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Election 2014: Will Facebook’s ‘megaphone’ make a difference?

Last week Facebook’s Washington-based manager for policy and former head of digital strategy for the Republican National Committee Katie Harbath, and Facebook director of policy in Australia and New Zealand Mia Garlick told dozen or so Wellington journalists about how social media can help them do their jobs this election.

The pair provided a flurry of slides and statistics, from the awe inspiring fact that 42 percent of the world’s population will vote this year – to the slightly disconcerting one that new sites that put “BREAKING” at the front of a story via social media increases engagement by 57 percent (which I inferred to mean that whether said item actually is breaking news is irrelevant).

But the biggest takeaway was that Facebook is making its ‘I’m a Voter’ tool more widely available internationally, including for New Zealand users in this year’s general election.

Called a ‘megaphone’ by the company, the tool first appeared for American users in the 2008 Presidential election and is essentially the social media equivalent of the ‘I voted’ stickers you get at polling booths after fulfilling your civic duty.

Harbath and Garlick pointed us to a study published in Nature that suggested the tool had a substantial increase on voter turnout in the 2010 US midterm elections.

That study by Professor James Fowler of University of California, San Diego, assigned all American users of voting age who accessed the website on polling day to one of three groups and sent them a certain message in their newsfeeds.

One group of about 611,000 or one percent of users received an ‘informational message’ encouraging voting and providing information on local polling stations, as well as a clickable ‘I voted’ button. Another, far larger group of about 60 million or 98 percent of users received a ‘social message’ which was exactly the same, but also included profile pictures of up to six Facebook friends who clicked the ‘I voted’ button.

The remaining one percent were a control group that received no message. Researchers then matched the online behaviours of 6.3 million users with publicly available voting records. What they found was the informational message alone had the same effect as receiving no message.

But those who saw the social message were two percent more likely to click the ‘I voted button, 0.3% more likely to seek information about local polling places, and 0.4 percent more likely to go to one. Fractions don’t sound particularly impressive, but in a country as populous as the United States a fraction of a percentage increase in voter turnout can mean tens of thousands more ballots cast.

Indeed, researchers estimated the social message directly increased turnout by about 60,000, while a further 280,000 were influenced by seeing messages appear in their newsfeed.

In total 340,000 people voted who otherwise wouldn’t have. Most recently the megaphone was rolled out to users of the world’s biggest democracy – India – whose number of Facebook users reached 100 million last April. Some four million voters used the tool and was seen by another 31 million people, according to Facebook’s estimates.

And the newly elected Prime Minister of India, Nasrenda Modi, now has the fasted growing Facebook page of any elected official in the world.

As of writing his number of ‘likes’ stands at 18,768,410, second only in the elected leader’s stakes to US President Barack Obama’s with 41,362,566 and light-years ahead of John Key’s 149,742 (though that may not be an entirely fair comparison).

Just how many Indians were compelled to vote by the megaphone cannot be determined – Garlick and Harbath both said the aforementioned Nature study was helped by voting records being publicly available under US law – but the sheer numbers involved show just how effective a tool social media can be at reaching large numbers of people very quickly, particularly the young.

It will be interesting whether the megaphone will help increase voter turnout here come September. Turnout for the 2011 election was the lowest since 1887 with over a quarter of eligible voters staying at home. Among the 18-24 age group, the proportion of non-voters was a staggering 42%.

Targeting disaffected youth is already a stated goal of the Internet-Mana Party. But if Facebook’s research is any indicator, it may not be policies or activism that spurs enthusiasm, but 21st century technology harnessing good old fashioned peer pressure.

Eamon Rood is a Wellington journalist who writes for Newsroom.co.nz.

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