The Effect of Website Interactivity on Political Persuasion
Kenneth M. Hesser (BA Student)
Justin Brown & Sriram Kalyanaraman
Dr. S. Shyam Sundar
For a complete report of this research, see:
Sundar, S. S., Hesser, K. M., Kalyanaraman, S., & Brown, J. (1998,
July). The effect of website interactivity on political persuasion. Paper
presented to the Social Psychology Division at the 21st General Assembly
and Scientific Conference of the International Association for Media and
Communication Research (IAMCR), Glasgow, UK.
Recent years have seen an increase in voter cynicism leading to a gradual
loss in voters' psychological affinity for their political representatives.
This trend has coincided with a rise in television-based political campaigning.
However, emerging technologies offer a means of renewing the confidence
of voters in the electoral process by allowing a form of individual contact
and interaction not found in present communication campaigns. The rapid
proliferation of political websites offers the possibility of direct interactions
between political candidates and potential voters. But is this feature
of the Web psychologically significant? This study examined the following
specific research question: For voters, controlling for apathy, What is
the relationship between the level of website interactivity and the degree
of psychological affinity toward a candidate on a website?
The theoretical framework for this study was the Elaboration Likelihood
Model (ELM). According to the ELM, attitude change can occur when an individual
has the motivation, ability, or involvement to process the central arguments
of a message (central route). However, when an individual does not have
the resources to process the central arguments of a message, attitude
change occurs as a result of some simple cue (peripheral route). Based
on ELM, and considering website interactivity as a peripheral cue, psychological
affinity as an indicator of attitude change, and political apathy as an
indicator of (lack of) motivation/involvement, the following hypothesis
The degree of psychological affinity felt by apathetic voters toward
the candidate will be positively related to the level of website interactivity
on the candidate's website. However, for non-apathetic voters, candidate
perceptions would not vary as a function of website interactivity.
Forty-nine participants took part in a between-participants experiment.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions (low interactivity-no
extra links; medium interactivity-a link to access extra information about
the candidate; high interactivity-a link to send an e-mail message to
the candidate).The content and layout was similar across all three conditions.
After entering the lab, participants were asked to fill out a pre-questionnaire
containing measures of political involvement and knowledge. They were
then exposed to the website and asked to go through the information as
carefully as possible. After exposure, participants were asked to fill
out a questionnaire pertaining to measures of psychological affinity and
The dependent measure of psychological affinity was divided into four
factors called 'Caring,' Trustworthy,' 'Responsive,' and 'Charismatic.'
The results show that participants who were exposed to higher levels of
interactivity developed a positive attitude change toward the candidate
by perceiving him to be more caring than those participants who had no
interactive links. A significant interaction was also obtained such that,
with increasing interactivity, apathetic participants' perception of the
candidate's sensitivity (caring), reponsiveness, and trustworthiness tended
to increase, whereas non-apathetic participants tended to rate him as
less caring, responsive, and trustworthy.
An important theoretical implication of the present study is that certain
relatively unexplored elements of new media can help redress some of the
major problems posed by the rapid rise in mediated political communications.
As indicated by the present study, technological features of the new web
medium, such as interactivity, seem to have the potential for improving
voter affinity toward their candidates. The findings of this study also
have implications for other areas of communication research (e.g., advertising).
For example, targeted advertising on the internet can potentially stimulate
marketplace competition and choice by enhancing the interactivity of their