In the text of the study, the authors added that voter-turnout efforts like Facebook’s could have changed the outcome of the 2000 presidential election:
Voter mobilization experiments have shown that most methods of contacting potential voters have small effects (if any) on turnout rates, ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent. However, the ability to reach large populations online means that even small effects could yield behavior changes for millions of people. Furthermore, as many elections are competitive, these changes could affect electoral outcomes. For example, in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, George Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by 537 votes (less than 0.01 percent of votes cast in Florida). Had Gore won Florida, he would have won the election.
If Facebook’s effects on voter turnout are as large as this research suggests, then Facebook could easily skew the 2016 election. By selectively presenting the “I Voted!” button to some voters, for instance, it could juice turnout among reliably Democratic demographics without increasing it among their Republican counterparts. As my colleague Derek Thompson has detailed, “the single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree.” Facebook knows many of our educational histories all too well. By only encouraging educated users to head to the polls—or by only inspiring urban voters in some states—it could change the contest.
To be clear, the company has repeatedly said it has no appetite to do this. “Facebook would never try to control elections,” Sheryl Sandberg, its chief operating officer, told an Indian television network in 2014.
Jonathan Zittrain, a law and computer science professor at Harvard University who has previously written about Facebook’s electoral power, told me it was good that Facebook was now on the record about not tampering with the vote. He confirmed that no legal mechanism would prevent them from trying it.
“Facebook is not an originator of content so much, it is a funnel for it. And because it is a social network, it’s got quite natural market dominance,” he said. With that power came a need for public concern and awareness.
Questions like these will keep coming up until Facebook and other major technology companies take their role as an “information fiduciary” more seriously, he said. “There’s no such thing as a neutral News Feed,” he told me. As a fiduciary, the platform would forswear “trying to advance its agenda over yours and over what you want to see happen in the world.”
“All of the mass media work of the ‘70s and ‘80s was about worrying that, ‘My god, they’re only three major networks, and they’re kind of all the same!’ It’s funny—they were ringing the bell then, and it turned out not to be so much of a big deal, especially as cable came onto the scene. And now it’s like—you guys, you might want to come back!’”