Political content from virtual ‘friends’

How influencers arouse young women’s political interest via parasocial relationships


  • Darian Harff KU Leuven


parasocial relationships, influencers, political interest, young adults, source trustworthiness, source similarity


Influencers have been at the center point of many studies in the past few years, which have investigated how they draw followers’ attention to products and brands. However, despite influencers’ growing communication of political topics, literature on their political impact is scarce. Using the concept of parasocial relationships, this study explores to what extent imaginary bonds held with influencers facilitate arousal of followers’ political interest. For this purpose, a cross-sectional online survey of N = 1312 female participants was conducted. Structural equation modeling was used to analyze the relationships between the latent variables. Results showed that source similarity and trustworthiness predicted parasocial relationships, which were in turn positively related with arousal of political interest. Moreover, source similarity emerged as an important determinant of arousal of political interest. These findings indicate that influencers may raise interest for topics beyond lifestyle and entertainment, via similarities to and close bonds held with followers.


Abidin, C., Lee, J., Barbetta, T., & Miao, W. S. (2020). Influencers and COVID-19: reviewing key issues in press coverage across Australia, China, Japan, and South Korea. Media International Australia, 178(1), 114–135. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1329878X20959838

Allgaier, J. (2020). Rezo and German climate change policy: The influence of networked expertise on YouTube and beyond. Media and Communication, 8(2), 376–386. http://dx.doi.org/10.17645/mac.v8i2.2862

Andersen, K., Ohme, J., Bjarnøe, C., Bordacconi, M. J., Albaek, E., & de Vreese, C. (2021). Generational gaps in political media use and civic engagement. Routledge.

Batinic, B., Appel, M., & Gnambs, T. (2016). Examining individual differences in interpersonal influence: On the psychometric properties of the generalized opinion leadership scale (GOLS). The Journal of Psychology, 150(1), 88–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2015.1009415

Baumgartner, J. C., & Morris, J. S. (2010). MyFaceTubePolitics. Social networking web sites and political engagement of young adults. Social Science Computer Review, 28(1), 24–44. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0894439309334325

Bergström, A., & Belfrage, M. J. (2018). News in Social Media. Incidental consumption and the role of opinion leaders. Digital Journalism, 6(5), 583–598. https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2018.1423625

Berryman, R., & Kavka, M. (2017). ‘I Guess A Lot of People See Me as a Big Sister or a Friend’: the role intimacy in the celebrification of beauty vloggers. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(3), 307–320. https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2017.1288611

Boerman, S. C., & van Reijmersdal, E. A. (2020). Disclosing Influencer Marketing on YouTube to Children: The Moderating Role of Para-Social Relationship. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03042

Casaló, L. V., Flavián, C., & Ibáñez-Sánchez, S. (2020). Influencers on Instagram: Antecedents and consequences of opinion leadership. Journal of Business Research, 117, 510–519. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2018.07.005

Chung, S., & Cho, H. (2017). Fostering parasocial relationships with celebrities on social media: Implications for celebrity endorsement. Psychology & Marketing, 34(4), 481–495. https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.21001

Cohen, C. J., Kahne, J., Bowyer, B., Middaugh, E., & Rogowski, J. (2012). Participatory politics. New media and youth political action. Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network. https://bit.ly/2UcNG5k

Cohen, J., & Holbert, R. L. (2021). Assessing the predictive value of parasocial relationship intensity in a political context. Communication Research, 48(4), 501–526. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650218759446

Dunn, S. G. S., & Nisbett, G. S. (2014). Parasocial interactions online: Candidate intimacy in webpages and Facebook. The Journal of Social Media in Society, 3(2), 26–41.


Ferchaud, A., Grzeslo, J., Orme, S., & LaGroue, J. (2018). Parasocial attributes and YouTube personalities: Exploring content trends across the most subscribed YouTube channels. Computers in Human Behavior, 80, 88–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.041

Giles, D. (2002). Parasocial interaction: A review for the literature and a model for future research. Media Psychology, 4(3), 279–304. https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532785XMEP0403_04

Hackley, C., & Hackley, R. A. (2015). Marketing and the cultural production of celebrity in the era of media convergence. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(5–6), 461–477. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2014.1000940

Hartmann, T. (2010). Parasoziale Interaktion und Beziehungen [Parasocial interaction and relationships] (1st ed.). Nomos.

