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Facebook experiment in social influence and political mobilization


Facebook vote (screenshot)
Facebook vote (screenshot)

A wide range of research has explored the dynamics of the Facebook ecosystem, from how messages spread within networks to the outsized impact of influential individuals. A key area of debate revolves around the role of “strong ties” and “weak ties” — the true depth of connection between individuals — in determining the behavior of networks and their power to influence the offline world.

A 2012 study published in the journal Nature, “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,” tested the idea that voting behavior can be significantly influenced by messages on Facebook. On Election Day 2010 — the Congressional midterms — 60,055,176 Facebook users were shown messages at the top of their news feeds that encouraged them to vote, pointed to nearby polling places, offered a place to click “I Voted” and displayed images of select friends who had already voted (the “social message”). Two smaller groups — each about 600,000 people — were given either voting-encouragement messages but no data about friends’ behavior (an “informational message”) or were not given any voting-related messages.

The researchers, from the University of California, San Diego, and Facebook, also were able to analyze the voting behavior of approximately 6.3 million subjects using publicly available records. For the study’s purposes, close friends were defined by the frequency of online interactions and were assumed to be more likely to have face-to-face interactions. The researchers involved were Robert M. Bond, Christopher J. Fariss, Jason J. Jones, Adam D. I. Kramer, Cameron Marlow, Jaime E. Settle and James H. Fowler, the corresponding author.

The study’s findings include:

  • The data “suggest that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.”
  • Strong ties between friends proved much more influential than weak ties: “Close friends exerted about four times more influence on the total number of validated voters mobilized than the message itself…. Online mobilization works because it primarily spreads through strong-tie networks that probably exist offline but have an online representation.”
  • “To put these results in context, it is important to note that 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 attributed to Facebook messages represents “0.14% of the voting age 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 conclude the 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.”

Tags: Facebook

    Writer: | Last updated: September 19, 2012

    Citation: Bond, Robert; Fowler, James H., et al. “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,” Nature, September 2012, Vol. 489, Issue 7415, 295–298. doi:10.1038/nature11421.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related The Atlantic article titled "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization."

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?