How does Facebook affect elections? According to a new study led by the University of California, San Diego, a single post on Election Day 2010, Nov. 2 of that year, drove some 340,000 users of the social network to their polling stations.
According to UC San Diego, here’s how it went down:
In the study, more than 60 million people on Facebook saw a social, nonpartisan, “get out the vote” message at the top of their news feeds (ov. 2, 2010.
The message featured a reminder that, “Today is Election Day”; a clickable “I Voted” button; a link to local polling places; a counter displaying how many Facebook users had already reported voting; and up to six profile pictures of users’ own Facebook friends who had reported voting.
About 600,000 people, or 1 percent, were randomly assigned to see a modified “informational message,” identical in all respects to the social message except for pictures of friends. An additional 600,000 served as the control group and received no Election Day message from Facebook at all.
(Study author James Fowler, UC San Diego professor of political science in the Division of Social Sciences and of medical genetics in the School of Medicine) and colleagues then compared the behavior of recipients of the social message, recipients of the informational message, and those who saw nothing.
Users who had received the social message were more likely than the others both to look for a polling place and to click on the “I Voted” button.
The research team used publicly available voting records to determine that 4 percent of users who indicated that they had voted actually had not done so, but on a positive note, actual voting was higher among recipients of the social message, while it was unchanged for those users who received the informational message, as well as those who did not receive any messages.
So what was the total effect? According to the researchers, the Facebook social message directly led to an additional 60,000 votes in 2010, but the effects of those users sharing via the social network tacked on another 280,000, for a total of around 340,000 additional voters, or four for every one who was directly mobilized.
Fowler said of the study:
Voter turnout is incredibly important to the democratic process. Without voters, there’s no democracy. Our study suggests that social influence may be the best way to increase voter turnout. Just as important, we show that what happens online matters a lot for the “real world.”
Social influence made all of the difference in political mobilization. It’s not the “I Voted” button, or the lapel sticker we’ve all seen, that gets out the vote. It’s the person attached to it.
If you only look at the people you target, you miss the whole story. Behaviors changed not only because people were directly affected, but also because their friends (and friends of friends) were affected.
The main driver of behavior change is not the message — it’s the vast social network. Whether we want to get out the vote or improve public health, we should not only focus on the direct effect of an intervention, but also on the indirect effect as it spreads from person to person to person.
UC San Diego said additional coauthors of the study were: Robert M. Bond, Christopher J. Fariss, Jason J. Jones, and Jaime E. Settle of UC San Diego; and Adam D I. Kramer and Cameron Marlow of Facebook, adding that the study was supported in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the University of Notre Dame, as well as by the John Templeton Foundation as part of the Science of Generosity Initiative.
Readers: What did you think of the results of the UC San Diego study?