In this month’s edition of Nature, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (in conjunction with the Facebook Data Team) have released results from an online experiment with 61 million Facebook users.
The experiment assess the effect that a “social message” can have on the propensity to vote. During the 2010 midterm elections, certain Facebook users were chosen to receive a message that showed which of their friends voted in the election. Other users were given an “informational message” where they could click a link to look up their polling location. Finally, a control group was chosen to receive no message.
The results show that online political mobilization of this type can have a direct effect on political participation. Those people who received the social message on Facebook were 0.39% more likely to vote than those who received no message at all. In essence, seeing the faces of your friends and attaching participatory significance to that contributes to the propensity to participate.
For my own selfish academic reasons, this piece is well-timed and most-welcomed. A few colleagues and I published our own article about the effect of Facebook on political participation. In a survey of undergraduates at public universities in the state of California, we found that people who used Facebook for political purposes were more likely to vote. However, as somewhat of a cautionary tale, we also found that people who used Facebook did not learn from online political activity.
The study from UCSD is a landmark study for a couple of reasons. First, it acknowledges the role that online mobilization plays in offline participation. Most major journals have yet to give due attention to the capability of Facebook to encourage this type of engagement. Second, mainstream journalists have noticed and have widely reported the results of the study.
The intersection of social media and politics is still a relatively new field. Scholars are at a loss in terms of coming to a consensus about the effect of social media on politics. The UCSD makes significant strides towards reconciling different viewpoints, but other earlier research seems to suggest that this connection between online mobilization and participation is indeed viable.
This research agenda is rapidly expanding. Online social networks represent a frontier of research that is largely unexplored. My own research interests lie in this field and I am currently working on several projects that follow the idea that online network interaction matters.