s population, which is followers of political leaders on Instagram. Because no list exists of the population, the researchers paid for ads on Instagram that targeted U.S. users who share some of the following characteristics that Instagram tracks: Democrats, American Independent Party, Liberal Democrats, Democratic Progressive Party, Republican Party (United States), Democratic Party (United States), Libertarian Party (United States), U.S. politics (very liberal), U.S. politics (liberal), U.S. politics (moderate), U.S. politics (conservative), U.S. politics (very conservative), likely to engage with political content (conservative), and likely to engage with political content (liberal). Instagram is increasingly popular in the U.S., especially among younger voters, who consider it the “go-to source of political news” (Taylor, 2019).
In addition, the researchers contacted elected officials, politically interested individuals, and groups with accounts on Instagram who represent Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, moderates, independents, and libertarians. The researchers also used political hashtags in the Instagram ads to expand the message’s reach. The hashtags included #democrat, #progressive, #republican, #conservative, #libertarian, and #centrist. While not ideal, convenience sampling is common in eWOM studies when no list exists of the online population being studied (Hennig-Thurau, et al., 2004; Parmelee and Bichard, 2012; Steffes and Burgee, 2009).
The survey, which was approved by a university Institutional Review Board, included consent information and a statement that eligible participants needed to follow at least one political leader on Instagram and be at least 18 years old. To prevent multiple submissions by the same user, the computer system that the online survey was on accepted only one submission per registered Internet account. No compensation was provided to participants. Recruitment resulted in 309 respondents who follow at least one political leader on Instagram. The sample was 68.2 percent male and 31.8 percent female, with 62.6 percent of respondents 18 to 24 years old, 31.1 percent ages 25 to 60, and 6.2 percent ages 61 and older. The large percentage of young respondents is to be expected given that “Instagram use is especially high among younger adults” (Greenwood, et al., 2016). The high percentage of males is similar to what is found in other studies regarding political social media use (Ancu and Cozma, 2009; Kaye annd Johnson, 2002; Parmelee and Bichard, 2012) and may be due to women having less general interest in politics or inclination to participate in collective activism (Campbell and Winters, 2008; Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010).
Participants were told that a political leader could be a person or a political organization and that following was defined as “you chose to get their Instagram posts sent to you.” To measure the degree to which political leaders’ Instagram posts relate to followers’ subsequent activities, respondents were asked how often they “direct message a political leader”; “share a political leader’s post”; “look for information recommended in a political leaders’ post (for example, look at a recommended Web site, or blog, or book, or hashtag)”; “take action that was requested in a political leaders’ post (for example, sign a petition, take part in a protest, vote, contribute to a candidate)”; “post comments on a political leader’s post”; “like a political leader’s post”; and “tag a political leader in your post”. Answer options included never, rarely, sometimes, often, always.
Several scales measured the respondents’ political makeup, including political affiliation (1 = strong Democrat; 2 = lean toward Democrat; 3 = strong Republican; 4 = lean toward Republican; 5 = independent; 6 = other); interest in politics (1 = not at all interested; 5 = extremely interested); and likelihood of voting in the 2018 election (1 = very high likelihood; 10 = very low likelihood). Almost 90 percent said they had a “very high likelihood” of voting in 2018. The sample included 21.2 percent who are strong/lean toward Democrat, 52 percent who are strong/lean toward Republican, 15.4 percent independent, and 11.4 percent other.
Respondents were also asked if they voted in the 2016 general election, which measures past voting behavior. The vast majority did: 82 percent. Multiple choice questions measured respondents’ age, gender, race, and education. The sample was 77.6 percent Caucasian (non-Hispanic), 7.9 percent Hispanic, 3.6 percent African-American, 2.3 percent Asian, and 8.5 percent who identified as other. In terms of household income, 52.5 percent make US$65,000 or less and 47.5 percent make US$65,001 or more. Almost 54 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Political attitudes, such as political efficacy and trust in government, were measured with five-point scales (strongly disagree to strongly agree) with two statements, respectively (political efficacy: “I have a good understanding of the important political issues facing the country”, “I am better informed about politics and government than most people”; trust in government: “Most leaders are devoted to service”, “The federal government does what most Americans want it to do.”). Several studies assisted in forming the questions for political makeup and political attitudes (Ancu and Cozma, 2009; Kaye and Johnson, 2002; Parmelee and Bichard, 2012). The respondents had high levels of interested in politics (M = 4.49 on a five-point scale, SD = 0.76) and political efficacy (M = 8.66, 10-point index of the two survey items, SD = 1.84), but had limited trust in the government (M = 5.09, 10-point index of the two survey items, SD = 2.06).
