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Keywords:

  • Credibility;
  • social network sites;
  • Facebook;
  • election campaigns;
  • 2008 election

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Scholars have confirmed that political candidates are increasingly turning to social network sites (SNS) to persuade voters to vote for them, and that these sites have become prominent sources of political information. But a fundamental question arises about the sustainability of social networks as a campaign tool: How much do users trust the information they find there? This study employed an online survey to examine the degree to which politically interested online users view SNS as credible. SNS were ranked the least credible among the nine traditional and online sources examined. Reliance on social networks proved the strongest predictor of SNS credibility.

When campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama successfully employed social network sites (SNS) such as MySpace and Facebook, specialty sites such as BlackPlanet and AsianAve, as well as his own site mybarackobama.com to connect with voters, mobilize an army of volunteers, and amass a huge campaign war chest through his legion of contributors (Fraser & Dutta, 2008; Stelter, 2008). Obama's intense reliance on the Internet, especially on SNS, was thought to be critical to his victory. Moreover, because SNS had such a strong influence on voters, the 2008 presidential race was dubbed “The Facebook Election” (Fraser & Dutta, 2008; Johnson & Perlmutter, 2010). Furthermore, some scholars credit SNS with significantly aiding the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterm election (Geiber, 2011).

The 2008 election underscored the importance of SNS as a campaign tool (Metzgar & Maruggi, 2010), and showed the world that they are popular venues of political persuasion. During the campaign, 40 percent of all SNS users relied on them chiefly to discover their friends' political interests, 29 percent to see their friends' political affiliation and 22 percent for campaign or candidate information (Smith & Rainie, 2008).

Most Internet credibility studies have focused on the Internet as a whole or on online news sites (Johnson & Kaye, 2009). A few studies have examined credibility of components of the Internet such as blogs (Johnson & Kaye, 2004; Johnson, Kaye, Bichard, & Wong, 2007; Kim, 2012), bulletin boards/lists and chat/instant messaging (Kaye & Johnson, 2006) as well as candidate and issue-oriented sites (Johnson & Kaye, 2009). However, few studies have explored credibility of SNS even though political candidates are increasingly turning to SNS to persuade voters. Therefore, a fundamental question arises about the sustainability of SNS as a campaign tool: How much do users trust the information they find there? This is an important question because a source must be judged as credible for voters to rely on it (Johnson & Kaye, 1998, 2002; Metzger, Flanagin, Eyal, Lemus & McCann, 2003). Although it could be assumed that Obama's success in 2008 was attributable, at least in part, to the perceived credibility of SNS, it is also possible that their influence was due to a novelty effect or some other reason related to the nature of the campaign.

This study, therefore, questions the degree to which politically interested online users, that is, people who visit politically oriented websites, blogs, discussion groups and SNS for political news and information, view SNS as credible. An online survey asked respondents to judge SNS on believability, fairness, accuracy, and depth of information. Additional focus is placed on the connection between perceptions of credibility and reliance on SNS.

Literature Review: Internet Credibility

It has been long recognized that credibility is not inherent to a source (Berlo, Lemert & Mertz, 1969). Credibility is a judgment made by the user based on a host of factors, including believability, accuracy, fairness, depth, trustworthiness, bias, completeness, reliability (Gaziano & McGrath, 1986; Metzger et al, 2003) as well as ease of use and attractiveness of a site (Metzger, 2007). Because there are now so many easy and convenient ways, such as SNS and blogs, to post information on the Internet, it is often not filtered through professional gatekeepers. Further, sites lack traditional indicators of authority such as author identity and established reputation, which puts the burden of determining credibility more squarely on the shoulders of the users (Metzger, 2007; Metzger et al., 2003).

Because credibility is based on user's perceptions several researchers have developed models that explain how individuals determine site credibility (e.g. Fogg, 2003; Metzger, 2007). Many of these credibility models are based on information processing models such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) and the Heuristic-Systematic Model (Chaiken, 1980). The degree, then, to which online messages and sites are scrutinized for their credibility depends on users' ability to evaluate the site or message (e.g., their Internet experience and their critical abilities to evaluate information) and how motivated they are to ensure that the information they receive is accurate and credible. For instance, users surfing the Internet for entertainment may not assess the credibility of a site at all or rely on surface characteristics of a site such as its appearance, while those highly motivated to get accurate information, such as someone recently diagnosed with a serious disease, might engage in a more rigorous, systematic approach to credibility assessment such as verifying the author's qualifications or credentials or turning to other sources to validate the information (Metzger, 2007).

Studies examining students found that they rarely or only occasionally systematically verify information and that their actual verification behavior (e.g. clicking links to external sites to verify information) is even more sporadic (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000; 2007). In information processing terms, then, people rely on more peripheral cues or heuristics (that is, information processing strategies that rely on useful mental short cuts, rules of thumb or general guidelines) rather than systematic or central processing (more systematic and rigorous approaches) to determine site credibility (Metzger, Flanagin & Medders, 2010).