Heiss, R., & Matthes, J. (2019). Does incidental exposure on social media equalize or reinforce participatory gaps? Evidence from a panel study. New Media & Society, 21(11–12), 2463–2482. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1461444819850755

Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry, 19(3), 215–229. https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1956.11023049

Hou, M. (2019). Social media celebrity and the institutionalization of YouTube. Convergence, 25(3), 534–553. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856517750368

Jackson, D. J., & Darrow, T. I. A. (2005). The influence of celebrity endorsements on young adults’ political opinions. Press/Politics, 10(3), 80–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1081180X05279278

Kahne, J., & Bowyer, B. (2018). The political significance of social media activity and social networks. Political Communication, 35(3), 470–493. https://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2018.1426662

Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (2006). Personal influence. The part played by people in the flow of mass communications (2nd ed.). Transaction Publishers (Original work published 1955).

Katz, E. (2015). Where are opinion leaders leading us? International Journal of Communication, 9, 1023–1028. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/3699

Kim, D. Y., & Kim, H.-Y. (2021). Trust me, trust me not: A nuanced view of influencer marketing on social media. Journal of Business Research, 134, 223–232. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2021.05.024

Kim, J., & Song, H. (2016). Celebrity’s self-disclosure on Twitter and parasocial relationships: A mediating role of social presence. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 570–577. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.083

Kruikemeier, S., van Noort, G., Vliegenthart, R., & de Vreese, C. H. (2013). Getting closer: The effects of personalized and interactive online political communication. European Journal of Communication, 28(1), 53–66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267323112464837

Lee, J. E., & Watkins, B. (2016). YouTube vloggers' influence on consumer luxury brand perceptions and intentions. Journal of Business Research, 69(12), 5753–5760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2016.04.171

Lou, C., & Kim, H. K. (2019). Fancying the new rich and famous? Explicating the roles of influencer content, credibility, and parental mediation in adolescents’ parasocial relationship, materialism, and purchase intentions. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, Article 2567. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02567

Low, Valentine (2020, November 24). Charli D’Amelio dances her way to 100m TikTok followers. The Times. https://bit.ly/3gRR9hn

Lui, L., & Standing, L. (1989). Communicator credibility: Trustworthiness defeats expertness. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 17(2), 219–222. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.1989.17.2.219

Malhotra, N. K. (2010). Marketing research. An applied orientation (6th ed.). Pearson.

McGinnies, E., & Ward, C. D. (1980). Better liked than right: Trustworthiness and expertise as factors in credibility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 6(3), 467–472. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F014616728063023

McGuire, W. J. (1985). Attitudes and attitude change. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (3rd ed., pp. 233–246). Random House.

Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Schulz, A., Andı, S., Robertson, C. T., & Nielsen, R. K. (2021). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021. 10th edition. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. https://bit.ly/3hoc8IN

Ohanian, R. (1990). Construction and validation of a scale to measure celebrity endorsers' perceived expertise, trustworthiness, and attractiveness. Journal of Advertising, 19(3), 39–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.1990.10673191

Parmalee, J. H., & Roman, N. (2020). Insta-echoes: Selective exposure and selective avoidance on Instagram. Telematics and Informatics, 52, Article 101432. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2020.101432

Prior, M. (2018). Hooked. How politics captures people’s interest. Cambridge UP. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108355001

Rasmussen, L. (2018). Parasocial interaction in the digital age: An examination of relationship building and the effectiveness of YouTube celebrities. The Journal of Social Media in Society, 7(1), 280–294. https://thejsms.org/index.php/TSMRI/article/view/364

Reinikainen, H., Munnukka, J., Maity, D., & Luoma-aho, V. (2020). 'You really are a big sister’ - parasocial relationships, credibility, and the moderating role of audience comments in influencer marketing. Journal of Marketing Management, 36(3–4), 279–298.