In terms of tie strength and homophily, a five-point scale (1 = very unimportant; 5 = very important) measured the importance that each of the following has in influencing respondents’ political views: “friend”, “family” (strong ties); “co-workers”, “acquaintances” (weak ties); “Instagram posts from political leaders who you usually agree with politically” (no-tie homophilous source); and “Instagram posts from political leaders who you usually do not agree with politically” (no-tie heterophilous source). Definitions of tie strength and homophily are based on past WOM and eWOM studies (Brown and Reingen, 1987; Granovetter, 1973; Steffes and Burgee, 2009).
RQ1 explored the perceived influence of friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, and political leaders whom survey respondents agree or disagree with. The survey respondents ranked Instagram posts from political leaders with whom they agree (homophilous source) as having the highest influence on their political views (M = 3.36, SD = 1.11), followed by family members (M = 3.11, SD = 1.33), and friends (M = 2.68, SD = 1.25). Instagram posts from leaders whom respondents disagree with (M = 2.37, SD = 1.25), co-workers (M = 2.06, SD = 1.1), and acquaintances (M = 2.04, SD = 1.07) had the least influence.
RQ2 looked at how often followers engage in a variety of political activities on Instagram after seeing political leaders’ posts. “Liking” a political leader’s post is the most frequent action (M = 3.93, SD = 0.97), followed by looking for information that the political leader recommended (M = 2.83, SD = 1.08), posting a comment on a political leader’s post (M = 2.82, SD = 1.2), taking an action that was requested in political leader’s post (M = 2.82, SD = 1.13), and sharing a political leader’s post (M = 2.51, SD = 1.23). The survey participants were less likely to tag a political leader in their posts (M = 1.81, SD = 1.05) or send a direct message (M = 1.7, SD = 0.9). More than 75 percent of the respondents indicated that they “often” or “always” “like” a political leader’s post. More than 60 percent of followers at least sometimes engage in behaviors as a result of leaders’ posts, such as looking for recommended information, taking recommended actions, or posting comments. On the other hand, nearly 78 percent of the respondents indicated that they “never” or “rarely” tag a political leader in their Instagram posts, and nearly 82 percent of the respondents indicated that they “never” or “rarely” directly message a political leader on Instagram.
RQ3 examined whether political and demographic variables can predict a follower’s willingness to engage in various Instagram activities. For this purpose, a number of categorical variables were recoded into dummy variables, such as race (1 = Caucasian, 0 = other), age (1 = less than 40, 0 = 41 and older), and education (1 = bachelor degree or higher, 0 = less than a bachelor degree). Then the researchers conducted a series of multiple linear regression tests (see Table 1). Demographic and political variables predicted five out of seven actions.
Direct messaging a political leader
Age (B = -0.398, p < 0.01), interest in politics (B = 0.146, p < 0.05), and trust in government (B = 0.057, p < 0.05) predicted the frequency of sending a direct message to a political leader on Instagram (R2 = 0.099, p < 0.01). People older than 40 years old, those who were more interested in politics and had more trust in government were more likely to send a direct message to a political leader on Instagram.
Sharing a political leader’s post
Interest in politics (B = 0.363, p < 0.01) predicted the frequency of sharing political leaders’ posts on Instagram (R2 = 0.087, p < 0.01). Those who were more interested in politics shared such posts more often than those who were less interested in politics.
Taking an action that was requested in a political leader’s post
Gender (B = 0.367, p < 0.05), age (B = 0.376, p < 0.05) and interest in politics (B = 0.308, p < 0.01) predicted the frequency of someone taking actions requested by political leaders on Instagram (R2 = 0.105, p < 0.01). Women, people 40 years and younger, and those more interested in politics were more likely to take actions that were requested by a leaders.
“Liking” a political leader’s post
Age (B = 0.644, p < 0.001) and Republican Party affiliation (B = 0.3, p < 0.05) predicted the frequency of “liking” a political leader’s post (R2 = 0.113, p < 0.001). People that are 40 years old or younger and those who identified as Republicans were more likely to engage in such behavior than their older counterparts and non-Republicans.
