Can Supporting A Candidate Online Hurt Them At The Polls?

Will posting Facebook status updates and Twitter messages supporting your favorite candidate help him or hurt him on election day? The answer may not be as simple as it seems.

If you missed last week’s debate and logged onto Facebook Wednesday morning looking to find out what you missed, your take on who won and what happened would have been come, by and large, from the partisan point of view of your friends:

That’s homophily, or the idea that we tend to cluster with like-minded people. By nature, our social networks are polarizing so such messages usually serve to reinforce our own point of view. Facebook, in other words, isn’t necessarily the place to go for a thoughtful exchange on differing points of view.

Sociologists and political scientists will be closely watching the 2012 presidential election, as it presents another data set in the young field of studying how social media impacts voting rates. The only clear message now is nothing is clear, and what you post on Facebook on election day may – or may not – play a role in the outcome.

But Wasn’t There Some Study…?

Earlier this year, noted social network researcher James Fowler of the University of California at San Diego released findings from a midterm election study that found a non-partisan, “get out the vote” message posted on Facebook on election day 2010 an seen by 60 million voters likely resulted in 340,000 additional people heading to the polls.

It was an extension of Fowler’s previous work with Harvard University’s Nicholas A. Christakis on the impact of voting in offline social networks. There, the researchers found one person’s decision to vote likely influenced three additional people to vote, on average. What’s more, you don’t actually have to vote to have an impact on the vote: just saying you voted (as 20% to 30% of non-voters do when asked by pollsters) could influence the three additional people in your social network to vote.

In both cases, the message likely benefited one candidate over another, even though it was partisan. Because social networks tend to polaize people by their political stripes, even a non-partisan “get out the vote” message is likely convincing people to vote for your favored candidate.

One Potential Caveat In 2012

Here’s the problem: after clicking the nonpartisan Facebook button to show they voted on Nov. 6, many people will follow that up with a partisan update. If I support Candidate X, and all my friends post messages saying they just voted for Candidate X, it’s possible I will think the election is a runaway win for my guy and not bother fighting post-work traffic to get to the polls.

This is why the Canadian government has tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to limit the reporting of exit-poll results in national elections prior to the closing of West coast polls. It’s why candidates will sometimes leak internal polls to the media that show the race as being closer than they believe it to be.

This year’s presidential election, of course, is anything but a blowout: the most recent polls have Romney and Obama running in a statistical dead heat, and yesterday’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had them tied with 47% of the vote each.

The question now is whether Facebook will be more like a social network or more like social media on election day. If it acts like a social network and the “get out the vote” message cascades among its users, then the Facebook election goes to the candidate whose supporters are more susceptible. But if people use Facebook as media, and interpret their friends’ status updates as exit poll results and a barometer of how the day is progressing, it could give false confidence to Romney and Obama supporters.

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