Social Networks and Political Campaigns. A Case from Romania

Social Networks and Political Campaigns. A Case from Romania
Social Networks and Political Campaigns. A Case from Romania

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1. Abstract

2. Introduction

3. Literature review

4. Objectives and methodology

5. Findings

6. Discussions and implications


1. Abstract 

More and more researchers focus on the role of social networks in election campaigns. In this paper, we take a look at the 2016 Romanian parliamentary elections, in order to analyse the online campaign on Facebook of one of the most popular Romanian parties, USR. With the help of content analysis, this study aims at shedding some light into the use of social networks in an emerging democracy like Romania. Using both a priori and emergent coding, we take a look at the content of the posts, the use of multimedia elements and the online reactions each post generated. Our findings indicate that USR’s online communication focuses on presenting its candidates, while properly integrating multimedia elements to reach to their voters.


2. Introduction  

For more than a decade now. the Internet has become a new source of information and expression, providing an inexpensive way to communicate worldwide. The surprising evolution of the internet caught the attention of political actors, who started to incorporate this new medium into their campaigns (Williams & Gulati, 2007; Wattal, Schuff, Mandviwalla, & Williams, 2010; Towner & Dulio, 2011). Although the information on the Internet is vast and sometimes hard to manage, the Internet is democratizing the political systems. Thus, the concept of mass communication has been changed and communication, in its true etymological meaning, is now possible (Williams & Gulati, 2007). Communication is now universal, omnipresent and free, although problems as lack of truthfulness, authenticity of sources, quality of content, intellectual property rights cannot be ignored. The use of social networks in the political sphere has its origin in the triumph of Barack Obama (Cogburn & Espinoza-Vasquez, 2011; Sweetser & Lariscy, 2008; Vaccari 2010; Woolley, Limperos, & Oliver, 2010). Obama’s campaign, based on online and viral marketing, was the first campaign in the history to segregate the social media department (also called technological) within the communication department, to make it a new, independent department (Robertson, Vatrapu, & Medina, 2010; Towner & Dulio, 2011).

In Romania, social networks started to be used in 2008, but it was not until 2012 elections that political actors integrated them properly in their communication strategy. The case of 2014 presidential elections, together with the 2016 parliamentary elections show that social networks (especially Facebook when it comes to Romania) are valuable means of interacting with the voters.

The paper aims at gaining insight into the 2016 parliamentary campaign, with focus on social media strategy. For this analysis, we selected the USR party (Union Save Romania), a recently created party, that shortly became one of the most popular parties on Facebook, and conducted a content analysis on the posts published on its official Facebook page during the electoral campaign.

The paper is structured as follows: the next section provides a literature review on the use of social networks in political campaign; section 2 presents the objectives and methodology; in the third section, we discuss the findings; section 4 invites to discussions and gives an outlook for future research.


3. Literature review

Within this universe called “Web 2.0”, social networks are one of the tools where the user is the real protagonist (Carlisle & Patton, 2013; Towner & Dulio, 2012). The easy access, the immediacy and the universality of its reach have made the Internet the most powerful tool of transmitting ideas of all time (Towner & Dulio, 2011; Wattal, Schuff, Mandviwalla, & Williams, 2010).

Although it is true that today social networks are indispensable in elections, it is also true that they do not replace territorial campaigns, personal direct contact and the massive well known conventional mass media (Pedersen, 2012; LaMarre & Suzuki-Lambrecht, 2013). Even in the 2008 Obama campaign, considered paradigmatic for its use of social networks, Obama spent 16 million dollars on online advertising, and 250 million dollars on television ads (Smith, 2012; Hoffman, 2012). In 2012, he tripled the budget for online advertising at 51 million dollars and almost doubled the budget for television ads: 450 million dollars (Smith, 2012; Hoffman, 2012).

According to Brants & Katrin (2011), digital media have been incorporated as tools of political communication for three main reasons. The first one is speed, since any political message can be uploaded from anywhere in the world and almost instantaneously downloaded anywhere else without delay. The second reason is versatility, because digital media support texts on websites and blogs, public and private messages, photos and videos. Finally, ease of use is the third reason: political communication is no longer just top-down, from parties or media channels to citizens, but also horizontal and bottom-up, since any digitally connected person, with the simplest smartphone, can become a communication channel (Utz, 2009; Ward & Janelle, 2010; Schmitt-Beck & Mackenrodt, 2010; Pedersen, 2012; Mascheroni & Mattoni, 2013).