Those assessing the credibility of SNS are highly likely to rely on peripheral cues or heuristics because heavy users of SNS for political information use these sites for entertainment and to talk and debate with others rather than for in-depth political information (Kaye, 2010). Further, users are more likely to support an opinion if it is advocated by many of those in their social network, and they are likely to believe information that comes from individuals they already trust or from people who seem to hold similar political views (Metzger, et al, 2010).

Genre Credibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

The Internet is comprised of several components, such as SNS and blogs. Because each component is different from one another in terms of interactivity, synchronicity, how information is retrieved, how it is used, and users' expectations, credibility of each is judged by different criteria (Flanagin & Metzger, 2008; Metzger, et al., 2003; Johnson & Kaye, 2009).

The term “genre credibility” refers to the assessment of credibility of different Internet components (Flanagin & Metzger, 2007). Genre credibility draws distinctions among Internet components based on various characteristics. For example, some Internet components, such as chat and instant messaging, which are more interactive and synchronous than others, are used for interpersonal communication, while less interactive and asynchronous ones, such as websites, are used for information seeking and guidance (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000; Johnson & Kaye, 2009).

SNS Use and Credibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

In their seminal work, boyd and Ellison (2007) defined SNS as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semipublic profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” They specifically listed Facebook and YouTube as examples of SNS1.

SNS are clearly a way to connect with friends, family, and other known individuals. Accessing SNS is interesting and entertaining. SNS also serve as a forum for political discussion and expression as well as an outlet for political information (Kaye, 2010). For example, 40% of all SNS users and 50% of young adults used SNS to discover or share information about politics and the 2008 elections, with 22% specifically looking for information about a candidate or campaign (Smith & Rainie, 2008). Additionally, more than 20% received 2010 midterm campaign news through SNS (Smith, 2011).

Facebook and YouTube are SNS that are among the top three most popular destinations for U.S. Internet users (McIntyre, 2012) and social networks have passed e-mail as the most common way to connect with others online (Nielsen, 2009). Because SNS information bounces among millions of users every day it may be difficult to quickly discern fact from fiction, news from opinion, and scientific forecast from speculation. Understandably, assessing the credibility of SNS messages is complicated because information comes from a variety of sources, ranging from expertly vetted articles from well-respected publications and websites to views spouted from “friends” one has never met. Furthermore, social media allow people to search for political information and express their political views, which makes them consumers and producers of political information. Information also appears in many formats from status updates, wall posts, videos, and articles that link to individuals and groups, some who may try to present unbiased information, and others who argue on behalf or against political issues and candidates. Such information may provide users with new perspectives, reinforce existing values, or users may choose to ignore the information entirely (Hanson, Cunningham, Sharma, & Ponder, 2010; Kushin & Yamamoto, 2010).

While research that has specifically examined credibility of SNS has been lacking, Flanagin and Metzger (2011) explored the credibility of Wikipedia, a site that features information that ranges from expertly researched and written content to individuals simply spouting off their own views or trying to advance an agenda. They discovered that Wikipedia was rated as moderately credible, but not as credible as more established encyclopedias such as Encyclopædia Britannica. The authors noted that the problem of determining credibility on such user-generated sites as Wikipedia and SNS is that information about the source can be masked or missing, or hard to interpret because information can be “co-produced, repurposed from one site, channel, or application to another” (Flanagin & Metzger, 2011, p. 358).

The vast array of user-generated content that zips across far-flung computer connections underscores the importance of determining SNS credibility. Of question are the personal characteristics, political attitudes, and uses of SNS that influence the perception of what is and what is not credible SNS information. Moreover, sources that are used for information gathering are usually judged as more credible than ones, such as SNS, that are used for interpersonal communication (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000; Johnson & Kaye, 2009).

Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Since the early days of credibility research, studies have shown people rely on a source's trustworthiness and expertise in making credibility judgments (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953; Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield, 1949) and it seems that this holds true for online information as well (Metzger, Flanagin, & Medders, 2010). Individuals are likely to connect to sites and messages that support their beliefs (Woolley, Limperos, & Oliver, 2010). The credibility of SNS information is enhanced if it comes from those who share the users' values and interests (Metzger, et al., 2010). In general, information that supports a receiver's worldview is convincing and confirming and thus it is judged as more legitimate and credible than challenging information (Johnson & Kaye, 2009).

SNS users have a considerable degree of control of who they “friend,” and they typically select friends who they are acquainted with offline (boyd & Ellison, 2007), thus real life friends are likely to congregate on the same SNS and groups within a site. People are also likely to spend more time on SNS with friends who they share an offline connection than those they are hardly acquainted with (Ellison, Lampe, Steinfield, & Vitak, 2010). When individuals limit the size of their SNS pool of friends to those they know personally or to those who share similar interests, there is a greater likelihood that the information that circulates among these homogeneous group members will be judged as credible (Kaye & Johnson, 2011; Metzger et al., 2010). Furthermore, certain elements of social networks, particularly political groups and fan pages that members can join or like (e.g. Humans and Dogs Against Mitt Romney, Overturn Obamacare) attract likeminded individuals who engage in highly partisan and polarized discussion in support of their cause and against their political opponents (Woolley, et al., 2010).

