Facebook makes you vote? Scientists say yes

Social media has changed our world forever. Whether for good or bad is still hotly debated, but every day more areas of life are discovered to be affected by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like. It turns out it’s not just our personal lives social media affects; It’s our civic lives too. A recent study indicates that Facebook can motivate people to vote.

Screenshot of Facebook’s Election Day notification during the 2008 election.

Political scientist James Fowler organized non-partisan facebook ads to encourage voting, as well as pages that showed polling places near users and who among their Facebook friends had voted. The Christian Science Monitor reports that around 61 million Facebook users were studied, and that the purpose of the study was to examine how online networking and data transmission can affect real world actions.

The effects are inspiring; approximately 340,000 people voted in 2010 who otherwise might not have. The key, it seems, is emphasizing the actions of Facebook friends who are also real-life friends.

Fowler, whose work focuses on the effects of social media in areas ranging from public health to politics, emphasizes this point. “The network is the key,” he said. “If we want to make the world a better place on a massive scale, we should focus not just on changing a person’s behavior, but also on using the network to influence that person’s friends.”

This is big news for college students because a study of the 2008 election showed that political behavior online (sharing politically-oriented photos, “liking” political pages, etc.) is a good indicator of actual, tangible involvement. It also turns out that despite the stereotype of today’s students as uninvolved in civic life, college students are actually more likely to know the names of their senators or congressional representatives than to know the winner of American Idol.

Significantly, Dr. Fowler’s “go vote” ads are reported as appealing to self-identified liberals and conservatives equally. It seems a call to action – without dictating a specific party or cause – can be effective in motivating civic involvement.

The study divided Facebook users into three groups. The first group – which consisted of 98 percent of participants – was shown an information block on their news feed, including an encouraging “Vote” logo, a list of polling locations, an “I voted” button, a counter showing how many Facebook users had indicated they had voted, and a row of pictures of the user’s “close friends” who indicated they had voted.

Facebook now allows to you to share that you are registered to vote on your timeline. Screenshot by Brian Hollingsworth.

The second group had everything except the photos of close friends who had voted, and the third group did not receive any kind of “get the vote out” message.

The ads with the pictures were by far the most successful. While Facebook users who saw the message without the pictures were likely to post some form of political material, they were not as motivated to actually go vote. The familiar power of social media to make something “go viral” was also illustrated, as only 60,000 people were directly affected by the message, but these folks spread the voting fever to their friends and friends of their friends, leading to another 280,000 extra votes cast on election day.

This research shows that social media has the power to affect not only our personal relationships but also our involvement with important matters such as government. Rather than being a portal to apathy, Facebook just might turn out to be a rallying cry for young voters.