Could Facebook be a factor in the next election ?

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There are two things about 2015 of which one can be reasonably certain: there will be a general election in May and it’s unlikely to produce an overall majority for either of the two big parties.

In those circumstances, small, localised events might have big implications: a Ukip candidate shoots his mouth off about, er, non-white people; a Labour candidate turns out to have an embarrassing past; a Tory garagiste cannot differentiate between sexual harassment and bum pinching. The kind of stuff, in other words, that could affect the outcome in a finely balanced constituency.

Which brings us to social media and the question of whether the 2015 general election could be the first one in which the outcome is affected by what goes on there. Could Facebook, for example, be a factor in determining the outcome of some local constituency battles?

Far-fetched? Maybe. But the question is worth asking because in the 2010 US congressional elections, Facebook conducted an interesting experiment in social engineering, which made some of us sit up. The company collaborated with some political scientists to see if a social network could persuade apathetic American voters to get off their butts and vote. And the answer was yes.

The methodology used was simple enough. Sixty-one million Facebook users were shown an icon containing a link for looking up polling stations, an “I voted” button to click to announce they had voted, and the profile pictures of up to six of their Facebook friends who had indicated they’d already done the same. The icon and button were inserted in the newsfeeds of tens of millions of users, while others were shown either a generic get-out-the-vote exhortation or no message at all. Then the researchers cross-referenced their subjects’ names with the day’s actual voting records from precincts across the country to measure how much the Facebook voting prompt actually increased turnout.

The Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain summarised the findings thus: “Overall, users notified of their friends’ voting were 0.39% more likely to vote than those in the control group, and any resulting decisions to cast a ballot also appeared to ripple to the behaviour of close Facebook friends, even if those people hadn’t received the original message. That small increase in turnout rates amounted to a lot of new votes. The researchers concluded that their Facebook graphic directly mobilised 60,000 voters, and, thanks to the ripple effect, ultimately caused an additional 340,000 votes to be cast that day. As they point out, [in 2000] George W Bush won Florida, and thus the presidency, by 537 votes – fewer than 0.01% of the votes cast in that state.”

In itself, the experiment was innocuous: after all, in a democracy encouraging people to vote can only be a good thing. But Facebook is a big data company and what such companies do is experiment on their users all the time. Most Facebook users probably have no idea that what appears on their newsfeeds is determined by algorithms, which are constantly making guesses about what they might want to see – and determining what Facebook wants them to see.

So far, so unremarkable: that’s the manipulative reality of social networking services. What’s more interesting is that some of these ongoing user “experiments” may have emotional or political dimensions. In one such study, for example, an experiment involving 660,000 Facebook users showed that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness”. It provided “experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient) and in the complete absence of non-verbal cues”.

So Facebook can influence the emotions of its users. Could it also influence their interest in politics? Micah L Sifry, the co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, reports that in the months leading up to election day in 2012, Facebook made a change to the newsfeeds of 1.9 million users in order to see whether it could influence those users to become more interested in political activity: it did this by increasing the number of hard news items that appeared at the top of a user’s newsfeed. The results were a “statistically significant” increase in the amount of attention users paid to government-related news.

None of this amounts to any kind of smoking gun. But, given that social media clearly influence behaviour in many other areas of life, it seems implausible to imagine that when it comes to politics, they don’t have any impact. Which means they now wield power of an unaccountable kind. In an election period, we fiercely regulate broadcasters’ coverage of the campaign to ensure “balance” and “fairness”. Should we now do the same for Facebook? More importantly, could we?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by John Naughton, for The Observer on Sunday 4th January 2015 08.00 Europe/London

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