The proliferation of specialty SNS also fosters the congregation of users with similar backgrounds and interests. For instance, LinkedIn is a business-oriented site that attracts the more educated with higher incomes (Papacharissi, 2009). Schmooze is an SNS that draws Jewish people, AsianAve targets Asians, Glee.com is for the professional gay community, and Mormons gather in LDS LinkUp for Mormons.

But not all social networks revolve around a single theme or issue, or are comprised of likeminded individuals or face-to-face friends; many, like Facebook, are more general and attract individuals with a variety of viewpoints and opinions (Hanson et al., 2010). When dissimilar individuals and strangers are linked, they are likely to come across information and viewpoints that challenge their own beliefs (Hanson et al., 2010; Kushin & Yamamoto, 2010). But while people may encounter a wide range of views on SNS, reliance on SNS has not been linked to either seeking information that supports ones' views or avoiding information that challenges them (Kaye & Johnson, 2011). Indeed, the more heavily people rely on SNS, the more likely it is that they will be inadvertently exposed to information that challenges their viewpoints (Kim, 2011), especially while scanning status updates or wall posts (Brundidge, 2010). But mere exposure to conflicting information does not mean that people will pay attention to it or judge its credibility.

Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

SNS, like all media, depend on loyal followers for their existence. Such sites need to build a consistent following because the more heavily people rely on a medium the more credible they judge it (Johnson & Kaye, 1998; Kiousis, 2001; Wanta & Hu, 1994). This relationship seems to hold true not only with mainstream sources but also with online ones as well. For instance, studies of blogs, bulletin boards, and chat rooms report reliance as the strongest predictor of judgments of high credibility (Johnson et al., 2007; Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2009: Kim, 2012). Apparently reliance is such an important predictor of the credibility of Internet components because the more experience users have with each component the greater their ability to judge its credibility (Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2009; Johnson, et al., 2007).

Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

For SNS to be effective campaign tools they need a loyal audience who views them as credible. These users who deem SNS as credible purveyors of political news are those who participate in civic activities. For instance, those who use SNS for political reasons (i.e. visiting candidate profiles on an SNS and sending messages to the candidate) are likely to participate in civic activities such as volunteering for local organizations or government boards (Johnson, Zhang, Bichard, & Seltzer, 2010; Utz, 2009; Valenzuela, Park, & Kee, 2009). Further, they report high levels of political interest, campaign interest, civic duty, and political efficacy as well as a greater likelihood to vote and lower levels of political cynicism (Hanson, et al., 2010; Kaye, 2010).

Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Credibility may be mitigated or strengthened by demographic characteristics. For instance, age has traditionally been the defining characteristic of SNS with those 18–24 being more than twice as likely to have created a SNS profile than older individuals. Consequently, the average SNS user has typically attended some college but has a low income (Lenhart, 2009). However, recently the greatest growth in SNS site use has been from those in the 35–49 age range, thus new SNS users are older with a higher income and more education (Nielsen, 2009). SNS users also tend to be women, presumably because they are more likely than men to engage in interpersonal discussion online (Hargittai, 2007; Kaye, 2010). Ethnicity seems to influence use as well. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than Whites to have a SNS profile, perhaps because of sites such as BlackPlanet and Migente.com (Lenhart, 2009).

Hypotheses and Research Questions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

The literature review offers a look at source credibility in general, the role of social networks, and how they are viewed in terms of credibility. But there is still a dearth of knowledge about the connections among social networks, reliance on SNS for political information, and the influence of political and personal attributes on perceptions of credibility of political information posted on SNS. Also, little is known about whether political information is perceived as more or less credible when posted on SNS compared to other online sources of information. To further investigate perceptions of credibility of political information on SNS and the relationships among credibility reliance and political attitudes and demographic characteristics, this study of politically interested Internet users asks the following research questions and offers the following hypotheses:

R1: To what degree will politically interested Internet users judge SNS as credible?

R2: How does the credibility of SNS compare to the credibility of political and candidate websites, political and candidate blogs, YouTube and online versions of newspapers, broadcast and cable television news?

H1: Those who rely on SNS for news and political information will judge them more credible than those who do not rely on SNS.

H2: Reliance on SNS will significantly predict SNS credibility after controlling for demographic and political variables.

