The Facebook Voter Experiment

September 28, 2012

Discover Magazine hosts in interesting read on the impact of information within social networks. The Not Exactly Rocket Science Blog post is titled “A 61-Million-Person Experiment on Facebook Shows How Ads and Friends Affect Our Voting Behaviour.” Blogger Ed Yong describes the huge experiment in which, on congressional election day 2010, Facebook worked with researcher James Fowler from the University of California, San Diego.

Fowler’s team wanted to see if they could influence Facebook users to vote by applying social (media) pressure. Almost everyone who visited the site on that day saw a special Election Day message which displayed an “I Voted” link, a link to find their polling place, and a counter with a running total of users who (claimed they) had voted by that point. The vast majority also saw the profile pictures of any of their friends who had already voted. One control group saw the election messaging minus the pictures of their friends. Another control group missed out on the special message altogether.

See the article for specifics, but the upshot is this: users who saw that their friends had cast a vote seem to have been prodded to head to the polls themselves. Mobilizing voters is indeed a noteworthy thing, and this was a clever experiment. I’m most interested, though, in the following glimpse of the future:

“The internet, and social networks like Facebook, could [allow] scientists to carry out research on an unprecedented scale. It’s cheap and the results have ‘external validity’, meaning that they’re relevant to what people actually do in life, rather than in a stark controlled laboratory.

“‘It’s a brand new world!’ says Fowler. He thinks that such experiments could help psychologists to do detailed studies on very specific groups of people. ‘[That] is the first step in understanding not just average human behaviour, but the behaviour of specific types of individuals in specific types of environments,’ he says. ‘There are many human psychologies, not just one.’”

Advancing psychological understanding is a worthy goal. But how do we all feel about being unwittingly, if anonymously, enrolled in such experiments? We had better figure that out, because I see many more coming our way. Figuratively, of course; we won’t know such projects exist until (and unless) they are trumpeted in the news.

Cynthia Murrell, September 28, 2012

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