Also, networks are excellent tools to respond quickly to attacks made by opponents and to influence the agenda of conventional media. In fact, newspapers, in their online version, use tweets or posts of politicians to reach a wider audience. Nonetheless, social platforms also enhance the risk in communication, as well as error (Wattal, Schuff, Mandviwalla Williams, 2010; Bode, 2012; Carlisle and Patton, 2013).

According to experts, there are several reasons why internet marketing has changed and continues to change political communication (Utz, 2009; Ward and Janelle, 2010; Schmitt-Beck and Mackenrodt, 2010; Pedersen, 2012; Mascheroni Mattoni, 2013). The first reason is speed.

Internet speed helped change the political campaigns in a way that previous technologies were unable to. An event published on the internet has the same effect as an event broadcast on radio or television, but it can be accessed immediately during and after its production (Utz, 2009).

Speed in this case is more important than anything else (Schmitt-Beck and Mackenrodt, 2010). Moreover, the Internet has the advantage of being very easy to use, providing access to information

24 hours a day. Another important aspect is that politicians can now communicate virtually with voters, without any geographic limitations. More and more institutions and political actors are using Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube etc. to interact with voters (Towner & Dulio, 2011). Quick checks became more efficient using Google, Bing or Yahoo as users can search for statistics, information or definitions within seconds. In 2008, Google revealed that during political debates Google searches increased significantly. What is more, social networks have changed the concept of political debate (Stieglit & Xuan Brockmann, 2012); now, voters can express their wishes and be heard not only in the community they belong to, but in the entire world.

However, Ren and Meisters (2010) consider that the simple use of social networks does not automatically lead to an increased number of voters. Success depends mostly on the updated information and online interaction between politicians and voters. One of the most common mistakes made by politicians is using Internet 2.0. in the same way, they used Internet 1.0 (Lamarre & Suzuki Lambrecht, 2013). In web 2.0, the key is interacting with participants.

Towner & Dúlio (2011). Participation is essential given that the new media require users to be active not only in the distribution of political content, but also in communicating the message of the campaign.

More and more researchers focus on the role of 2.0 technologies in election campaigns. The last campaigns in the United States showed that the Internet has become a very important tool for interacting with voters (Sweetser & Lariscy, 2008; Fooley, 2013; Carlisle & Patton (2013).

What is more, social networks can be successfully adapted to contact and discuss with voters, while sharing with them essential information. In 2010, Wattal, Schuff, & Mandviwalla investigate the impact of Web 2.0 technologies in election campaigns. Their result shows that, in a private setting, blogosphere can influence the political process and the outcome of the campaign. Also, an interesting work by Williams and Gulati (2007) investigate how German congress members have used Facebook during the campaign. The results show that the number of Facebook supporters can be considered an indicator of electoral success. In addition, in the 2006 Netherland elections, Utz (2009) revealed that social networking sites represent an opportunity to get to those less interested in politics. The study also shows that politicians responding to user comments are more likely to get elected. Kushin and Kitchener (2009) explore the use of Facebook in political discussions and conclude that Facebook is a proper environment for political discussion and, to some extent, online discussions have managed to overcome the difficulties in the past. In 2015, Gerodimos and Justinussen conducted a content analysis to describe Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign and identified the main objectives of his speech: call to action, attacking the opponent, collective appeal, and endorsing political platform. Their study indicates that despite the intensive personalisation of the speech in an attempt to close the gap between the candidate and his supporters, Obama’s discourse on Facebook was controlled and close-ended (Gerodimos & Justinussen, 2015).

In Romania, social networks emerged in 2008 with the rise of Facebook and Twitter.

Currently the most commonly used are Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Flickr, Linkedin. Facebook has known an impressive growth during the last years, with almost 10 million Romanian users registered in early 2017. The number of users is with 15% higher than in 2016 and 27 % higher than during 2014 presidential elections. Most Facebook users are in Bucharest – 1759500, 19% of total users (Facebrands, 2017).

