Facebook Knows How to Trick You Into Voting

Peer-pressure on the social network drove 340,000 people to the polls in 2010, a new study has found.

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Contagion is a funny thing. Carly Rae Jepsen is catching (248 million YouTube views and counting), as are West Nile virus (1,993 cases as of last week) and iPhone 5 hysteria (larger screen! Built-in soft-serve dispenser!). Obamania proved infectious in 2008, but the 2012 strain is markedly less intense. Romneymania, for its part, has yet to sweep the land.

As it turns out, civic participation also exhibits viral qualities: In an article that appears this week in Nature, political scientists at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrate that a single Facebook message during the 2010 midterm elections drove some 340,000 voters to the polls -- simply because their friends had voted, too.

James Fowler and his colleagues partnered with the social-media site to develop what he describes as perhaps the largest randomized, controlled trial ever performed: on Election Day, 2010, nearly every American user over the age of 18 who logged onto Facebook -- some 60 million people -- saw a message at the top of their News Feed encouraging them to go vote. A link was provided to their polling location, as were an "I Voted" button and prominent photos of six friends who'd already done so. But the researchers had worked out two control groups with Facebook, each 600,000 people large. One control group saw no civic message at all. The second was encouraged to vote, but without any of the social pressure markers -- no photos of friends, no reminder that "Jaime Settle, Jason Jones, and 18 others" had done their democratic duty.

When the researchers later compared state voter rolls with Facebook users who'd been targeted (a subset of all voters, 217 million of whom were eligible to vote that year), they found that civic participation was infectious among friends. Not only was Sara on Facebook more likely to go vote if she'd received social pressure through the site to do so, but Sara's friends and friends of Sara's friends were more likely to go vote, too. The subtle encouragement, or guilt, rippled across two degrees of Facebook separation.

"There has been a lot of interest in how online behavior affects other online behaviors," Fowler says. "There has been a lot of interest in how real-world behaviors affect other real-world behaviors. What we have shown here is that those two worlds are not separate: the online world and the real world affect one another. And in this case, we find that this message that started online, that spread online, actually affected real-world behavior. It got a third of a million people to the polls."

He points out, too, that the message was only contagious between close friends. Pressure from casual acquaintances didn't induce people to vote, but pressure from intimates did. "What our research makes abundantly clear is that that's where you get most of your effect. For every one person who you get to the polls directly, you get four additional friends" from social contagion.

Strategists have long wondered just how effective Get Out the Vote appeals really are. The evidence is fluid, and a little dispiriting. A 1999 study, from Yale political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green, showed that door-to-door canvassing (by handsomely paid grad students) produced a six percent uptick in voting. A more recent study, from the University of Notre Dame's David Nickerson, asked, "Does Email Boost Turnout?" Thirteen field trials and 232,000 subjects later, the answer was a resounding, "Nope." Nickerson has done other work suggesting that Get Out the Vote appeals are contagious within households, between spouses, for instance, and further Yale research indicates that homeowners are induced to vote when told that their neighbors have done so -- probably because they fear being outed as bad civic participants.

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Kevin Charles Redmon is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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