People are more persuaded by the actual messages in social media posts than by the number of people who viewed the posts, a new study suggests.
The researchers found that when people watched YouTube videos for or against e-cigarette use, their level of persuasion was not directly affected by whether the video indicated that it had been viewed by more than a million people versus less than 20.
What mattered to persuasion was viewers’ perception of the message as truthful and believable.
“There was no bandwagon effect in which people were persuaded by a video just because a lot of other people watched it,” said Hyunyi Cho, lead author of the study. and professor of communication at Ohio State University.
“The message itself was the most important for persuasion.”
The study will appear in the June 2021 issue of the journal Media psychology.
The study involved 819 demographically diverse American adults between the ages of 18 and 35.
Most of them have seen two YouTube videos for or against vaping. The pro-vaping videos were advertisements for brands of electronic cigarettes. The anti-vaping videos were public service announcements produced by anti-smoking nonprofits.
The researchers, however, manipulated the view counts participants saw for the videos. Participants saw numbers around 10, 100, 100,000 or 1,000,000.
Participants rated how compelling the videos were to them: whether they affected their curiosity about e-cigarettes, their positive attitude towards e-cigarette use, and their susceptibility to using e-cigarettes in the future.
The results showed that participants were more convinced when they found them to be more truthful and credible. The number of views in the video did not directly affect their persuasiveness.
Participants were also asked to what extent they thought the videos they watched would influence other young adults, Cho said.
The results showed that how the participants themselves viewed the videos – whether they thought the videos were believable and truthful – was directly related to their assessment of the impact of the videos on other people.
“People focused more on factors related to themselves – how they felt about the video – when considering the influence it would have on others,” Cho said.
“They focused less on other factors – such as number of views – as the reason a video could be compelling.”
Additionally, study participants did not believe mass media would have as much reach as social media.
Some attendees viewed the videos in a simulated TV state rather than in the YouTube state. Overall, condition TV participants rated the videos as having fewer views than YouTube condition participants.
“Social media can be considered more prevalent than mass media like television because sites like YouTube don’t have the same geographic boundaries as mass media,” Cho said.
Overall, the results suggest that people shouldn’t equate the popularity of YouTube videos and other social media posts with the number of people who find their posts compelling or are persuaded by them, Cho said.
“We can choose to watch a YouTube video because it has a lot of views, but that is different from whether we are persuaded by the post,” she said.
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