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Personal Influence in Politics

Prepare for an intriguing journey in Season 6 of Wonks & War Rooms! Join Elizabeth Dubois as she unravels the dynamics of personal influence in politics, especially as it evolves with new technologies. In this episode Elizabeth talks about her experience working in politics and how it has pushed her to question what counts as personal influence and what roles technology plays in political communication.

She also gives a peak at what to expect this season.

New episodes drop every week on Wednesday mornings, providing a deep dive into the world of personal influence.

Additional Resources:


Episode Transcript: Personal Influence in Politics

Read the transcript below or download a copy in the language of your choice:

Elizabeth : [00:00:04] Welcome to Wonks and War Rooms, where political communication theory meets on the ground strategy. I'm your host, Elizabeth Dubois. I'm an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, and Research Chair in Politics, Communication and Technology. My pronouns are she/her. I am so excited to kick off season six today. This season, we're looking at personal influence in politics and how it evolves as new technologies are integrated into campaign strategies. And this is a topic I've been interested in since at least 2007, when I first worked on Parliament Hill back as an undergrad student. And in today's episode, rather than interviewing a guest, I'm going to tell you a little bit about my war room days, my experience on Parliament Hill and in politics, and how it's led me to researching personal influence in politics. I'm then going to spend a little bit of time giving you an overview of what you can expect this season, so let's hop in.

[00:01:00] It's 2007, the general public has just started using Facebook. Your mom might even have an account by now, but it's still pretty youth friendly. Twitter's been around for a year, and the hashtag #CDNpoli is really growing in popularity among us political nerds. There's a lot more journalists and civil society folks there. Not too many members of parliament and candidates yet, but they're on their way. A lot of people actually still send SMS like text messages to Twitter in order to post a tweet when they're out and about, because the app just isn't a thing yet. I was an undergrad student at the University of Ottawa, and after a year as a page in the House of Commons where you're like passing notes and serving water to members of Parliament, I was in need of a job. I had an interview with a member of Parliament and she asked me how I could help her office. She was newly elected and didn't have her Ottawa staff set up, nor was her office set up. And I was 18 and I knew what Twitter was. So I told her I could do her social media strategy. I got to build up her Facebook page, create her blog, set up her Twitter account. You know, not to toot my own horn too much, but she was like the third or fourth member of Parliament in Canada to even have an account. I got to help figure out what kind of content to post, how to figure out whether or not somebody was in your riding, whether or not they were in Canada, whether or not they were a real person. We had debates about whether or not we should sign our names to content when we were posting it, rather than the member posting it herself. Our goals with her social media were to increase visibility and to connect with potential young voters. We weren't really interested in simply broadcasting information, although of course we did that too.

[00:02:49] But really we wanted to create spaces for political interaction and discussion. Some of it worked, some of it didn't. All of it I found truly fascinating. I remember creating a wiki to request feedback on some upcoming legislation, I don't even remember which one anymore. We had 3 or 4 really, really engaged users, but otherwise it was a bit of a bust. We didn't try the wiki approach again, but we also started blogging and everyone from the office would take turns writing short pieces ; that worked a lot better. We got a lot of media requests after each of those posts. We used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to share short clips from question period or quotes from speeches that the Member of Parliament had given.

[00:03:34] I realized really quickly that my boss, she was just not going to be able to engage constantly on these platforms, she didn't have the time. We did not have the kinds of phones we've got in our pockets now, which made it technically kind of challenging. But what was so cool was that people who were following her started hopping in and having conversations amongst themselves. That political discussion that we hoped for was sparked, and it took on a new life of its own. Later, in a different role, I organized a delegation of youth to go to some UN climate change conferences. I promoted applications for the conference via social media. I connected with people I'd only ever heard from on Twitter. We ended up sharing an apartment for two weeks in Copenhagen at the conference. Uh, two of them are married today, in fact. We created these social bonds, these connections, fully via the internet. We also created a whole bunch of social media content with the goal of sharing what we were learning at those conferences, out with our political circles back home, to try and make climate change a topic of discussion, make it a priority.

[00:04:44] Then, during elections, I also helped out in campaign offices doing much more traditional political work : door knocking, coordinating rides to the polls on election days, phone banking and so on. We talked to people about whatever issues were important to the campaign, we'd try to learn what issues that person cared most about, we'd try to figure out if they were likely to vote and who they might vote for. And all along, I was a communication studies student who was, quite frankly, trying to impress my professors. I was doing projects where I applied pretty old theories to newer technologies, and that was something they hadn't seen before. It was exciting and interesting for me, and I ended up getting some fairly good grades [chuckle]. But this is where personal influence really comes in.