H3: Reliance on political and candidate websites, political and candidate blogs, YouTube and online versions of newspapers, broadcast and cable television news predict SNS credibility after controlling for demographic and political variables.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Data Collection

Target respondents for this study were politically interested Internet users. To reach this subset of general online users, a survey was posted online the 2 weeks before and the 2 weeks after the 2008 presidential election. This procedure is the same used in other published studies (Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2007, 2009; Kaye, 2005, 2007) in which politically interested Internet users were notified of a survey and asked to fill it out through an announcement containing the survey URL. The survey promotion was posted on politically oriented websites, blogs, newsgroups, mailing lists/listservs, and SNS that represented a cross section of political ideologies2 Additionally, respondents were encouraged to “snowball” the survey to politically interested friends and family by clicking on a link that automatically forwarded it.3

This convenience sample of politically interested Internet users yielded 4,241 completed surveys. The survey software recorded the number of individuals who accessed the survey and the number who completed it - a 37.6% cooperation rate.4

Dependent Variable

This study focuses on credibility of SNS5as the dependent variable. As in other studies, credibility was assessed as a multidimensional index consisting of believability, fairness, accuracy, and depth of information (Gaziano & McGrath, 1986; Johnson & Kaye, 2002, 2004). Respondents were asked their perceptions of credibility of the following online venues of political information: SNS, political websites, candidate websites, political blogs, candidate blogs, YouTube, online broadcast television news, online cable news, and online newspapers. Respondents indicated on a 5-point scale the believability, fairness, accuracy, and depth of each source.

Independent Variables

Political Attitudes

Political knowledge and political interest in general, and in the 2008 presidential campaign, were measured on a 1–10 scale with 1 signifying not at all knowledgeable or interested to 10 indicating highly knowledgeable or interested. Strength of political party affiliation was also measured on a 1–10 scale with 1 meaning very weak party ties and 10 signifying a very strong affiliation. Political ideology was measured on a 5-point scale: 1) very liberal, 2) liberal, 3) moderate, 4) conservative, 5) very conservative.

Self-efficacy and trust were assessed using a 5-point scale that consisted of 1) strongly disagree, 2) disagree, 3) neutral, 4) agree, 5) strongly agree. The self-efficacy and trust measures were taken from the National Election Studies. Self-efficacy was assessed by the following four statements: “I consider myself well qualified to participate in politics,” “I feel I could do as good of a job in public office as most other people,” “I think that I am better informed about politics and government than most people,” and I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing our country.'' Trust in the government was measured by “Most of our leaders are devoted to the service of our country,” “Politicians never tell us what they really think,” and “I don't think public officials care much about what people like me think.” The polarity was reversed on last two statements of the trust index. The trust and efficacy measures were combined into separate self-efficacy and trust indexes (3–15 score range). The reliability for the self-efficacy and trust indexes is .70 and.73, respectively.

Reliance

Respondents were asked how much they rely on SNS, political websites, candidate websites, political blogs, candidate blogs, YouTube, online broadcast television news, online cable news, and online newspapers for political information on a 5-point scale; 1) never rely, 2) rarely rely, 3) sometimes rely, 4) rely, 5) heavily rely.

Demographics

Respondents were asked their gender, age as of their last birthday, and their estimated income for 2008. They also selected their highest level of education from a list that ranged from “less than high school” to “terminal degree” such as Ph.D., M.D., J.D.

Data Analysis

First, mean scores were calculated for believability, fairness, accuracy, and depth of the online and traditional sources. The four credibility measures were then combined into a credibility index with scores ranging from 4–16 for each of the online sources. Cronbach's alpha for each online source is as follows: SNS .85, political websites .81, candidate websites .84, political blogs .79, candidate blogs .82, YouTube .88, online broadcast television news .89, online cable news .86, and online newspapers .93. Next, paired sample t-tests compared perceptions of credibility of SNS to each of the online sources of political information.

Lastly, hierarchical regression was run to determine the strength of reliance as a predictor of perceptions of credibility of SNS. Nine regressions were run, each testing the reliance of one of the nine online sources. For each regression demographics were entered as the first block, political variables (political knowledge, political interest, campaign knowledge, campaign interest, strength of party ties, political ideology, self-efficacy, and trust) were the second block. For each regression reliance for one of the online sources was entered into the third block.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Respondent Profile

Frequencies indicate that the majority of 4,241 respondents are politically engaged and interested. Just over three-quarters claim they are very knowledgeable (76.6%) and interested (79.3%) in politics. About nine in 10 report that they were very knowledgeable about the 2008 presidential election (89.7%) and that they were very politically interested (90.8%).

Ideologically, 39.2% of the respondents claim they are conservative/very conservative, 38.7% liberal/very liberal, and 22.9% moderate. Political party affiliation closely mirrors ideology with 35.6% Republicans and 38.4% Democrats. Independents make up 18.1% and the remaining (7.9%) belonging to other parties such as Green or Libertarian. Respondents are generally moderately tied to their political party of choice; 44.4% express strong party ties, 35.9% moderate ties, and 19.7% weak ties.

In general, respondents are moderately trusting of the government (60.5%). Only one in 10 (10.2%) is highly trusting and three out of 10 (29.3%) express little trust. The respondents, however, are highly self-efficacious with 73.2% believing they have the power to bring about political change.

