With the end of the final TV debate of the 2016 US election, what is left that could change the results of the November vote? Analysts claim that Facebook’s "I Voted" button could have a potential influence over voter turnout. The so-called "Voter Megaphone" allows you to show that you have voted and see if your friends on Facebook have also voted. But by how much could it change the Presidential race in the US and its polls?
This Isn't the First Time Facebook Has Tried to Change People's' Opinions.
First, in 2010, Facebook created an experiment to see how many people would be influenced to participate in political polls and votes. The study included 61 million people and their associated Facebook accounts. The experiment resulted in an increased voter turnout by more than 340,000 people in the 2010 US Congressional Election. This proved that Facebook does indeed hold influence over its users. With 340,000 people (0.14 percent of potential voters) being convinced to vote by slight adjustments to their news feed along with the "I voted" button to be more politics based. In the 2012 US Presidential Election Facebook conducted another experiment, again with the "I voted" button. For this experiment Facebook allowed a certain amount of people to be only able to see the "I voted" button at certain points of the day. The evening being most common as it was often a peak time for Facebook activity. Recently Facebook has claimed that 9 million potential voters in the US Election clicked on the "I voted" button on the day of the election. The test was to see what effect different wording would have on the amount of people using the "I voted" button. Michael Buckley, Facebook's vice president for global business communications said that different variations included "I'm a Voter." and "I'm Voting". Other variations were based on location and slight design changes. These subtle changes were suspected to make at least a small difference in the amount of user interaction with the feature. But Michael Buckley said that they had no distinguishable difference between any of the variations and the original button. Buckley also goes on to say that, besides from the control groups, no specific characteristics of users were targeted for them to see the button.
What are the Political Implications if this Influence?
Many analysts believe that these experiments generated more support for a single party, especially in the 2012 US Presidential Election. Analysts came to this realisation after they concluded that more Democratic supporters use Facebook than republican supporters. So even if the experiments created the same turnout ratio for both parties, there would be a greater rise in Democratic votes due to them being a larger percentage of Facebook users. In a study created by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, they found that, 10% more women use this social network than men; young people are almost twice as likely to be on Facebook than those older than 65. The factor of age is especially important as it is the one of the largest deciding factors on which party you vote for.
With this amount of political power behind Facebook is there any promise that they will not use it? It could tarnish the Facebook name if they were able to discreetly change the course of democracy. But other situations such as Trump saying that he wants to "turn off the internet" could be even worse for Facebook.
Every week Facebook employees have the opportunity to ask Mark Zuckerberg anything they want to be covered in the next Q&A. This led to the question “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?". Although it only made it to 5th in employee votes Zuckerberg still made a semi-political statement. In this statement he did not name Trump (or Hillary Clinton) but did speak of people "calling for building walls and distancing people they label as ‘others.’. Most could assume that a Trump presidency would be less than ideal for Facebook as it relies on international connections, free speech and free movement. Zuckerberg himself has often given monetary donations to certain candidates and senators in the past, including current President Barack Obama. Most recently Hillary Clinton who earned more money from supporters in California, the home of Silicon Valley, than in New York, the home of giant Wall Street investors. These donations are not out of the ordinary for any billionaire but with the massive power his company holds, what stance could Facebook itself take on the election?
Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has said: “Facebook would never try to control elections.". This could also mean that Facebook would only ever try to influence voter turnout and never the election directly. But due to the user base of Facebook, they could indirectly influence the election as a result. So long as Facebook does not actively influence their users the election will be (at least considered) completely democratic.
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