[00:05:34] So in communication, particularly in media studies, there's this idea called the two step flow hypothesis. Katz and Lazarsfeld put it forward back in the 50s as a response to a bunch of fears about direct effects models of communication. There was this fear that propaganda was going to be able to just infiltrate the people's minds and change people's opinions, just like that. But what Katz and Lazarsfeld suggested was - actually, most people aren't immediately changed by whatever is coming out in propaganda, or mainstream media or a given politician, what they're saying... In fact, most people rely on their social circle to help interpret and filter information. The people who are doing that helping of interpreting and filtering, those are called opinion leaders. They represent this two steps in the flow of information, they're right in the middle of that.

[00:06:34] So let's imagine something coming from mainstream media : a news article, an opinion leader pays extra attention to current affairs (they care more about current affairs than most folks), they read that article, then they decide whether or not to share it with their friends and family and colleagues and classmates. That person chooses when to create the second step of the flow of information, and they're going to frame it and package it in a way that makes sense for their friends and family. So opinion leaders, what they're doing is exerting personal influence. They're using social pressure and social support and their existing relationship with those friends and family in order to communicate the information and, in theory at least, change opinions, attitudes and behaviours of these members of the wider public.

[00:07:26] Now, has been adapted and changed and shifted a whole bunch in the years since it was created. Obviously, the media environment now is very different from the 50s. But the thing is, this notion of personal influence has stayed really relevant and really important. And I was really intrigued by the hypothesis of the two step flow, because it seemed to me that opinion leadership was pretty similar to what was happening when we used Twitter to chat about politics, and it was also kind of similar to when we went door knocking to try and convince folks that they should go out and vote. But it was a bit different. 

[00:08:06] You know, on Twitter, politicians and journalists were there too. And when we were door knocking, we didn't necessarily know the folks that we were chatting with super well, we didn't have a long standing social relationship with them. So, over the course of my undergrad, I tried to investigate these ideas. I tried to understand when the two step flow and opinion leadership made sense in politics, and when it didn't ; when it made sense in our social media infused environment, and when it didn't. And I developed this little specialty in social media and political communication. Then, after my undergrad was done, I veered away from partisan politics, and I went off to grad school at the Oxford Internet Institute. And that's where I did my master's and my PhD. In grad school. I honed in on this idea of opinion leaders, and I started asking questions like, how are people choosing their channels of communication when they're sharing political ideas, when they're trying to influence other people's opinions and behaviors and attitudes? So, when does someone choose to tweet a political opinion, versus email a news article that establishes the basis for that opinion, versus have a political debate over a beer to try and convince a friend of that political opinion?

[00:09:24] Fast forward a few years. I'm a prof now, back at the University of Ottawa, and I'm teaching a course called Personal Influence : From Social Media Influencers to Artificial Intelligence. In this course, we're starting with the early idea of opinion leaders and then moving to social media influencers and content creators before looking at personalization, augmented analytics, synthetic content, and all of these other AI infused approaches to dealing with tons of personal data and strategic targeting of advertisement and communication. And I'm asking how these technologies are changing, what personal influence looks like and when it's useful in politics. This is also the journey we're going to take this season in the podcast. Each week, I'll be joined by a guest to chat about a related theory or concept. We've got digital campaign strategists, journalists, social media content creators, and more all lined up to talk about things like parasocial relationships, news influencers, data and personalization in campaigns, and the use of generative AI in politics. Before we get into the season, though, I want to spend just a few minutes giving you some background on a few core theories and concepts that you're going to see crop up throughout the whole season.

[00:10:48] So we've already talked a bit about the two step flow hypothesis and opinion leaders, and if you're interested in that, you can go back and listen to episode four of season one, where I spoke with a veteran campaigner about the two step flow and opinion leadership. But to give you the quick highlights, there are a few core characteristics of opinion leaders that are really important. Opinion leaders are average folks, except for the fact that they pay more attention to a particular issue ; they typically have a niche in which they are an opinion leader. In this case, we're usually talking about political opinion leaders, and they end up being seen as an expert by their peers on that particular topic. They also actually have access to knowledge on that topic. Now, this doesn't mean that they are necessarily the most expert or the most knowledgeable, but relative to the friends and family for whom they are leading opinion, they're just a bit above. These opinion leaders also have to have some level of a following, and we don't mean following in the sense of a celebrity and their huge fan base, or even a social media influencer and their giant following. Instead, we mean : has social connections. And then, in terms of those social connections, they're embedded socially in a way that allows them to apply social pressure and social support.