In 2014, Klaus Iohannis became the first politician in Europe to reach one million fans on Facebook, surpassing Merkel, Sarkozy and Hollande. Klaus Iohannis is followed by former prime minister Victor Ponta, with 825 048 fans, general mayor of Bucharest Gabriela Firea - 483 124, former president Traian Basescu - 398 469, former Parliament member Elena Udrea - 372 675 and former prime minister Dacian Cioloş- 315 278. When it comes to the parties in the Romania, the most popular party on Facebook is the National Liberal Party with 255 359 fans, followed by the Social Democratic Party - 68 560, Save Romania Union - 61 480 and the Popular Movement Party - 45 387 (Facebrands, 2017).


4. Objectives and methodology 

For this analysis, we selected USR (Union Save Romania), one of the most popular Romanian parties on Facebook, and conducted a content analysis on the posts published on its official Facebook page during the electoral campaign. In Romania, regulations allow 30 days of official campaign, so we selected that period of time for this analysis. Our study gathered a total number of 189 online posts published by USR, but we took into consideration only 171 posts, and we excluded posts containing announcements regarding candidates’ presence in a TV show or information concerning the voting procedure.

Using both a priori and emergent coding, we studied the messages in order to see how USR uses Facebook during 2016 parliamentary elections. We took a look at the content of the posts, the use of multimedia elements and the online reactions each post generated. Also, using the classification proposed by Gerodimos & Justinussen (2015) we identify the objectives of this online campaign and we also add two new categories to the classification. In addition, we use emergent coding to analyse the main topic, the key concepts and the affective state of the posts.

This paper aims at studying how USR uses Facebook during 2016 parliamentary elections by focusing on:

1. the actual content of the messages posted on Facebook;

2. the integration of multimedia elements in the posts;

3. the objectives of the online campaign;

4. the online reactions generated by USR’s online.


5. Findings

From the official start of the campaign until December 11th, the five most popular parties and their leaders have posted more than a thousand messages on Facebook. The most active party is PSD (the Social-Democrat Party), with over 450 messages posted on its pages (PSD’s official Facebook page, 2017) followed by USR (USR’s official Facebook page, 2017) and PNL (the National-Liberal Party) (PNL’s official Facebook page, 2017). PSD distinguishes from other parties by two main characteristics. First, the public can post directly on its leader’s page.

Secondly, more than half of the messages on PSD’s page are posts which do not include any media or links, just text. When it comes to the other parties, the number of this type of posts is much lower, around 10% for USR and ALDE (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) (ALDE’s official Facebook page, 2017), 5% PMP (the Popular Movement Party) (PMP’s official Facebook page, 2017) and only 2% for PNL. Instead, these parties preponderantly integrate multimedia elements in their posts, 84% for PNL and 62% for USR. PSD and PMP post more videos, while ALDE uses more pictures. Between 13 and 23% of total posts include external links.

When it comes to the ten most popular posts, six belong to PNL, two are from USR’s leader Nicusor Dan, and two from ALDE’s co-president, Calin Popescu Tariceanu. The most popular post (32186 likes, 3426 shares and 4226 comments) belongs to the PNL, and it endorses Dacian Ciolos as prime minister.

Nicusor Dan is the most frequently used name on USR’s page, along with “Clotilde” and “Ghinea”, other two USR candidates. Other commonly used words only by USR are “honest”, “finally” and “corruption”. The central theme for USR is change, “Finally, you have an option for vote” being campaign’s tagline.

Starting with November, 11th and until December 11th, USR posted 189 messages of Facebook, with an average of 6 posts per day. At the beginning of the campaign, the number of messages grew from an average of three per day, at the beginning of the campaign, to eight per day. For this study, we took into consideration only 171 posts, excluding posts containing announcements regarding candidates’ presence in a TV show or information concerning the voting procedure.

The average length of one post is 5 lines, 52 words. The shortest message represents an incentive to vote: “Let’s change the system once and for all!”, whereas the longest post contains 14 lines and it is a description of one of its candidates.

