Study finds voter behaviour influenced by social networking
NEW RESEARCH suggests that Facebook could be the remedy to political apathy and part of the solution to the decline in voter turnout in democratic elections.
Political activity on social networking sites is usually in the form of “slacktivism”– the act of liking or sharing information about a cause without the bother of actually getting involved.
This assumption has been turned on its head by US scientists who, in association with the data science division of Facebook, carried out an online experiment capturing the voting behaviour of 61 million US users of Facebook over 18 years of age on the day of the 2010 US congressional elections. The results are published this week in the journal Nature.
What they found was that online social networks have the potential to influence real world behaviour on a significant scale.
A single message directly mobilised millions of acts of online political communication and information seeking,” said James Fowler, study co-author and professor at the Political Science Department, University of California, San Diego.
“More importantly, people who saw the message were also more likely to show up at the polls. We estimate that the message directly increased real world voting by about 60,000 people, and that seeing faces of friends accounted for all of this direct effect on voting.”
Some Facebook users were randomly assigned to receive a message in their newsfeed reminding them to vote. It gave them information about the nearest voting station while allowing them to click an “I voted” button. Others were given the same information but – critically – they were shown images of their friends who had already voted. The rest – the control group – didn’t see any voting day message at all.
When the behaviour of all of these online social networkers was compared to US voter records, it was found that Facebook users are more likely to vote (or at least report that they voted) if they see that their friends have already done so.
It was also determined online behaviour not only influences your friends, it influences friends of your friends. “Social influence spread up to two degrees of separation within the network. We estimate that 280,000 additional friends showed up at the polls, said Fowler.
An interesting aspect of the study found that strong ties, ie close friends, had far more influence on a user’s voting behaviour than casual friends. Researchers calculated “close friends” based on people who were in the eightieth percentile or higher in terms of frequency of interaction.
The average Facebook user, it seems, has about 10 close friends who are far more influential when compared with the 139 other friends we are, on average, connected to.
“These ordinary Facebook friends may affect online expressive behaviour, but they do not seem to affect private or real-world political behaviours,” the study said.
If the average Facebook user has 149 friends and they in turn have 149 friends, and so on, then the action of one person clicking “I voted” begins to ripple through the network.