Tagging a political leader in posts
Interest in politics (B = 0.266, p < 0.01), political efficacy (B = 0.072, p < 0.05), trust in government (B = 0.089, p < 0.01), and intention to vote in 2018 (B = 0.062, p < 0.05) predicted the frequency of tagging political leaders in Instagram posts (R2 = 0.113, p < 0.001). Those who were more interested in politics, more politically efficacious, had more trust in government, and were less likely to vote in 2018 were more likely to tag political leaders in their Instagram posts.
Table 1: Multiple linear regression analysis predicting actions taken by followers of political leaders on Instagram.
Note: *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001.
Predictor variables Direct message Share look for information Take requested action Post comment Like Tag Gender
-.102 -.185 .010 .367* -.294 .039 .003 Age
(40 and under-1, other-0)
-.398** -.233 .071 .376* .119 .644*** -.050 Race
.006 -.057 .008 .054 -.149 -.058 -.013 Education .104. -.258 -.093 .074. -.038 -.175 .183 Interest in politics .146* .363** .300** .308** .213* .115 .266** Efficacy .042 .056 .043 .052 .050 .025 .072* Trust .057* .019 .029 -.017 .069 .025 .089** Vote 2016 -.013 .130 .062 .142 -.007 .016 .078 Vote 2018 .015 .057 .035 -.003 .015 -.007 .062* Democrat
-.289 -.150 .287 .284 .002 .177 .137 Republican
-.206 .102 .043 .015 -.132 .300* .023 R2 .099** .087** .066 .105** .067 .113*** .113*** Adjusted R .064 .051 .028 .069 .030 .078 .078 F 2.797 2.418 1.766 2.927 1.812 3.211 3.192 N 291 290 289 287 288 288 287
RQ4 looked at the relationships between political and demographic characteristics of followers and the types of social ties that followers say are influencing their political views. The researchers created a new variable, “strong ties,” by combining “family” and “friends” variables. “Weak ties” were measured by combining the mean scores for “coworkers” and “acquaintances.” The final two variables, “no-tie homophilous source” and “no-tie heterophilous source,” represent Instagram posts from leaders whom followers usually agree with and disagree with, respectively. A series of multiple linear regression tests were performed (see Table 2). Political variables predicted the influence of “strong ties” and “no-tie heterophilous” sources. The regression models for “weak ties” and “homophilous ties” were not statistically significant.
Table 2: Multiple linear regression analysis predicting influential social ties for followers of political leaders on Instagram.
Note: *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001.
Predictor variables Strong ties Weak ties Homophilous ties Heterophilous ties Gender
-.160 -.423 .160 -.317 Age
(40 and under-1, other-0)
.230 -.222 .093 -.152 Race
.484 -.015 -.230 -.055 Education .034 -.504* -.152 -.034 Interest in politics -.363 -.199 -.066 -.119 Efficacy -.167* -.005 .008 -.060 Trust .106 .134* .018 .044 Vote 2016 -.126 .685* .126 .065 Vote 2018 .019 .081 .049 .081* Democrat .381 .223 .432* -.043 Republican .140 .075 .236 -.492** R2 .069* .061 .052 .072* Adjusted R .033 .024 .014 .035 F 1.884 1.645 1.380 1.966 N 290 290 290 290
Political efficacy (B = -0.167, p < 0.05) predicted the influence from strong ties (R2 = 0.069, p < 0.05). The less someone was politically efficacious, the more he/she placed importance on “strong ties.”
No-tie heterophilous sources
The intention to vote in 2018 (B = 0.081, p < 0.05) and Republican Party affiliation (-0.492, p < 0.01) predicted the influence of politicians whom the respondents disagreed with (R2 = 0.072, p < 0.05). Those who expressed lower likelihood of voting in 2018 were more likely to rank higher politicians they disagreed with as those influencing their views. Also, Republicans said that they were less likely to be influenced by politicians they disagreed with than non-Republicans.