Moreover, the tone of communication is positive, with 58 of the posts comprising negative elements. As expected, the negative posts target USR’s opponents, with the focus on PSD. The language is simple, clear and direct, with a tendency for first and second person pronouns (I, you, we).

Using multimedia elements is one of the key features of social media. USR takes full advantage of these elements, by using only 13 text-only posts; most of the posts contain either a photo (86 posts) or a video (72 posts) (see Fig. 1).


 Immagine rimossa.

Fig. 1. The use of multimedia elements


As indicated in Fig. 2, the main objective of communication is to present the candidates to the public. Being a young party, it is essential that the voters get acquainted with the candidates, so USR focuses its communication efforts on making its candidates visible. At the same time, USR concentrate on self-promotion, by presenting its mission, values and political platform.

USR constantly emphasizes its fresh approach and the fact that its candidates come from outside the system. 45 posts involve self-promotion, but only 6 of them send to political platform. The messages are designed to gain audience’s sympathy and support by triggering their emotions rather than by using rational arguments.

Out of a total of 171, 28 of the posts are statements against the current political system. Overall, the messages state that the system is corrupted and needs to be changed, with an obvious focus on PSD, and 83 of the messages contain a call to action message: “Time to make a change”.

In opposition to their main opponent, USR only posted 7 endorsement messages of Romanian celebrities.

Immagine rimossa.

Fig. 2. The objective of online communication


As his opponents, USR appeals mostly to emotion when communications with the voters.

The online strategy places “the need to change” in the centre of communication, using messages with high emotional component: “Who are we? Where do we belong? We are humans, just like you. We are not super heroes; we are just honest citizens who obey the law. We have not been involved in politics before, but we are the most capable candidates you can vote on December, 11th.

As more and more studies argue that voting is rather irrational than rational (Hoffman, 2012; Cogburn, 2013), it may seem logical for the candidate to extensively appeal to emotion.

When it comes to the online reactions, the posts with pictures generate the most reactions among the public. On average, a post including a picture receives more than 700 likes, gets shared nearly

150 times and generates around 40 comments. Posts containing videos are shared in greater proportion than the ones including pictures, but receive fewer likes. The posts that do not include any media elements or links generate the lowest number of reactions. Movies and photos generate the highest number of comments as well.

The posts with the highest number of reactions are self-promotion containing call to actions. The post which the most reactions has 2300 likes, 980 shares and 90 comments.

Interestingly, the posts with the most online reactions feature USR leader Nicusor Dan. The messages attacking the opponent also get many reactions from voters (a mean of 500 likes/post), but in this case, the number of shares overcomes the number of shares for self-promotion posts (a mean of 100 shares/post).


6. Discussions and implications 

Without doubt, we are witnessing a revolution of mass communication. The transformation of social networks in one of the most relevant media of mass communication has not gone unnoticed by political specialists, who seized the opportunity to approach voters. The online audience has gradually turned into a key target, as it is an essential factor in communicating political messages. However, the simple presence on social networks does not guarantee the success. Strategists still need to consider an integrated communication campaign that can make use of social networks’ opportunities. Last elections have shown that social networks can be a very appropriate channel to interact with voters, and especially to attract a segment of the electorate that does not respond to traditional media of mass communication. All around the world, social networks changed the political game and Romania is no exception. Both in 2014 and 2016 elections, Facebook influenced electoral behaviour, empowering a category of people who are not receptive to traditional mass-media. The 2016 parliamentary elections emphasize the importance of social networks in campaigns, as it gave authority to a recently created party – USR. The Romanian parties align to the Western trend of communicating on social networks, by appealing to emotion in their attempt to reach out for voters’ support. In addition, they make great use of multimedia elements to get users’ interest and to generate online reactions.

As for our limitations, this sample is still a partial snapshot in the context of a massive campaign that started moths before Election Day. Therefore, future research could take into consideration extending the content analysis to all the posts published on Facebook during 2016 parliamentary campaign. Furthermore, an analysis of the users’ comments would reveal more about their attitude towards the party, as the number of online reactions is not automatically a reflection of users’ support.

Despite our limitations, the study generates valuable insight into 2016 parliamentary elections that can be used in future research and sets up the parameters for further complex investigation. 



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