Rihl, A., & Wegener, C. (2019). YouTube celebrities and parasocial interaction: Using feedback channels in mediatized relationships. Convergence, 25(3), 554–566. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1354856517736976

Rubin, R. B., & McHugh, M. P. (1987). Development of parasocial interaction relationship. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 31(3), 279–292. https://bit.ly/3d7Meb7

Rubin, A. M., Perse, E. M., & Powell, R. A. (1985). Loneliness, parasocial interaction and local television news viewing. Human Communication Research, 12(2), 155–180. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1985.tb00071.x

Schiappa, E., Allen, M., & Gregg, P. B. (2007). Parasocial relationships and television: A meta-analysis of the effects. In R. W. Preiss, B. M. Gayle, N. Burrell, M. Allen, & J. Bryant (Eds.), Mass media effects research: Advances through meta-analysis (pp. 301–314). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Schouten, A. P., Janssen, L., & Verspaget, M. (2020). Celebrity vs. influencer endorsements in advertising: the role of identification, credibility, and product-endorser fit. International Journal of Advertising, 39(2), 258–281. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650487.2019.1634898

Schramm, H., & Hartmann, T. (2010). Identität durch Mediennutzung? Die Rolle von parasozialen Interaktionen und Beziehungen mit Medienfiguren [Identity through media use? The role of parasocial interactions and relationships with media figures]. In D. Hoffmann & L. Mikos (Eds.), Mediensozialisationstheorien. Modelle und Ansätze in der Diskussion [Media socialization theories. Discussing models and approaches] (2nd ed., pp. 201–219). VS.

Seitz, A. (2020, October 13). Report: Social media influencers push voting misinformation. The Associated Press. https://bit.ly/2UblSOB

Shearer, A. (2021, January 12). More than eight-in-ten Americans get news from digital devices. Pew Research Center. https://pewrsr.ch/3gKJpxw

Soler-i-Martí, R. (2015). Youth political involvement update: Measuring the role of cause-oriented political interest in young people's activism. Journal of Youth Studies, 18(3), 396–416. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2014.963538

Stehr, P., Leißner, L., Schönhardt, F., & Rössler, P. (2014). Parasoziale Meinungsführerschaft als methodische Herausforderung. Entwicklung eines Fragebogeninstruments zur Messung des Einflusses von Medienpersonen auf die politische Meinungs- und Einstellungsbildung [Parasocial opinion leadership as a methodological challenge. Development of a survey instrument to measure the influence of media personalities on political opinion and attitude formation]. Medien & Kommunikationswissenschaft, 62(3), 395–416. https://doi.org/10.5771/1615-634x-2014-3-395

Stehr, P., Rössler, P., Leissner, L., & Schönhardt, F. (2015). Parasocial opinion leadership media personalities’ influence within parasocial relations: Theoretical conceptualization and preliminary results. International Journal of Communication, 9(1), 982–1001. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/2717

Tal-Or, N., Tsfati, Y., & Gunther, A. C. (2008). The influence of presumed media influence. Origins and implications of the third-person perspective. In R. L. Nabi, & M. B. Oliver, The SAGE Handbook of Media Processes and Effects (pp. 99–112). SAGE. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119011071.iemp0129

Tong, S. T., Van der Heide, B., & Langwell, L. (2008). Too much of a good thing? The relationship between number of friends and interpersonal impressions on Facebook. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 531–549. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2008.00409.x

Treen, K. M. d’I., Williams, H. T. P., & O’Neill, S. J. (2020). Online misinformation about climate change. WIREs Climate Change, 11(5), Article 665. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.665

Turner, J. R. (1993). Interpersonal and psychological predictors of parasocial interaction with different television performers. Communication Quarterly, 41(4), 443–453. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463379309369904

van Driel, L., & Dumitrica, D. (2021). Selling brands while staying “Authentic”: The professionalization of Instagram influencers. Convergence, 27(1), 66–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856520902136

Winchester, T. M., Binney, W., & Hall, J. (2014). Young adults and politics: Investigating factors influencing voter decision making. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 26(3), 226–257. https://doi.org/10.1080/10495142.2014.915635

Wittenberg, C., & Berinsky, A. J. (2020). Misinformation, disinformation, and online propaganda. In N. Persily & J. A. Tucker (eds.), Social media and democracy: The state of the field, prospects for reform (pp. 163–198). Cambridge University Press.

Zimmermann, D., Noll, C., Gräßer, L., Hugger, K.-U., Braun, L. M., Nowak, T., & Kaspar, K. (2020). Influencers on YouTube: a quantitative study on young people’s use and perception of videos about political and societal topics. Current Psychology. Advance Online Publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-01164-7