How Social Pressure Gets Facebook Friends to Vote

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Facebook, like every other Internet site today, is dominated by election stuff, which you might find annoying. But it can actually do some good in this election. Believe it or not, posting information about voting on Facebook gets people to the polls in the real world, a study looking at data from the 2010 midterm elections found. The researchers presented three varieties of messages to eligible voters on Facebook: one social one that showed friends who'd voted, one that had strict voting information, and one that was no message at all. Those who had their friends' faces linked to the message were more likely to vote in the real world, proving that my Facebook friend Kathryn (above) isn't alone in feeling the peer pressure of her social network. It also helps explain why the Obama campaign sent out an email earlier today urging his people to "remind friends to vote" using the Facebook widget above. 

The researchers attribute their findings to "social influence," but other studies suggest it's more emotional than just seeing a friend do something that can get people to vote. This is about two powerful motivators: Shame and FoMo (the fear of missing out). I don't know about your feed, but mine is full of exclamation points. "Enthusiasm," too, has been proven to get people voting, Sasha Issenberg explained in a column for The Los Angeles Times today. A piece of campaign mail doesn't exactly elicit excitement from someone who doesn't care about voting in the first place. However, watching your friends celebrate a thing they all did that you didn't, does. 

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Another study found that shame has a lot to do with voting behavior, too. The researchers ran a mailer campaign that threatened to share voting information between neighbors. That move (i.e., shaming) led to a 1.8 percent increase in turnout, as Issenberg explained to Stephen Colbert last night. That follows a 1996 study that found that in-person canvassing increased voter turn-out more than less personal moves like a phone call or mailer. Making people accountable for their voting record matters. 

Facebook applies that social pressure all by itself, in perhaps a better and more natural way than the mailer, or other similar efforts. "You don’t want your analytical efforts to be obvious because voters get creeped out," a Romney campaign official told The New York Times's Charles Duhigg, alluding to campaign social pressure tactics. Seeing your close social circle get excited about rocking their vote feels like an organic way to get guilted into heading to the polls, in a way that an email from the Romney or Obama campaign doesn't. The "I Voted" sticker has a similar impact, as The Atlantic's Derek Thompson explained, putting it a bit more nicely with words like "social cohesion, civic duty, and belonging" rather than shame. In any case, social pressure matters. And Facebook sure has a lot of that. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.