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Facebook ran voting experiments on millions of users

Facebook ran voting experiments on millions of users
photo courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK

When you post links, updates and photos to Facebook, your friends aren't the only ones watching. That's not breaking news, though. I've already told you about Facebook's attempts to experiment on the emotions of unknowing users by manipulating timelines. But, your emotions aren't the only thing the social network is interested in. In the past, Facebook has experimented on voters on Election Day and could have even helped Democrats take the White House.

Facebook changed the content of news feeds by channeling more "hard news" stories to the top of timelines instead of the normal updates and photos from friends and family.

For one such experiment, conducted in the three months prior to Election Day in 2012, Facebook increased the amount of hard news stories at the top of the feeds of 1.9 million users. According to one Facebook data scientist, that change—which users were not alerted to—measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout.

In elections since 2008, Facebook has experimented on users who vote by giving some of them the option to click a button that says something like "I'm Voting" or "I'm a Voter." The site let certain users click the button and others share that information with friends. Facebook also had control groups. One didn't see the buttons at all and others couldn't share the information with friends. Facebook then studied how this affected voter turnout without users' knowledge.

Researchers at the social media site wanted to measure a few things like how the news stories and voting buttons affected voter turnout of Facebook's users.

So, did the experiments have any effect? Facebook thinks so. Researchers found that the "positive social pressure" caused by the voting buttons increased turnout by the people who saw that their friends voted.

After the election, the study's authors examined voter records and concluded that Facebook's nudging had increased voter turnout by at least 340,000. As the study noted, that's about 0.14 percent of the total voting-age population in 2010. Considering that overall turnout rose from 37.2 percent in 2006 to 37.8 percent in 2010—both off-year, nonpresidential elections—the Facebook scientists maintained that the voter megaphone impact in 2010 was substantial. "It is possible," the Facebook team wrote in Nature, "that more of the 0.6 percent growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook."

What about the news feed tests? Data scientists at Facebook also pushed more news stories from friends to the top of pages in the fall of 2012. One of the scientists, Solomon Messing, surveyed users after the election. According to the report, voter turnout in the group saw a major jump from 64% to 67%.

If Facebook's claims are true, it actually could have helped swing elections for Democrats. The site isn't doing anything to influence who you vote for, but Facebook users skew Democratic, so it could have potentially led more of them to vote.

Facebook users who are over 18 can expect to see the "I Voted" button on their pages tomorrow. Facebook says it's putting on the button on every voters page this time around and not running any experiments. Do you believe them?

Are you prepared to vote on Election Day tomorrow? Click here to locate your local voting place.

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Source: Mother Jones
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