Of the online sources under study, political blogs and politically oriented websites are relied on/heavily relied on by the largest percentage of respondents (67.0% and 53.4%, respectively). In comparison, only 4.5% rely on/heavily rely on SNS, 6.3% on candidate blogs, 7.1% on online broadcast television news sites, 8.5% candidate websites and 11.4% on YouTube for political information. Online newspapers are relied on/heavily relied on by about one-third of respondents (31.3%) and online cable news sites by 19.7%.

Male respondents outnumber females by a two to one ratio (66.7% to 33.3%). The majority of respondents are college graduates and higher (76.5%) with only about 2% not having finished high school. The typical respondent is white (91.8%), 46.4 years of age, and brings in $92,500 per year. This demographic profile closely matches those found in other studies of online users for political information: primarily well-educated, white males (Smith, 2009).

Credibility of Online Sources for Political Information

The first research question asks the degree to which respondents perceive SNS as credible sources of political information. In general, politically interested users rated SNS as barely credible sources of political information. On a scale of 1–5 respondents rated believability 1.87, fairness 1.89, accuracy 1.87, and depth 1.74. The overall credibility index of SNS, which includes all four measures, is 7.4 (scale 4–20). Moreover, when compared to the other online sources, SNS are rated the lowest in overall credibility and on each individual measure (Table 1).

Table 1. Believability, Fairness, Accuracy, and Depth of SNS and Online Sources Mean Scores (Scale 1–5)
 BelievabilityFairnessAccuracyDepthCredibility Index (4–20)
SNS1.87 (n = 4148)1.89 (n = 4085)1.87 (n = 4062)1.74 (n = 3984)7.4 (n = 3903) α = .85
Political Web Sites2.98 (n = 4188)2.60 (n = 4148)2.79 (n = 4121)3.30 (n = 4032)11.7 (n = 3969) α = .81
Candidate Web Sites2.37 (n = 4166)2.02 (n = 4133)2.26 (n = 4092)2.48 (n = 4014)9.1 (n = 3898) α = .84
Political Blogs3.13 (n = 4189)2.72 (n = 4141)2.97 (n = 4126)3.53 (n = 4028)12.3 (n = 3947) α = .79
Candidate Blogs2.36 (n = 4187)2.03 (n = 4150)2.28 (n = 4122)2.53 (n = 4022)9.2 (n = 3964) α = .82
YouTube2.49 (n = 4161)2.36 (n = 4113)2.35 (n = 4080)1.94 (n = 4002)9.1 (n = 3916) α = .88
Online Broadcast TV News2.64 (n = 4207)2.27 (n = 4169)2.52 (n = 4131)1.94 (n = 4054)9.4 (n = 4015) α = .91
Online Cable TV News2.81 (n = 4200)2.35 (n = 4176)2.64 (n = 4128)2.31 (n = 4049)10.1 (n = 4006)α = .89
Online Newspapers2.88 (n = 4204)2.42 (n = 4175)2.59 (n = 4129)2.78 (n = 4050)10.7 (n = 3997) α = .93

Continuing comparisons of the credibility of SNS to other online sources, as addressed by the second research question, political blogs emerge as the most credible source (12.3 credibility index) although they are deemed only moderately credible. Political blogs are also the most highly rated on all four credibility measures - believability (3.13), fairness (2.72), accuracy (2.97), depth (3.53). Political websites (11.7) and online newspapers (10.7) are the next highest-rated sources in terms of credibility (Table 1).

Further, paired sample t-tests indicate that SNS are significantly less credible than the other online sources. Overall, none of the online sources of political information are seen as highly credible. At best, online sources are moderately credible, with the exception of SNS that are viewed as barely credible (Table 2).

Table 2. Credibility of SNS Versus other Online Sources
Means and Paired Samples t-scoresCredibility
  1. a

    p <  .001, two-tailed

SNS7.4
Political Web Sites11.7
t-score−77.89a
SNS7.4
Candidate Web Sites9.1
t-score−36.21a
SNS7.4
Political Blogs12.3
t-score−89.84a
SNS7.4
Candidate Blogs9.2
t-score−39.54a
SNS7.4
YouTube9.1
t-score−36.85a
SNS7.4
Online Broadcast TV News9.4
t-score−34.65a
SNS7.4
Online Cable TV News10.1
t-score−46.89a
SNS7.4
Online Newspapers10.7
t-score−56.08a

This study hypothesized that politically interested respondents who more heavily rely on SNS will rate them as more credible than respondents with lower levels of reliance on SNS. The hypothesis is supported as 445 users who heavily rely on SNS rated their overall credibility higher (m = 8.8, range 4–20) than those who are less reliant on these sites (m = 7.4), though SNS are rated as generally low in credibility. Additionally, those who heavily rely on SNS rated them more believable (2.24) fair (2.23), accurate (2.21) and in depth (2.14) than other users.

Reliance as a Predictor of Credibility of SNS

As past research has found, reliance on traditional and online sources is a strong predictor of perceptions of credibility. Therefore the next hypothesis examines whether reliance on SNS predicts judgments of credibility of SNS. Overall, reliance on SNS does predict credibility judgments.

