Social networks have impact on voter turnout, UC San Diego study shows

Facebook users who saw a message on their account that close friends had voted in the 2010 general election were more likely to turn out to a polling place themselves, according to a study released today by UC San Diego.

The report, published in the journal


, involved a message to the news feeds of more than 60 million Facebook users in the U.S. that it was Election Day.

The message included a clickable “I Voted” button, had a link to local polling places, a counter that showed how many Facebook users already had reported voting and up to six profile pictures of a users’ own friends who said they had cast a ballot.

Separately, about 600,000 users received the same message but without the friends notification, and another estimated 600,000 received no message at all.

Using public voting records, researchers found that the message prompted about 60,000 people to vote. They estimated the effect of social networks could have extended the impact by another 280,000 users — causing them to cast ballots.

James Fowler, a professor of political science in the Division of Social Sciences and of Medical Genetics in the School of Medicine, said a democracy needs voters to survive.

“Our study suggests that social influence may be the best way to increase voter turnout,” said Fowler, the lead author of the report. “Just as importantly, we show that what happens online matters a lot for the ‘real world.’”

People in the control groups, the ones who received the message without friend notifications, and the ones who received no message at all, voted at the same rate, according to the study.

“Social influence made all the difference in political mobilization,” Fowler said. “It’s not the ‘I Voted’ button or the lapel sticker we’ve all seen that gets out the vote. It’s the person attached to it.”

The researchers said they did not find any evidence of differences in effects among self-described liberals and conservatives.

—City News Service