[00:12:15] These opinion leaders serve as a bridge for information from originally mass media to the wider public, but we can also think of it as serving as a bridge from any existing information source out to other people. And that could be from one opinion leader, to another opinion leader, to another opinion leader, to a follower. These opinion leaders often end up giving advice and perspective. They not they are not necessarily thinking of themselves as attempting to influence, and sometimes they can't even trace the influence that they have had. They may serve as a role model, for example, where the influence is much less tangible in any one specific moment, but as a whole has an impact over time. And these opinion leaders share their personal experiences and use their shared experiences with their followers, friends, colleagues, family, etc. in order to communicate information in a way that is meaningful.

[00:13:25] Now, this hypothesis has been challenged by a number of folks, and one of the things that has been suggested is that we need personal influence less, because we have such access to technology that allows us to focus and personalize messages. We can go on to social media and have all of our information targeted to us, regardless of whether or not we have opinion leaders in our feed. Take TikTok, for example. You create an account, and it's only going to take a few minutes before you're being delivered videos that are exactly on topics you care about ; you don't need any friend to help you sift through all of the content there.

[00:14:09] We also have new relationships with our media environment. There's fragmentation where we're each being exposed to different slices of the information environment, and that could mean that we're ending up existing farther from our social circle in terms of the information we're consuming. And then lastly, the idea behind opinion leadership really relies on this interpersonal communication and these group dynamics being really important. But some people have noticed that over time, group belonging may not be as important today in our networked context. So these are some concepts that we're going to tackle over the course of this season. I also wanted to point out that there is a ton of research into the idea of persuasion.

[00:15:05] Now, persuasion can be defined as human communication designed to influence the judgments and actions of others. Persuasion is not only interpersonal, it's not just personal communication and personal influence. Ads, for example, can certainly be persuasive. But interpersonal communication is a lot of persuasion [chuckle]. And there are a bunch of theories about how persuasion works and why. For example, we could think about reciprocation. People are a lot more likely to do things for others that have already done something for them. We also know that social validation is a thing people are more likely to do something that others are already doing.

[00:15:47] We know that people respond to authority. We know that people like to feel part of a group and united and part of the "us", rather than the "them". So there's a bunch of these psychology theories that are also really important to think about when we're trying to understand what personal influence looks like in politics. And then, we can also learn from business and marketing literature, word of mouth marketing and electronic word of mouth marketing have been really important for selling products and services and ideas over the years. And politics does learn a lot from business. Particularly when we start talking about social media influencers and social media influencer marketing, we're going to see a lot of these ideas that come from commerce show up in politics.

[00:16:43] And then last but not least, there's a lot to learn from our history of political campaign practices. We can think about how personal influence has evolved over time when we look at how technologies have been integrated into campaigns. Face to face and local organization have always been central to campaigns, but then, as the mass media became more widespread, campaigns started to focus more on reaching the masses. They started embedding wider broadcast techniques into their approaches, not eliminating those face to face and local organizing efforts, but adding to them ; it was a new layer. In the 90s, there was a new focus on segmenting voters and communicating more directly with different particular kinds of groups of voters.

[00:17:30] And then more recently, there's been a phase full of micro-targeting using massive amounts of personal data that's been collected about people, and then finding ways to make use of social networks to help promote peer to peer communication. And so here, you start to see things like relational campaigning, where parties are getting their volunteers to share political messages via text and social and email in order to get their campaign specific message out to a wider group of folks. I think something that we're going to see in the next few elections is an increasing use of synthetic media as well. Synthetic content is being created using generative AI, and it's being used in a bunch of different ways. It's very experimental right now, and I absolutely expect that we're going to see some of those experiments involving things that might change what personal influence looks like, and we're going to come back to that at the end of season six.

[00:18:37] For now, I'll let you go and hopefully I've given you a lot to be excited about for season six of Wonks and War Rooms. As always, you can find links to a bunch of resources in the show notes, and you can head over to for annotated transcripts in English and French. Thanks for listening.

[00:18:59] This season of the podcast is supported by the University Research Chair in Politics, Communication and Technology at the University of Ottawa.

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