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New Study Finds that Facebook Brings in the Election Votes

A message on Facebook newsfeeds caused 340,000 more people to vote in the 2010 election.

Facebook is no longer just about posting pictures and interacting with friends.  A study found that a simple message at the top of users’ newsfeeds on November 2, 2010 changed voting habits in America.

Throughout the day, numbers at the top right of the computer screen ticked upward, counting the people on Facebook who voted. Links to close polling locations and a non-partisan red, white, and blue “Vote” banner engaged users to take interest.

It was the pictures of the Facebook users’ six closest friends equipped with the message that these people had voted that sent 340,000 more people to the polls on Election Day in 2010.

A study done by James Fowler, a UC San Diego political science professor, and Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s head of data science, found that this social influence may be the best way to increase voting.

In the study, 60 million Facebook users received a message including the link to polls, the “I voted” button, and pictures of their closest friends who had also voted. About 600,000 people, or one percent, were randomly assigned to see a modified message that included everything except the pictures of friends. An additional one percent received no Election Day message from Facebook at all to serve as a control group in the study.

Fowler found that the users who received the social message were more likely than others to click on the “I Voted” button.

It wasn’t so much that people were responding the message in itself however, but they were affected because their friends were affected.

“I definitely feel more inclined to do something when I see that my friends are engaged in it as well,” USC sophomore Geena Grauman said.

“You could definitely tell that they were targeting college students to vote. There were ads all the time on MTV and people would post about it on Facebook and Twitter. It was definitely a good reminder to register and vote.”

It’s this influence from others on social media that Dr. Fowler believes will make a change in the future of voting.

“Social influence made all the difference in political mobilization,” Dr. Fowler said. "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."

For others like USC sophomore Jade White, it’s the sharing of politics on Facebook and Twitter that keeps people updated.

“If I see that my friend posted an article about politics, I read it,” White said. “It’s just an easier way to get the news without having to actively find it.”

Friends also have a great deal of influence over voting. The study found that even users who didn’t get a message directly from Facebook still had a higher percentage of voting if their close friends received the message. This was because each time a friend clicked the “I Voted” button a notification would appear in the newsfeed.

While the number of people who voted due to Facebook is small in relation to the country’s population, Dr. Fowler points out the large scale of the research. This small effect across millions of users spreads to billions of online social network friends, which will create higher numbers.

“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,” Dr. Fowler said.

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