Parasocial relationship through social media: Assessing the influence of Prime Minister’s (PM) social media presence on Singapore Management University (SMU) students’ confidence in him
Inspiration for the topic
As a team, we are pretty keen on politics and current affairs. We read the research paper by (Chung and Cho, 2014) during the second week of the curriculum and were pretty impressed by it. In short, the writers studied the relationship between Korean celebrities and their fans. They conducted a survey and found that a parasocial relationship had developed between celebrities and fans through the use of social media. They also found that such a parasitical relationship had serious implications for brand endorsement and credibility.
We were fascinated by the concept of a parasocial relationship and curious to see how powerful its effects really are. We thought that there are compelling reasons for extending the concept to the political context. If it has such strong implications in the commercial setting, then perhaps these effects might be replicated in politics to the benefit of various political actors. The next question for us was which politician should we study? At once, the choice was obvious – the PM in Singapore is popular for habitually posting on his various social media accounts.
On his Twitter and Facebook accounts, the PM frequently reveals intimate details about his personal life. And if you click on any of these social media posts, you will see that it is filled with positive comments from his many followers. This was extremely conducive for the development of a parasitical relationship between the PM and his followers. Accordingly, we were excited to begin our research. We quickly sought out various SMU students which we employed as our survey and interview subjects. While we understand that confining our sample to such a small group might limit our research findings, we nevertheless hope that they might function as a microcosm of Singaporeans as a whole.
Hypothesis 1: SMU Students’ following of PM on SNS and parasocial relationships with the PM are positively associated.
First, we posited that SMU students who follow the PM on Twitter and Facebook have a parasocial relationship with the PM. We based this by analogising the findings of previous academic papers on parasocial relationships in the commercial context, as well as on the back of the many positive comments easily found on the PM’s social media posts.
Hypothesis 2: Parasocial relationships and SMU students’ perceptions of the PM’s credibility are positively associated.
Second, we thought that it would be likely that if parasocial relationships were found amongst the followers of the PM, these parasocial relationships would lead to those followers viewing the PM with high levels credibility similar to parasocial relationships in the context of celebrities.
Hypothesis 3: SMU students’ perceptions of the PM’s credibility and SMU students’ confidence in the PM are positively associated.
Third, we posited that research findings pertaining to brand credibility and perceived product quality are similarly applicable in the political context to measure the effect of perceptions of credibility on political confidence. Approval and support for governments normally increase citizens’ trust and perceived credibility. This is unsurprising given that governments wield great power and the individual is vulnerable to abuses of political power.
Measuring parasocial relationship with the PM
We employed 3 criteria of parasocial relationships: Understanding, Perceived Friendship and Self-Disclosure. We examined various past studies on parasocial relationships, all of which adopted different indicators in order to measure the existence of parasocial relationships. After much deliberation, we finally decided on these 3 criteria, which we adopted from (Chung and Cho, 2014), because it made the most sense and were the clearest in illustrating the concept.
In our survey, we made sure to ask questions that most accurately reflect the value of these 3 criteria on the part of our respondents.
After a tedious survey and interview process, coupled with running the data through SPSS software, we present the following results.
To our astonishment, Hypothesis 1 was rejected. As we had predicted, Hypotheses 2 and 3 were accepted. Our findings are a little confusing at first glance. What this meant was that SMU students had a parasocial relationship with the PM, and such parasocial relationships led to an increase in their perceptions of the PM’s credibility and confidence in him. However, such a parasocial relationship did not arise from the use of Facebook and Twitter. It must have developed from other means beyond the contemplation of our paper.
We asked ourselves: how else could SMU students developed a parasocial relationship with the PM, if not through Twitter or Facebook? We postulated several possibilities.
First, respondents may have developed a parasocial relationship through media influences other than SNS such as traditional media. However, this is unlikely as our survey results also show that traditional media did not affect the development of a parasocial relationship with the PM,
Second, a parasocial relationship may have developed through following the PM on SNS platforms not within our survey. While our survey only included SNS of Facebook and Twitter, certain respondents in our post-survey interviews expressed views that they actively follow and receive updates from the PM through Instagram. These interviewees also mentioned that they favour the use of Instagram over other SNS. Therefore, such parasocial relationship amongst respondents could have been developed through following the PM on Instagram.
Third, the significant negative correlation in our findings may be due to the nature of Facebook and Twitter as platforms which facilitate critical political discussions. Facebook and Twitter are channels in which Singaporeans who possess anti-establishment views employ to discuss important and sometimes controversial political matters. In contrast, Singaporeans who desire a more intimate interpersonal relationship with the PM are more likely to “follow” the PM on Instagram. Accordingly, Instagram probably constitutes the SNS platform that is conducive to the development of parasocial relationships. This could be a possible explanation as to why respondents did not have parasocial relationships with the PM through Facebook and Twitter use.
Fourth, the development of a parasocial relationship may be through non-media related factors. The culture in Singapore follows that of Confucianist values with emphasis on respect for elders and persons in authority. As such, many Singaporeans have an inherent respect for people in governmental capacities such as the PM. This is applicable here given the fact that the PM has been the Prime Minister of Singapore for 13 years leading Singapore through a relatively prosperous period of time. The PM’s position as the leader of the People’s Action Party which has been the Singapore’s governing party since independence overseeing Singapore’s transformation from a third world country to a first world country could also lead the respondents having an inherent sense of trust and respect for the PM.
Regarding our findings on Hypotheses 2 and 3, our study mirrors those of previous researches on parasocial relationships in relation to celebrities. Accordingly, it appears that the concept of parasocial relationship and its powerful implications are likely to be similarly applicable for politics.
Our study provides ample evidence that the immense implications of parasocial relationship in the commercial context may likely be replicated for political actors. This represents a new exciting avenue for research. With the advent of web 2.0 technology, the reliance on social media for political communication is only going to increase. Politicians must better understand how to cultivate parasocial relationship with their followers to fully harness the power of social media.
By: CHOO Jun Kai, Fabian DE LA FUENTE OLIVAS, Leonard LEONG Chee Yarn, LIM Kiap Mei Grace, Wayne YEO