Politics simply explained: Influencer communication and its effect on the political perception of young adults


Influencers' simplistic portrayal of politics may fuel cynicism or spark interest toward politics among young followers.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

The electoral success of the Green Party in Germany during the 2019 European elections is closely associated with the German YouTuber Rezo. In the run-up to the elections, the influencer had published a video titled as "The Destruction of the CDU" on YouTube, in which he criticized the climate policy of the conservative CDU and called on his viewers to go vote. His speech not only caused huge social attention but also had an impact on the election results, as the Green Party received more than a third of the votes from German first-time voters, while the CDU suffered major losses. This phenomenon is now known as the "Rezo effect" and serves as an eye-opening example of the influence and mobilization capabilities that influencers possess over their followers.

Regarding this context, a large-scale study conducted at the University of Vienna investigated the influence of political influencer communication on young adults' attitudes toward politics. The research was implemented within three individual studies in Germany between 2019 and 2020. Study 1 was conducted as a two-wave panel survey with participants aged 16 to 19 who were asked about their influencer consumption on social media, the simplified portrayal of politics by influencers, and regarding their cynicism or interest toward politics. Study 2 included a cross-sectional study with 632 participants between the ages of 16 and 29 who were asked about the frequency of their influencer consumption on social media. Specifically, they were asked whether those influencers discussed the following topics on their channel, such as politics, environmental protection, equality, migration, racism, and trust in politics and politicians. Additionally, participants were asked whether they felt a so-called "parasocial interaction" with the influencers, which is defined as an illusioned personal interaction with a media figure. Study 3 was implemented as a two-wave panel survey in which 496 participants between the ages of 16 and 25 participated and answered questions from study 1 and study 2.

The primary objective of the study was to investigate whether respondents felt that influencers presented political issues in a comprehensible manner. "Across the three different studies, the results show that young people who regularly view influencer content on social media have the impression that influencers are able to explain political issues in simple terms", explains study author Desirée Schmuck. This loose explanation of political topics presumably makes the content more accessible to the young audience. "The perceived simplification of politics can have both positive and negative effects on the political attitudes of adolescents and young adults", she continues. In this regard, communication around specific topics such as racism and environmentalism are particularly crucial for generating political interest among young recipients (note that at the time of the survey the Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future demonstrations dominated media agendas and social media feeds).

Furthermore, the researchers found that when the audience experiences a parasocial interaction with their influencers, "the simplification of political topics can lead to higher political interest", meaning that the perception of an illusory personal interaction to the influencers can provide high attention among followers when they consume their content. "However, simplistic communication about politics also has its downsides" Schmuck warns, "especially when influencers refer to environmental and gender issues, simplification can fuel political cynicism." Since the simplified representation of a rather quite complex political reality can lead their followers to believe that acting politicians as well as policies are failed or inefficient, precisely because they perceive political action as simple.

These findings are of great importance, especially if one considers that influencers in many cases exceed the reach of many politicians and media professionals.

Publication details

Schmuck, D., Hirsch, M., Stevic, A., & Matthes, J. (2022). Politics – simply explained? How influencers affect youth's perceived simplification of politics, political cynicism, and political interest. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 27(3), 738-762. https://doi.org/10.1177/19401612221088987

The study conducted at the University of Vienna investigated the extent to which influencer communication on political issues affected young people's perceptions of politics and political actors. The researchers used data from three separate studies (time frame: 2019-2020) from Germany: study 1 was conducted as a two-wave panel survey with 294 young people aged 16-19; study 2 included a cross-sectional survey with 632 young adults aged 16-29; study 3 was implemented as a two-wave panel survey, recruiting 496 people aged 16-25 for the digital questionnaire. The participants used at least one social media platform on their smartphone and followed influencers who, among other topics, addressed political issues on their channel. (Image © George Milton)

Desirée Schmuck is an Assistant Professor (tenure track) of Digital Media Effects at the School for Mass Communication Research of the KU Leuven. Her research focuses on the effects of digital political communication, stereotypes and prejudice in online media and the effects of digital media use on adolescents and adults. (Image © Desirée Schmuck)

Melanie Hirsch is a predoctoral researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna since August 2019. Her research interests include political communication, social media, media psychology, and empirical methods. (Image © Anja Stevic • AdMe Research Group)

Anja Stevic is a researcher (currently postdoc) at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna since August 2018. Her research focuses on social media and well-being, media effects and mobile communication. (Image © Christian von Sikorski • AdMe Research Group)

Jörg Matthes is Professor of Communication Science with a focus on Advertising Research, Head of the division of Advertising Research and Media Psychology (AdMe) and Chair of the Department of Communication. His research focuses on effects of various forms of advertising, the process of public opinion formation, news framing, and empirical methods. (Image © Christian von Sikorski • AdMe Research Group)