By Robin Spielberger
Many have studied the varying relationships in the online public sphere of Facebook, from how messages spread within networks and the impact of the “influencer” on the individual, to how romantic actions such as becoming “Facebook Official” have transformed social norms.
An important area of debate revolves around the role of “strong ties” and “weak ties” – a measurement of the true depth of connections between individuals – in determining the behavior of online networks and their power to influence the offline world.
A study conducted in 2012 and published in the journal Nature, entitled “A 61 Million Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,” tested the idea that one’s voting behavior could be significantly influenced by messages found in News Feed on Facebook.
On Election Day, during the Congressional mid-terms of 2010, more than 60 million Facebook users were shown notifications on the top of their News Feeds, encouraging them to vote.
These notifications pointed to nearby polling locations, offered a places to click “I voted” and displayed icons of select friends who had already voted.
Two smaller groups of users were given messages encouraging them to vote but no data concerning which of their friends had voted, or were not given any messages concerning voting at all.
The University of California at San Diego and Facebook were able to analyze the voting behavior of approximately 6 million people using public records. For this study, “close friends” were defined by how many times the users interacted online and were assumed to be more likely to have offline interactions.
The researchers found:
- The data suggested that the Facebook social message increased voter turnout directly by close to 60,000 voters and indirectly by another 280,000 voters, totaling over 340,000 additional votes.
- “Strong ties” between Facebook friends proved to be much more influential than “weak ties.” The “close friends” exerted at least four times more influence on the total number of voters mobilized than the generic message encouraging users to vote. This indicates that online mobilization works because it spreads through “strong-tie” networks that have a good probability of existing offline but certainly have an online representation.
- “To put these results in context, it is important to note that [voter] turnout has been steadily increasing in recent U.S. midterm elections, from 36.3% of the voting-age population in 2002 to 37.2% in 2006, and to 37.8% in 2010.”
- The 340,000 additional votes which were attributed to Facebook notifications represent approximately “0.14% of the voting population of about 236 million in 2010.…It is possible that more of the 0.60% growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook.”
The researchers note that this study has a number of implications:
“First and foremost, online political mobilization works. It induces political self-expression, but it also induces information gathering and real, validated voter turnout. Although previous research suggested that online messages do not work, it is possible that conventional sample sizes may not be large enough to detect the modest effect sizes shown here. We also show that social mobilization in online networks is significantly more effective than informational mobilization alone. Showing familiar faces to users can dramatically improve the effectiveness of a mobilization message.”
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