SNS

Reliance on SNS (β = .42, p < .001) is a positive and significant predictor of the credibility of SNS, and is the strongest predictor of online sources. The more politically interested users rely on SNS for political information the more likely they are to deem these venues as credible. Individuals who rely on SNS tend to be less educated (β = −.06, p < .001), but interested in politics (β = .05, p < .05), liberal (β = −.13, p < .001), and they trust the government (β = .10, p < .001) (Table 3).

Table 3. Hierarchical Regression Analysis of Predictors of SNS Credibility for Political Information
 Regression 1 SNS Cred.Regression 2 SNS Cred.Regression 3 SNS Cred.Regression 4 SNS Cred.Regression 5 SNS Cred.
Predictor Variables     
Gender.03.05b.02.05b.03
Age.01−.08c−.07c−.08c−.09c
Education−.06c−.06b−.06b−.06c−.05b
Income−.01−.02−.01−.02−.01
R2 .028 .028 .027 .028 .028
Political Knowledge−.03−.04b−.03−.03−.03
Political Interest.05a.07b.06a.08b.06a
Campaign Knowledge.00−.01−.02−.01−.02
Election Interest−.03−.03−.03−.03−.03
Strength of Party Ties.02.02.01.03.00
Political Ideology−.13c−.19c−.18c−.19c−.17c
Trust.10c.12c.10c.12c.11c
Efficacy−.00−.02−.01−.02−.01
R2 .097 .096.095 .096 .096
R2 Change .069 .068.068 .068 .069
Rely SNS.42c    
Rely Political Sites .05a   
Rely Candidate Sites  .13c  
Rely Political Blogs   .04a 
Rely Candidate Blogs    .16c
*******************     
R2 .257 .097.110 .097 .118
R2 Change .160 .002.015 .001 .022
Adjusted R .254 .094.106 .093 .115
Sig. of Change .000 .016.000 .032 .000
 Regression 6 SNS Cred.Regression 7 SNS Cred.Regression 8 SNS Cred.Regression 9 SNS Cred.
  1. a

    p < .05,

  2. b

    p < .01,

  3. c

    p < .001

Predictor Variables    
Gender.03.04a.04a.04a
Age−.06b−.07c−.07c−.07c
Education−.05b−.06b−.06c−.07c
Income−.02−.01−.01−.01
R2.027 .027 .028 .028
Political Knowledge−.02−.03−.03−.04
Political Interest.05a.08b.08b.08c
Campaign Knowledge−.02−.00−.00−.01
Election Interest−.04−.03−.03−.02
Strength of Party Ties.03.03.03.03
Political Ideology−.17c−.18c−.20c−.18c
Trust.11c.10c.11c.11c
Efficacy−.03  −.00  −.01  −.01  
R2.096.096.096.096
R2 Change.068.069.068.068
Rely YouTube.24c   
Rely Online Broadcast TV News .09c  
Rely Online Cable TV  .06b 
Rely Online Newspapers   .03  
*******************    
R2.152.103.099.097
R2 Change.056.007.003.001
Adjusted R.149.100.096.093
Sig. of Change.000.000.001.059

Based on past research that explored the relationship between reliance and credibility this study hypothesized that reliance on online sources would predict credibility assessments of SNS. The hypothesis is supported for all online sources except online newspapers, for which reliance does not predict credibility of SNS.

YouTube

Reliance on YouTube is the second strongest predictor of credibility of SNS. YouTube, like SNS, is a relatively new online source of political information that attracts younger (β = −.06, p < .01), less educated (β = −.05, p < .01), politically interested (β = .05, p < .05), liberal (β = −.17, p < .001) users who trust the government (β = .11, p < .05) (Table 3).

Political Websites and Political Blogs

Reliance on political websites and on political blogs weakly, but significantly (β = .05, p < .05; β = .04, p < .05, respectively) predicts the credibility of SNS. The more users rely on political websites and political blogs the more likely they are to judge SNS as credible. Individuals who rely on political websites and blogs are less educated (β = −.06, p < .01; β = −.06, p < .001, respectively), younger (β = −.08, p < .001, both), females (β = .05, p < .01, both), who are interested in politics (β = .07, p > .01; β = .08, p > .01), are liberal (β = −.19, p < .001, both) and trust the government (β = .12, p < .001, both) The only difference between these two groups is that those who rely on political websites do not feel they are very knowledgeable (β = −.04, p < .01) (Table 3).

Candidate Websites and Candidate Blogs

Reliance on candidate websites and reliance on candidate blogs are significant predictors of the credibility of SNS (β = .13, p < .001, β = .16, p < .001, respectively). Users who rely on these sources and deem SNS as credible are young, less educated liberals who trust the government (Table 3).

