Do People “Like” Politicians on Facebook? Not really. Large-Scale Direct Candidate-to-Voter Online Communication as an Outlier Phenomenon
The online popularity of a few exceptional candidates has led many to suggest that social media have given politicians powerful new ways of communicating directly with voters. Examining whether this is happening on a significant scale, we find that, based on analysis of 224 major party candidates running in competitive districts for the U.S. House of Representatives during the 2010 congressional elections, most politicians online are, in fact, largely ignored by the electorate. Citizens’ attention to candidates online approximates power-law distributions, with a few drawing many followers and most languishing in obscurity. Because large-scale direct online communication between politicians and ordinary people via these platforms is a rare, outlier phenomenon—even in the case of high-stakes, well-resourced campaigns—we suggest that the most relevant political implications of social media take the form of (a) new forums for indirect communication about politics and (b) institutional changes in political communication processes.