If you were a Facebook user over the age of 18 in the United States, there was only a one in 50 chance that you did not see some sort of election-related messages if you logged in on Election Day. Did those messages influence the results?
Well, that depends on who you ask. The Atlantic’s Rebecca J. Rosen seems to think the increase in turnout among younger voters is evidence that the Facebook messages did influence voter behavior, while TechCrunch’s Gregory Fernstein is being accused of link-baiting for his takedown of Rosen’s piece (that’s the usual response anyone who questions the power of technology tends to be hit with when they write anything that suggests there is a limit to how radically said technology is transforming all aspects of life).
Which one is right? Which one is wrong? In my mind, they both are. Because a person’s decision to vote, and the influence that decision carries within online and offline social networks, is far too complex to be understood less than one week after an election and explained in a blog post. Social media is like every other technological advance of communication since the telephone: people debate its impact, taking strong stands on two distinct sides: dismissal and grandiose pronouncements. In the end, the technology evolves to a point of acceptance and the reality falls somewhere in between the two initial stands of the entrenched camps in the debate.
What Happened On Facebook On Election Day
Much of the recent hype about Facebook’s ability to influence elections stems from a study released earlier this year by noted sociologist James Fowler. Fowler made a name for himself studying social networks (the offline variety) and by co-authoring the best-selling book Connected with Nicholas A. Christakis. In the 2010 midterm elections he took his theories on influence and voting habits in offline social networks and tried to apply them to Facebook. Released just in time for this year’s election cycle, Fowler claimed nonpartisan, “I voted” messages seen by nearly 61 million on Facebook resulted in 340,000 additional votes being cast in the midterms.
Fowler wanted to expand the study to this year’s presidential contest and Facebook once again obliged his research. Facebook randomly showed certain combinations of messages to U.S. Facebook users over the age of 18 on election day. On Nov. 6 when we logged into Facebook, 94% of us saw:
- a message reminding you it was election day
- a button where we could say we had voted or that we were a voter
- directions to your polling place
- pictures of friends who had already said they voted in your news feed
The remaining six percent were divided into three control groups:
- Two percent saw nothing — no message, no button, no news stories.
- Two percent saw the message but no stories of friends’ voting behavior populated their feeds
- Two percent saw only the social content but no message at the top
So far, no numbers have been released about how many people saw the election day messages, but it’s safe to say it’s significantly more than the 60 million in 2010, given both Facebook’s growth and the massively higher levels of media scrutiny given to presidential elections.
Facts, Myths and Theories
When first employed by the Obama campaign in 2008, social media was seen as a way to mobilize young voters and get them to the polls. Largely dismissed by campaigns up to and throughout the 1990’s, younger voters became crucial after 2000, when both Republicans and Democrats realized every last vote counted, and no group of potential voters could be ignored.
In the past three elections, voter turnout among young voters has been about 50%, up from 37% in 1996. Early estimates suggest younger voters made up 19% of the electorate, up slightly from 18% in 2008. That largely fueled Rosen’s argument: because women and young voters were crucial to Obama’s victory and because they are most susceptible get-out-the-vote messages on Facebook, the messages must have influenced their decision and ultimately helped reelect Obama (it’s widely held that higher voter turnouts generally help Democrats and hurt Republicans).
Not so fast, Fernstein counters, noting that support for Obama among younger voters who cast ballots was probably around 60% last week, down from 66% in 2012.
Fair warning: Fernstein can be painful to read, his arguments are simplistic and his math is riddled with errors (see the lengthy correction at his takedown of Rosen). What you need to know about him is his simplistic argument (which he has used as the lede for at least two pieces he has written this election cycle): If social media mattered in elections, Ron Paul would have likely been the Republican presidential candidate, not Mitt Romney (here and here).
Point One The Pundits Failed To Consider: Homophily
As I noted to my students last month, Facebook doesn’t have a mission of exposing you to differing points of view. On the contrary, Facebook reinforces your world view by exposing you most often to people who share your point of view.
In other words, did you vote because of messages you saw on Facebook, or did you see a lot of “I voted” messages on Facebook on election day because you’re the type of person who socializes with people who vote (and, by extension, are more likely to vote yourself)?
Point Two The Pundits Failed To Consider: Social Media Mattered In A Different Way
If you are an average or heavy Internet user, the campaigns probably could have figured out if you were going to vote, who you were going to vote, whether you were susceptible to online messages and whether you could influence others to vote for their candidate. And they didn;t need you to click an “I voted” button or even “like” for the Obama and Romney campaigns.
Much like advertisers, the campaigns used Facebook and other social media data to develop a much more telling portrait of who you are, what you care about and which candidate you were likely to vote for. They can combine that with other data – voting histories, income, race and so much more – and come up with a good idea of not only whether you should be targeted with advertising, but how best to target you (you may not give a damn about most social issues, but the multiple comments you’ve left on the NRA’s Facebook page give campaigns a direct in on how to target you).
By one estimate, the Romney and Obama campaigns combined to spend an average of $22 in online data tracking for each vote cast last week. And that is just the two main campaigns: it does not even begin to factor in money spent by the PACs in the same activities. And much of that was spent not trying to make direct appeals to voters, but to find influencers who could better spread the message.
Point Three The Pundits Failed To Consider: The Data Tells Only Part Of The Story
And, it’s important to note, at this point, the data is preliminary.
Elections are complex, and analysis of social media data is not yet at the point where we can see how it combined with other points of contact between campaigns and voters to influence voting decisions. Did I decide to vote because of the leaflets left on my doorstep? Because I saw so many of my Facebook friends voting? Because I cared about a certain issue? Because I tend to vote?
More than likely, it was a combination of all those points, and so many more.
Five Predictions For The 2014 Midterms and the 2016 Presidential Race
- Social media doesn’t win elections, but by now it’s clear that not having a social media strategy loses elections. At least at the federal level, it’s a given, just like its a given you have to set up an organization that can raise money, buy advertising, canvas neighborhoods, solicit endorsements and make phone calls.
- Moving forward, expect to see social media trickle down to become a factor, and eventually a must-have component, in state-level and local elections.
- Much of the social media efforts in upcoming federal elections will not be aimed at people who consistently vote, but at trying to engage people who do not traditionally vote. These include people with lower incomes and lower education levels, and people who just are not interested in politics.
- Younger voters will continue to be coveted by campaigns, although political scientists will continue to debate how crucial they are in winning elections and whether they are won on social media.
- People will, for the foreseeable future, continue to over- and under-state the role social media plays in elections.