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Facebook's Voter Turnout Efforts: Good, Bad or Pointless?

By Richard Adhikari
Nov 5, 2014 12:20 PM PT

In the months leading up to Tuesday's mid-term elections, suspicions were rife about the possibility of Facebook influencing the outcome.

Facebook had joined Google, Twitter and other high-tech companies in urging people to vote, but skepticism about its motives ran high because in previous elections, it had turned its call to voters into sociological experiments, trying different approaches on different groups.

Facebook in essence said that this year it would roll out the same message to all 100 million or so subscribers in the United States. Voters could tell their friends they'd voted by clicking on a button on their Facebook page that said "I'm a Voter."

"Voting is a core value of democracy, and we believe that encouraging civic participation is an important contribution we can make to the community," Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told TechNewsWorld.

"Our effort is neutral -- while we encourage any and all candidates, groups and voters to use our platform to engage on the elections, we as a company have not used our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote," he said.

Apathy Rules, OK

A check Wednesday morning of Facebook's "Voting Across the Nation" Web page showed that nearly 7 million subscribers had shared that they'd voted.

Although the final figures have yet to be tallied, voter turnout is believed to have been low, which appears to indicate that Facebook's efforts might have been in vain -- this time, at least.

"Given Facebook trends Democratic, and the Democrats' sweeping losses, it would appear Facebook's [efforts] failed badly this time," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"Sadly, this may focus the company even more tightly on manipulating users to get the results they want," he added.

Remembrance of Facebook's User Manipulations Past

Although there was an abysmally low turnout for the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, Facebook's efforts reportedly brought in an additional 340,000 votes nationwide. The company ran different exhortations to get out and vote on 61 million U.S. subscribers' Facebook pages.

The results, published earlier this year in Nature Magazine, sparked public outrage.

In 2012, Facebook offered different groups of voters different options to see how they'd react, drawing fire for that action.

Also in 2012, Facebook tweaked the News Feeds of 1.9 million random users so that hard news stories their friends had shared would be posted at the top of their pages in preference to other types of posts.

This was disclosed in public talks given by Facebook data scientist Lada Adamic, but Facebook took down a YouTube video of one of her talks, Mother Jones reported.

A video copy of the original video later was posted to YouTube:

Facebook intends to publish a paper on the 2012 results, Stone said.

Why People Fear Facebook

"A firm in Facebook's position could get into a position to manipulate government by offering to support, and ensure the reelection of, candidates that do what they want," Enderle said. However, this is true of "any company that has a unique ability to alter the information people are receiving."

The mass media is just as capable of managing the public's perceptions as Facebook is -- and has done so repeatedly. Large corporations for years have been contributing massively to political action committees to influence the outcome of elections. Their actions, along with the media's manipulation of public perception, are widely accepted -- so why should Facebook be treated differently?

It's the secrecy that annoys people, Enderle contended. Facebook "shouldn't be allowed to covertly influence how people think by changing the information they receive."

What technology can do, it can undo, however -- MapLight rolled out its Voter's Edge Web page, which provides personalized information on candidates, nationwide for the first time on Monday.

"It's been incredibly popular so far," MapLight President Daniel G. Newman told TechNewsWorld, "and an antidote to all the negative advertising."

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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