Sharon Haleva-Amir, Tel Aviv University
One of the key research questions of online politics is if Internet usage favors established/dominant or peripheral/marginal parties and candidates (Farrell, 2012). To further examine this question, the current study analyzes Facebook usage of parties and contenders during the 2015 Israeli parliament (Knesset) election campaigns.
Our research enriches the existing literature in the following ways: First, our sample consists of Israeli users and Israel is a country saturated by Facebook. Data from high saturation locations will provide useful insights into trends and potential developments for political Facebook usage in lower penetration locations. Second, even though the significance of Facebook in political campaigns is incontestable, there is a lack of standardization concerning activity measurements. Scholars regularly use number of fans, number of posts, or level of public engagement as indexes. This study, however, addresses all three parameters, offering wider and more generalizable conclusions. Third, to the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to analyze Facebook activities of both parties and candidates in realistic rankings. Lastly, this study is among the first to use computer-automated tools to analyze campaigning activities. These tools greatly expand the scope of research while significantly shortening the time required to carry it out (Lazer et al., 2009).
The normalization and equalization hypotheses are competing hypotheses, which address the impact of the online realm on the political arena (Lilleker & Vedel, 2013; Larsson & Moe, 2014; Gibson & McAllister, 2015; Southern, 2015).
The Equalization hypothesis suggests that the internet will promote equality of use between dominant and peripheral political players. The ‘less fortunate’group will use various online techniques in higher degrees compared to their competitors so as to compensate for their structural disadvantages. The Equalization hypothesis did not gain much empirical support.
The Normalization hypothesis, has gained substantially greater support compared to the Equalization hypothesis, at least in reference to website usage (Lilleker & Vedel, 2013), and now seems to occupy the scholarly consensus. Its main rational is that gaps in status and capability would be reproduced and even enlarged online as dominant players are better equipped and financed, while peripheral parties lack substantive resources and abilities to maintain significant activities over sophisticated digital platforms. When the dominant parties actualize their resources for a comprehensive and sophisticated digital presence, they will not only be more active online but their websites will be more functional; in turn, this will attract more traffic (Foot & Schneider, 2006).
The growing use of Facebook as a new arena for online political activity has established new hopes for online political equalization. A few studies conducted in various countries have indeed demonstrated that Facebook is used first and foremost by peripheral contenders (see Schweitzer, 2011; Strandberg, 2013). But does Facebook really offer a new hope for the equalization hypothesis?
Our research addresses four dimensions of the Normalization versus Equalization question.
> Difference in the mere Facebook presence of dominant and peripheral parties and candidates ranked in realistic places.
> Difference in the scope of Facebook activity between dominant and peripheral parties. " Difference in the scope of Facebook activity between the candidates in realistic rankings in the dominant and peripheral parties.
> Differences between the scope of Facebook activity between high-ranking and low-ranking candidates, In the intra-party arena.
This study analyses the Facebook presence and activity of the parties that ran for the 20th Israeli Parliament and of candidates with realistic rankings. The study population included 265 pages: 25 party pages and 240 candidate pages, out of which we located 23 party Facebook pages and 132 candidate pages.
To collect party and candidate activity data, we used Netvizz, an application that scraps page data from Facebook’s API. The number of page fans was collected manually on Election Day by the researchers.
Overall, the study analyzed six dimensions of Facebook page activity: Number of fans on Election Day; number of posts published throughout the data collection period (including posts by page and by users); overall number of likes, comments, and shares of posts during the data collection period; and, finally, the overall engagement that summed up all engagement dimensions with contents uploaded to the pages over the data collection period (number of likes, comments, comments-likes, and shares) for each page.
RQ1: Altogether, for the 25 parties, 23 Facebook pages were located. Only two parties, both peripheral, did not maintain a Facebook page. Hence, both dominant and peripheral parties are nearly universally using Facebook.
Things are different in reference to the activities of candidates with realistic rankings. 130 of the184 dominant party candidates ranked realistically (70.7%) had Facebook pages. However, only 2 of 56 candidates from peripheral parties with realistic rankings (3.6%) had Facebook pages. Altogether, 132 out of 240 candidates ranked realistically (55%) had a Facebook page.
RQ2: Mann-Whitney tests were used to find whether there are differences in the scope of Facebook activity between the dominant and peripheral parties. Across all Facebook activity measures, the pages of the dominant parties were significantly more active than the pages of the peripheral parties.
RQ3: Mann-Whitney tests indicated that pages of candidates from dominant parties had significantly more Facebook activity than the pages of candidates from peripheral parties
RQ4: Five largest parties’lists were divided into groups of eight according to their position on the party list. We ran Kruskal-Wallis and Mann-Whitney tests. In most but not all cases, and especially within the dominant parties, the high-ranking candidates were significantly more active on Facebook than the low-ranking candidates. Even when differences between groups of 8 were not significant, they were still large and indicative.
Our research corresponds with previous work showing that with time the expectations of the Equalization hypothesis are replaced with the predictions of the Normalization hypothesis, as dominant and established parties and candidates take over the social media scene.
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