Discussion and conclusion
The findings indicate that Instagram can play a major role as an opinion leader. Survey respondents reported that they consider Instagram posts from political leaders who are ideologically similar to them to be the most important influence on their political views. The influence of family members and friends ranked second and third, respectively. It is increasingly clear that on some social media platforms, such as Instagram, those with a no-tie relationship can be the most powerful opinion leaders. The results contribute to the theoretical foundations of research into eWOM and opinion leadership by showing conditions under which leaders with no personal relationship with followers can wield more influence than leaders with strong personal ties. A key condition is homophily. The results show how homophily can surpass tie strength when it comes to influencing political views online. Furthermore, the type of homophily most responsible for the increased influence is not demographic similarity but ideological solidarity, which matches marketing-based eWOM findings that the most important aspects of homophily online are “notions of shared group interests and group mind-set” .
How is it that a no-tie source, such as political leaders’ Instagram posts, can rank as top influencer when strong ties, such as friends, are rated most persuasive politically on Twitter and Facebook (Parmelee and Bichard, 2012; Valenzuela, et al., 2017)? The relative youth of Instagram users, which is reflected in the present study’s sample, may account for the difference. Instagram’s users are younger than the average users of Twitter and Facebook (Greenwood, et al., 2016). It is probably not a coincidence that another study that found the supremacy of no-tie relationships online also focused on a young population (Steffes and Burgee, 2009). The argument can be made that today’s youth are a generation of digital natives who have grown up seeing and trusting online referrals from anonymous sources and other strangers. A generation that regularly interacts with both close friends and complete strangers online can easily find it difficult to make distinctions between the two types of sources, which benefits no-tie sources and allows them to vie for influence. As a result, political leaders should consider Instagram as one of the more effective ways to reach and influence young voters.
Electronic word-of-mouth research provides another reason to explain the value of political leaders’ Instagram posts. Effective eWOM happens when messengers and their messages are perceived to be credible and personally relatable (Chu and Kim, 2018; Djafarova and Rushworth, 2017). Instagram posts can feel especially authentic and personal because Instagram was built primarily for use on mobile devices, and pictures and videos in posts that are taken on mobile devices often exhibit a sense of spontaneity and a documentary feel. The value of personally relatable political content on Instagram has also been shown by Larsson (2019), who found that posts from political leaders who include content of a personal nature generate more “likes” and comments than posts that focus on leaders’ public side. However, many politicians still avoid personalizing posts, opting instead for posts that display their professional duties and political positions . The findings presented here, as well as in previous eWOM research, suggest that political leaders could benefit by sending more posts that highlight their personal side and look less staged and official. Such techniques may increase the posts’ perceived credibility and relatability, thereby helping leaders influence their followers’ political views and actions.
In addition, parasocial relationship research suggests that the outsized influence of political leaders’ posts may be the result of followers forging an illusion of intimacy with leaders. Past studies have shown attitudinal and behavioral effects among those who exhibit parasocial relationships with politicians. Thorson and Rodgers (2006) found that forming a parasocial relationship with a candidate on their campaign Web site influenced users’ attitude toward the candidate and voting intension. Not only do parasocial relationships strongly predict support for political leaders, such support transcends party or whether the leaders are lifelong politicians or those with a previous career outside of government (Cohen and Holbert, 2018). The constant stream of personalized Instagram posts coming from politicians and other political leaders may cause many followers to develop parasocial relationships with leaders, which can alter followers’ perceptions of the strength of tie they have with leaders and increase leaders’ influence on followers’ actions and views. In-depth interviews and surveys with followers should be done to further explore the role that parasocial relationships play when following leaders on Instagram.
Instagram’s non-reciprocal following feature may also contribute to political leaders’ posts being so influential. As was found with Twitter, non-reciprocal following tends to make it easier for strangers to get noticed and spread their political messages (Valenzuela, et al., 2017). The ability of strangers such as political leaders to directly influence their Instagram followers contributes to the concept of one-step flow, which involves the “refined targeting of messages directly to individuals” by political and mass media elites . On the other hand, political leaders on Instagram may also serve a two-step flow function as social mediators of mass media messages.
