Campaigning for number one

25 Mar 2024

Sociologist Carsten Schwemmer researches the world of influencers. If you think influencing is all about fitness and makeup, you would be mistaken. The profession has become politicized – with various potential consequences, good and ill.

Portrait of Prof. Dr. Carsten Schwemmer

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"Is this an authentic opinion or is it paid political advertising?" In many cases, it is not always clear to the viewer, says sociologist Carsten Schwemmer in this interview.

1:50 Min | 22 Mar 2024

The petition started by Johanna Röh was making sluggish progress. When the carpenter and young mother called for the extension of maternity rights to the self-employed in the summer of 2022, she had collected only 5,000 of the requisite 50,000 signatures one week before the deadline was due to expire. Then influencer Marie Nasemann showcased the petition, describing to her followers how she herself, as a pregnant self-employed woman suffering from severe nausea, had to keep working through her illness because she was not entitled to any maternity leave. Other influencers followed suit. A few days later, Röh had the necessary signatures. With the help of these famous supporters, she was able to present her case before the Petitions Committee in the Bundestag.

As the name suggests, influencers exercise an influence on other people – sometimes a considerable one. Unlike actors on TV commercials, they usually comes across as authentic and approachable on their online channels. They intersperse insights into their everyday lives with advertising messages – often quite subtle ones – and awaken the curiosity of their followers for the products they are touting. And meanwhile, it is not just products they are promoting.

Not only about lifestyle issues

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LMU professor Carsten Schwemmer has been researching this relatively new profession for some years now. “The content put out by influencers has become politicized,” he explains. At the beginning, influencers garnered attention with pieces on fashion, music, or fitness. Increasingly, however, people with large followings are discussing things like climate change, feminism, and other social issues in videos and podcasts. As a scientist, Schwemmer is interested in which contents these “political influencers” have in common and whether they successfully politicize their followers. The sociologist, who heads the Computational Social Sciences group at LMU, is addressing these questions in a pilot project.

However, a rigorous study needs precise definitions. So what are political influencers? “Depending on your interpretation, journalists and even politicians could fit into this category, as they can influence the voting decisions of others,” explains Schwemmer. But he defines the term more narrowly, concentrating in his research on people who appear on social media as private individuals and offer glimpses into their everyday lives. In this respect they are like conventional influencers, with the difference that they do not (only) talk about lifestyle issues.

Political influencers like Marie Nasemann often earn their money through collaborations with companies. It’s usually difficult to draw a clear dividing line between political and advertising content, says Carsten Schwemmer.

© Marcus Brandt/picture alliance/dpa

One example of a politicized influencer is Marie Nasemann, who was originally known as a model. Not only has she spoken out in favor of maternity rights for the self-employed, but she is also – on her Instagram profile and elsewhere – a proponent of equal parenting. Louisa Dellert is somebody else who has taken up new topics. Over the course of the past decade, she has transformed herself from a fitness influencer to a social media activist for sustainability issues.

A video criticizing CDU made him known

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The YouTuber Rezo, who initially presented music and comedy on his channel, attracted the attention of a broader public with his video “The destruction of the CDU,” where he explicitly advised his viewers against voting for the Christian Democrats (CDU) before the European elections in 2019 – and found himself in the thick of a political debate about climate action and the political participation of young people.

This phenomenon has been the object of scant academic research before now, with few papers on the topic. “The fact alone that there’s no uniform definition of the term ‘political influencer’ makes research more difficult,” says Schwemmer. Ahead of the most recent federal elections in Germany in the fall of 2021, the LMU sociologist worked with research fellow Magdalena Riedl to identify political influencers that matched his definition. To do this, they used hashtags, which tag certain contents in social media, and a snowball system: many political influencers are networked or share each other’s contents. Subsequently, they used computer science techniques to analyze the texts, photos, and videos of these influencers.

They discovered that the opinion makers shared more political content around the time of the federal election. That being said, there are broader and narrower conceptions of what counts as political content. “It’s quite seldom that they express clear recommendations to vote for a specific party,” says Schwemmer. It is much more common for them to encourage people to go to the polls, or to produce content in which they promote products that can be understood as a political statement in the broader sense – such as sustainable fashion. After all, political influencers – like their non-political counterparts – often earn their money through collaborations with companies. “And so it’s impossible to draw a clear dividing line between political and advertising content,” says Schwemmer. “One passes seamlessly into the other.”

What is genuine enthusiasm and what is motivated by a lucrative advertising contract? The question that baffles consumers and researchers alike in relation to conventional influencers also applies to political ones. Followers are unsure whether an influencer is making the case for sustainability out of conviction or because the fair fashion label pays well. And equally, there is hardly any research into what motivates political influencers. “The studies that do exist come to different conclusions,” says Schwemmer. One motive is self-promotion while another is using one’s platform to inspire political engagement in others.

According to Schwemmer, the biggest opportunity for good in the activity of political influencers consists in “engaging groups of people who’ve not been interested in politics before now but whose participation is particularly germane.” It is chiefly young people he has in mind here. Studies and surveys have shown that you need to address young people with authentic and personal content if you are to engage them on political issues. They also want people to explain politics to them in simple words. “Both these things are the bread and butter of influencers,” notes Schwemmer.

Often associated with advertising, products and money

It is no wonder, then, that political parties have long been trying to figure out how to leverage the power and methods of political influencers for their own ends. Before the last US election, presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg worked with an influencer marketing agency, which created memes for his campaign. A meme is usually a photo with humorous content that spreads rapidly online. “In Germany, too, political parties are learning from influencers how to adapt their contents to social media, or are hiring people to share content in the influencer style,” says Carsten Schwemmer. A few years ago, for example, the CSU party tried to respond to the Rezo video with its own influencer – although the reaction at the time was mostly mocking. Undaunted, the party reiterated its interest in the work of influencers and has continued to post its own videos on sites like TikTok.

In his pilot project, the sociologist has also researched how potential voters respond to the output of influencers. For three weeks after the election, he surveyed some 1,100 people on their perception of influencers. The results showed that 72 percent were familiar with the term but associated it primarily with terms like “advertising,” “product,” and “money” as opposed to political content. Another finding was that the influence of social media personalities on people’s voting decisions was relatively small compared to traditional media such as TV, newspapers, and election ads. “In absolute numbers, however, the potential is large enough to sway elections,” reports Schwemmer.

“Engaging groups of people who’ve not been interested in politics before now but whose participation is particularly germane” – this is where Carsten Schwemmer sees the biggest opportunity for good in the activity of political influencers.

© Stephan Höck/LMU

This potential, cautions the sociologist, could also be exploited by people seeking to share antidemocratic content. Although his own observations indicate that the majority of influencers on social media fall within the democratic spectrum – mostly in the political center and to the left of center – there were also people in their midst sharing extremist ideas, esoteric doctrines, and conspiracy theories. As an example, he cites Heiko Schrang with his YouTube channel and Instagram account.

But precisely because there is no easy answer to the question as to whether political influencers can generate new trust in politics or tend to achieve the opposite, the European elections this year are a further touchstone for Carsten Schwemmer, who will be observing closely to see what gambits influencers will dream up to affect the outcomes.

Text: Felicitas Wilke

Prof. Carsten Schwemmer is Professor of Computational Social Sciences at LMU’s Department of Sociology. Born in 1988, Schwemmer studied sociology at the University of Bamberg, where he also completed his doctorate. After stints at the University of Konstanz, the Weizenbaum Institute in Berlin, the University of Stuttgart, and Princeton University, he was a visiting professor at Bamberg. Subsequently, he was group leader at the GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Mannheim, before taking up an appointment at LMU in 2022.

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