Broadcast Television Sites and Cable Television Sites

Reliance on broadcast and cable television sites are weak but significant predictors of the credibility of SNS (β = .09, p < .001; β = .06, p < .01). Respondents who rely on online television for political information and deem SNS as credible resemble those who rely on the other online sites: young, less educated liberal females who are interested in politics and trust the government (Table 3).

Overall, politically interested respondents who deem SNS as credible tend to be younger, less educated, politically interested liberals who trust the government. They tend to rely on SNS, YouTube, political and candidate websites and blogs, and online broadcast and cable news sites for political information, even though they do not deem these sources as very credible.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

SNS such as Facebook emerged as an important campaigning tool for candidates in the 2008 election (Fraser & Dutta, 2008; Johnson & Perlmutter, 2010; Stelter, 2008), 2010 midterm election (Smith, 2011), and the 2012 presidential campaign (Rucker, 2012). SNS' prominence in the elections demonstrates their increasing importance as a source of political information for individuals, particularly for younger voters (Smith, 2011; Smith & Rainie, 2008). But at the heart of their use is whether SNS are viewed as credible sources of political information. This study set out to discover the perceptions of credibility of SNS as compared to other online sources and whether reliance, political attitudes, and personal characteristics influence these perceptions.

This study found that politically interested Internet users in general judged SNS quite low in credibility, 7.4 on a 4–20 point index. Respondents rated SNS low on all measures, but particularly on depth of content. Apparently SNS groups connect people who share similar views, but they do not provide in-depth information about issues. SNS ranked significantly lower than all other Internet sources including YouTube, though the other sources were judged as only moderately credible. That SNS are perceived as low in credibility for political information may not necessarily be because users judge their political content as questionable but because they are used mainly for social interaction (Kaye, 2010), and such social venues tend to be judged less as credible than informational ones (Johnson & Kaye, 2009).

Low credibility scores for SNS are possibly linked to their low levels of use for political information. Only 4.5 percent of respondents to this study said they relied on, or heavily relied on, SNS for political news and information. While people are willing to pass judgments on media they have never used (Johnson & Fahmy, 2009), typically users judge a source more credible than nonusers. Indeed, in a post hoc analysis when nonusers were eliminated from the current study, credibility of social networks did increase more than any other source. SNS credibility levels approached those of candidate websites and blogs, although they still ranked lowest for credibility.

Nevertheless, this study's low credibility findings are curious given the influence they had on the 2008 presidential election outcome. If indeed politically interested SNS users find these sites not very credible it seems incongruous that they could be influenced to such a degree that they would be used to rally with intensity behind a candidate or issue. It could be that users may not perceive SNS as a whole as credible because they perceive them more as a communication medium than an informational one and because much of the political information posted to status updates may either come from “friends” the user hardly knows or from sources that are difficult to verify. Although casting a sharp eye on the credibility of information pushed by unfamiliar “friends,” users also pulled political information from SNS groups, whose purpose was to mobilize supporters and influence voters. Because users are likely to select and join groups that conform to their worldview, they are likely to find the information convincing and influential (Woolley, et al., 2010), and thus get caught up in the excitement of the race, which may explain why despite low credibility, SNS are commonly thought to have affected the election outcome.

In the current study, reliance on SNS proved to be the strongest predictor of credibility of SNS. This finding follows the pattern of reliance being a strong predictor of credibility of blogs, bulletin boards, and chat rooms (Johnson, et al, 2007; Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2009), and traditional sources such as printed newspapers and network television news (Johnson & Kaye, 1998; Wanta & Hu, 1994). Frequent and loyal users may find SNS more credible than less frequent users because they are more experienced and are more adept at filtering trustworthy information and sources from those that are less believable as well as know where to look on SNS for information they perceive as credible (Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2009; Johnson et al., 2007).

This study also found that reliance on other online sources is linked to perceptions of high credibility of SNS. YouTube, candidate websites, and candidate blogs, significantly, but weakly, predicted SNS credibility. Those users who rely on, and are adept at using, YouTube and candidate hosted websites and blogs are presumably more experienced at identifying trustworthy information in general and therefore also on SNS. Because YouTube and SNS serve similar purposes and because SNS site users rely heavily on YouTube to share politically oriented videos, it is not surprising that reliance on YouTube leads to perceptions of SNS credibility. Candidate websites and blogs unite politicians and constituents in personal ways that are somewhat mimicked on SNS. Thus, it follows that reliance on candidate sites and blogs predicts perceptions of high credibility of SNS.

This study found that political ideology, political interest, and trust were significantly related to perceptions of SNS credibility. Liberals judge SNS as more credible than conservatives. These findings are consistent with the fact that Obama was much more successful than John McCain in drawing supporters to SNS (Stelter, 2008). SNS users who are highly interested in politics view these venues as credible sources of political news. Presumably, political content on SNS satisfy these users political curiosity and interest and thus they judge it as credible.