The present study also demonstrates why it is important to include no-tie sources as a separate category in eWOM research. Measuring the influence of only strong and weak ties ignores the power that strangers wield on social media. Based on Granovetter’s (1973) definition of tie strength, political leaders on Instagram can almost never be considered a strong or weak tie because of the lack of “mutual confiding” and “reciprocal services” between leaders and their followers . Furthermore, incorporating strangers and other no-tie sources within the operationalization of, say, weak ties is problematic because doing so can result in a misunderstanding of key findings. For example, in the present study, co-workers and acquaintances, both weak ties, had the lowest scores for political influence. Including leaders’ posts within the weak-tie category would have inaccurately boosted the score for the weak-tie group and given the impression that the gap between weak and strong ties as political influencers is quite small. In reality, weak-ties have far less influence politically than strong ties or nonexistent ties. Furthermore, both types of political Instagram posts, those from agreeable and disagreeable leaders, ranked higher in influence than co-workers or acquaintances. The evidence illustrates how distinct and politically influential no-tie sources can be.
Political party affiliation also impacts the perceived influence of leaders’ Instagram posts. Democrats, independents, and supporters of other parties were more likely to rank higher posts from leaders they usually disagree with than Republicans. The differences in effects based on followers’ political affiliation highlights Instagram’s contribution to selective exposure and selective avoidance, which can cause people to isolate themselves from voices of dissent and is harmful for political discourse and democracy (Parmelee and Roman, 2020).
The degree to which followers like, share, and comment on political leaders and their posts is also worth noting. Certain behaviors, such as liking a leaders’ post, were very frequent, with more than 75 percent of the respondents indicated that they “often” or “always” “like” a political leader’s post. Other behaviors, such as direct messaging a leader, rarely or never happened among more than 80 percent of respondents. It is not surprising that “liking” was the most frequent activity given that it is easier to do than direct messaging a leader. Some behaviors on Instagram happen as frequently as on other types of social media, such as Twitter. For example, more than 60 percent of Instagram respondents at least sometimes take actions recommended by leaders, such as contributing to a candidate or signing a petition. The same percentage was found among a survey of followers of political leaders on Twitter . On the other hand, while more than half of followers of leaders on Twitter “often” or “always” look for leaders’ recommended information, on Instagram less than a third of respondents do so. The results are another indication of how each social media platform is unique and can lead to different political outcomes.
The demographics of followers also contributed to which actions were taken. Being female predicted taking actions requested in political leaders’ Instagram posts. Being younger significantly predicted liking political leaders’ posts and taking requested actions, which reinforces the point that Instagram is a useful venue to find and influence young people.
In terms of the study’s limitations, the not-random sample limits generalizability of the findings. However, non-random samples are common in surveys of social media and Internet use, especially when there is no list of the population and the population is engaged in a specific activity online (Eldin, 2016; Parmelee and Bichard, 2012; Pittman and Reich, 2016; Steffes and Burgee, 2009). The self-reported nature of surveys may not capture respondents’ actual behavior, though a recent study found that survey data of political social media use correlates with respondents’ observed activity (Guess, et al., 2019). Finally, there are more self-identified Republicans than Democrats in the sample, which may limit generalizability of the findings, though other surveys of politically active social media users have also had a high Republican percentage (Beam, et al., 2018; Johnson, et al., 2017).
Future research into political Instagram use should include in-depth interviews with followers of leaders’ posts to understand which visual and verbal aspects make some posts better at affecting followers’ actions and views. What is clear so far is that Instagram can be a potent political platform, especially for targeting the young, even though leaders and their followers usually have a nonexistent relationship.
About the authors
John H. Parmelee (Ph.D., University of Florida) is a professor and director of the School of Communication at the University of North Florida. Academic research interests include how technology impacts political communication. His research has been published in journals such as Political Communication, New Media & Society, Journalism Studies, Social Media + Society, Newspaper Research Journal, Communication Quarterly, and the Journal of Mixed Methods Research. He is co-author of Politics and the Twitter revolution: How tweets influence the relationship between political leaders and the public (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2012).
E-mail: jparmele [at] unf [dot] edu
Nataliya Roman (Ph.D., University of Florida) is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at the University of North Florida. Prior to her academic career, Nataliya worked as a reporter and documentary filmmaker for several prominent Ukrainian TV channels and for Voice of America in Washington, D.C. Nataliya specializes in researching international and political communication, and new media usage.
E-mail: nataliya [dot] roman [at] unf [dot] edu
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Received 17 July 2020; revised 14 August 2020; accepted 16 August 2020.
Copyright © 2020, John Parmelee and Nataliya Roman. All Rights Reserved.
The strength of no-tie relationships: Political leaderss’ Instagram posts and their followerss’ actions and views
by John Parmelee and Nataliya Roman.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 9 - 7 September 2020