Vote! Make it Facebook Official and Your Friends Will Follow

The 2012 Presidential election is around the corner and it is important to understand how social media platforms can or cannot facilitate voter registration. In a recent article published by the Huffington Post, writer Seth Borenstein writes about the researched effects of Facebook ‘Friend’ peer pressure from an, “I Voted Today” digital button and other Facebook message in his article, “The Facebook Vote? Users More Likely To Go To The Polls When Pressured By Friends.”

The study is Nature’s Sept. 13, 2012 cover.

Borenstein reports that an online survey conducted by the University of California, San Diego confirms that a single Facebook message on 2010’s Election Day caused one third of a million people to go to the ballot boxes. According to the experiment published in Nature’s Journal, the effect multiplied in the social network which validates online social networks do affect real-world behaviors. In fact, scientists concluded that friend polling likely increased votes by 340,000 in the non-presidential Republican Congress. On November 2, 2010, 60 million plus Facebook users saw the non-partisan “get out the vote” headline reading, ‘Today is Election Day’ on their News Feed. The headline showed how many Facebook users and Friends clicked the ‘I Voted’ button; a link to local polling places and displayed up to six profile pictures of Friends who reported voting.


An example of the social “get out the vote” message shown to more than 60 million Facebook users on U.S. Election Day 2010. Note: This is a re-creation (not a screen shot of anyone’s actual Facebook page in 2010) and the “friends” pictured are the study coauthors.
(Credit: University of California San Diego and Dara Kerr, “Facebook Uses Peer Pressure To Bring Out The Vote”)

Researchers compared voting turn out with two groups that did not receive the same message. One group of 611,000 got a generic announcement to vote and the other 613,000 people (the control group) did not receive any message. The results revealed that people who received the generic message were .39% more likely to look for a polling place and click the button than those who did not receive a message. Borenstein adds that this small increase makes a difference in an election. Of course, people can lie on Facebook and the study found that 4% of people said they voted but actually did not. Researchers saw actual voting rates were higher for people who received the message. Additionally, those who saw the photos of their Friends were more likely to vote. Significantly, a peer pressure message added 60,000 votes. The social cognation among Friends in the social network yielded another 280,000 people for a total of 340,000 extra votes. Professor, James Fowler said, “Network is key” in spreading the message. Facebook’s network has a far reach because Friend’s actions are visible the Home Page. Fowler also says, that it is a “social contagion with people noticing that the original message recipient voted, so the message spread in person, by word of mouth and online.” Specifically, the message affected people with two-degrees of separation. It is important to keep in mind that voter registration is higher for Presidential elections so the effect of social media pushed messages should be looked at more subjectively.

Illustrative map of part of the social network of “close friends” from Abilene, Texas, who logged in on Election Day in 2010.











In Nancy Baym’s book, “Personal Connection in the Digital Age”, she writes about the four discourses of new media: technological determinism, social construction, social shaping and domestication. Borenstein assumes social shaping in his article. Baym describes social shaping as, “People, technologies and institutions all have the power to influence the development and subsequent use of technology” (Baym 45). Borenstein writes that the act of seeing a Friend vote on Facebook helps spread it to person to person to person. Behaviors changed not only because people were affected but also people’s Friends were affected (Fowler).

Facebook is a platform that facilitates interactions between users within their network depending on profile visibility. Boyd and Ellison‘s article, Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship would argue that Facebook is a social network site since users create profiles and are not interacting with strangers but instead they interact with “latent ties” who are already part of their extended social network. Borenstein attributes the power of the visible actions of Friends on Facebook directly to voter turn out.  Also, Dr. David Beer writes in Social network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to Danah Boyd & Nicole Ellison that the “understandings and value of friendship may be altered by engagements with Social Networking Sites” (520). This is evident in Borenstein’s article because Facebook Friends made a difference in political mobilization. The person attached to the message and the nature of the medium itself helps get out the vote. Beer would also point out the empirical agendas of Facebook encouraging votes by exploiting people’s heightened self-awareness and yearning for authenticity. Most people would want to be seen as a good citizen who votes and displaying voting activity builds a person’s credibility. Clicking the “I Voted” button becomes an act of political expression. Also, Facebook Friends are apart of an imagined audience who has a front row seats into users lives. A user would not know his/her friends voted without their Facebook New Feeds notifications. Facebook is a personal and daily part of people’s lives and political messages on Facebook feels more personal because of that. Thus, like Judith Donath says in her article, “Sociable Media” the “medium may translate the format of a massage.” In the future I wonder if Facebook get-the-vote out messages will completely replace telephone and face-to-face get-the-vote out reminders.


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