The research project "Parasocial Politics: Influencers, politics and accountability in social media" focuses on so-called "influencers" and their role in how people get politically engaged and influenced in today's Sweden.
The term influencer refers to individuals who share their lives - their consumption habits, relationships and private thoughts - on social networking services or in personal blogs, and who actively interact with their audience in a way that also generates financial gain through various collaborations with companies and organisations. Interest in influencers has grown over the past decade, in both commercial and academic contexts. Research in strategic communication shows, for example, how influencer marketing has created new ways for companies to reach established or potential target groups. Creating a strong relationship with your audience by integrating advertising and personal stories has been highlighted as an effective way to market both products and people.
What this project aims at, however, is to move "beyond the organizational boundaries" and focus on broader social, cultural and political aspects of influencers as a social phenomenon. In addition to their commercial role, influencers can act as a form of political opinion-leader, or be seen as representing certain values. Some, for example, incorporate various political issues, such as feminism or anti-racism, into their public persona. During the recent election in Sweden, several parties also collaborated with influencers in their election campaigns and some influencers actively discussed the election in their own channels. At the same time, influencers have also been criticized for not taking responsibility, for example on the climate issue, and their role as opinion leaders or role models has attracted attention and been discussed in traditional as well as social media in recent years. The project therefore focuses on whether, and if so how, influencers claim, or are assigned various forms of responsibility and accountability with regard to societal issues and politics, either by themselves or by their followers. When do they take a stand and on what issues? What are the expectations of "followers" and other actors on influencers, when are influencers perceived as political and when are they expected to be? Of particular interest is how such discussions relate to the “friendship” that develops between influencers and followers, and how the idea of authenticity affects the relationship.
The project includes two sub-studies, both of which have a qualitative research design based on a socio-cultural perspective on marketing and political communication. The first sub-study analyzes text material from social media, with particular interest in the audience's discussions in comments fields of blogs and Instagram accounts. The second sub-study analyzes focus group interviews on the basis of thematic semi-structured interview questions, which in turn are based on (preliminary) results from sub-study one.