Respondents who are more trusting of the government are also more likely to view SNS as credible. This finding represents a continuing turn around in the relationship between trust and credibility of online sources. In the early days of the Internet, it was the distrustful, disenfranchised radicals who flocked to political websites and chat rooms, thus low trust was a predictor of credibility (Johnson & Kaye, 1998). But by the 2000 presidential election high trust in government was linked to online credibility (Johnson & Kaye, 2002). This trend continued for the 2004 election (Johnson & Kaye, 2004) and in this study of the 2008 election as the Internet has become a commonly used medium that attracts mainstream users who are more trusting of the government. The presumption, then, is that SNS users are average citizens who trust the government and this trust leads to high ratings of credibility of SNS and other online sources.

Regarding the relationship between credibility of SNS and personal characteristics, respondents to this study who were younger and less educated were more likely to judge SNS as credible. Age and education, however were weak predictors of credibility of SNS, which may reflect a more recent demographic shift in SNS users, who are becoming older and more educated (Nielsen, 2009).

Limitations and Suggestions for Future Studies

This study relied on an online survey of politically interested Web users to examine the degree to which SNS were judged as credible. Posting a survey online has become an increasingly popular and effective way of collecting data (Keeter, 2009), however, it cannot be said that such online polling results in a random sample. Because this study relied on a self-selected convenience sample the results cannot be generalized to Internet users as a whole, but that general population was not the intended target of this study, but rather politically interested users. Additionally, this study followed procedures used in other published studies (Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2007, 2009; Kaye, 2005, 2007), and the respondents demographically resemble those who rely heavily on the Internet for campaign information: white males with high income and high education (Smith, 2008).

In situations where random probability sampling is not possible, non-probability sampling is acceptable (Babbie, 1990). Although researchers must be mindful of the limitations of purposive sampling, such samples can produce results that may be representative of a specific subset of Internet users such as politically interested ones. This study also limited its SNS site promotion to the two largest sites at the time, Facebook and MySpace.

Future research should tap into users of a range of SNS, not just mainly Facebook and MySpace. A study that focuses on specialty SNS, such as LinkedIn, may yield additional findings not revealed in this study.

This study focused on the credibility of a medium, SNS, in the election process. Future studies could survey Internet users about the credibility of candidates as well as conduct a content analysis of whether the media stress the same issues the candidates do (Petrocik, Benoit, Hansen, 2003–2004).

Additionally, because this study found that YouTube was rated more credible than candidate websites and blogs, future studies should examine YouTube credibility as well as more recent information sources such as Twitter and tablet and smartphone applications. Finally, because only a small percentage of users relied on SNS for political news information and because it was just emerging as a major campaign strategy, studies should be conducted in the 2012 campaign to determine whether credibility of these sites increased.

Notes
  1. 1

    YouTube is different from most SNS in that it focuses on video sharing rather than relationship building and maintenance. Also, unlike most SNS you don't have to have an account to view and share videos. However, users need to create an account to upload, rate and comment on videos and people can choose to subscribe to YouTube accounts. Because YouTube requires an account to fully take advantage of its features, researchers have treated it as an SNS (e.g. Kushin & Yamamoto, 2010). We also recognize it as an SNS, but because of its differences with more traditional SNS like Facebook, we also use it separately in statistical analysis.

  2. 2

    To promote the survey, the authors created a Facebook Group, The Internet and the 2008 election. Those who joined were asked to complete the survey. Notices of the survey were also posted on 37 MySpace and 86 Facebook groups representing various political ideologies candidates and issues. Notices were also posted on 11 media and 55 political websites and 70 blogs as well as 12 political and educational listservs/mailing lists and political newsgroups. To get a complete list, contact the authors.

  3. 3

    In addition to respondents' snowballing the survey to friends, the authors sent surveys to colleagues of different political beliefs.

  4. 4

    Cooperation Rate: As defined by AAPOR “Standard Definitions.” “The proportion of all cases interviewed of all eligible units ever contacted.”

  5. 5

    In the survey we defined SNS as political SNS such as RedBlue America and Politweet, Facebook and MySpace and Facebook and MySpace groups like one million strong for Barack or 1,000,000 strong for McCain/Palin '08.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies
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Biographies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Genre Credibility
  4. SNS Use and Credibility
  5. Personal Characteristics and Perceptions of Credibility
  6. Reliance on SNS and Perceptions of Credibility
  7. Political Attitudes and Perceptions of Credibility
  8. Demographics and Perceptions of Credibility
  9. Hypotheses and Research Questions
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies
  • Thomas J. Johnson (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin) is the Amon G. Carter Jr. Centennial Professor in the School of Journalism at University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include the uses and effects of new media such as social network sites, in a political context. He had authored or co-edited four books. His articles have appeared in such journals as Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, and Mass Communication and Society.

  • Barbara K. Kaye (Ph.D., Florida State University) is Professor in the School of Journalism & Electronic Media, University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Her research includes how the Internet, blogs and social media influence political attitudes and media use behavior. She has also published research about profanity in the media. Her articles have appeared in such journals as Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, and Mass Communication and Society. She has co-authored three textbooks and has taught in Italy and Austria.