It’s likely that, just by logging on, you participated in a major GOTV (Get Out The Vote) initiative by Facebook. . . plus a social network analysis of voting behavior by Facebook data scientists and UCSD professor James Fowler. (Fowler’s also a member of Activate Networks Advisory Board.)

The Facebook-Fowler research team has been tracking the effects of online social networks (Facebook, in particular) on voting. Their previous study analyzed Facebook’s effect on getting out the vote during the 2010 Election. (Those results were published this fall in Nature, and reported in our Blogs of September 13, 14, and 18, and November 5).

Fowler was interviewed after last week’s Election by The Atlantic’s Associate Editor Rebecca J. Rosen, who poses the question, “Upending predictions, young voters made a strong showing at the polls. Did they go because ‘everybody’s doing it,’ as they saw on Facebook?”

And Fowler’s reply? According to Rosen, Fowler says that it’s “absolutely plausible that Facebook drove a lot of the increase” in young-voter participation, and “even possible that Facebook is completely responsible.”

Think back to Tuesday. Did you see a message at the top of your Facebook page (and I quote Rosen) “advising you that, surprise, it was Election Day. There was a link where you could find your polling place, a button that said either ‘I’m voting’ or ‘I’m a voter,’ and pictures of the faces of friends who had already declared they had voted, which also appeared in your News Feed. If you saw something like that, you were in good company: 96 percent of 18-and-older U.S. Facebook users got that treatment, assigned randomly.”

Or maybe you were part of the other 4% of Facebook users. They form the various control groups for the research, depending on whether they received no message, just their friends’ messages, or other permutations of the experimental design.

The next step for the Fowler-Facebook team: to apply specific numbers to Facebook’s effects. They’ll do this by matching the feedback received from each of these groupings of individuals to the actual voting rolls, which are public data.

It’s no understatement to say that this is a Really Big experiment. A similar go-vote message — described in Fowler’s 2010 research — reached some 60 million Facebook users, and of course there are even more Facebook users today.

The Atlantic concludes, “In a country where elections can turn on just a couple hundred votes, it’s not far-fetched to say that, down the road, Facebook’s efforts to improve voter participation could swing an election, if they haven’t already.”

James Fowler

On a different note, you might like to enjoy some post-Election relief with 5 minutes of laughter, as Stephen Colbert interviews James Fowler about the social-network research that led to his best-seller (with Activate Networks’ Scientific Founder Nicholas Christakis), Connected:  The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Image credit: brettneilson

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