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The Social Side of Voting

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The Social Side of Voting

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Imagine your best friend has made a pledge to start running five days a week. Or your roommate is going vegan. Or your brother is binge-watching Breaking Bad. And they’re all talking about it on social media.

You’d be kind of interested in joining them, right? At the very least, you’d file the new venture away for a rainy day. Either way, they’d get you thinking about it.

At a time when almost everyone is sharing almost everything about their lives on social media, we can heavily influence our friends and followers, whether we realize it or not.

And at a time when we’re approaching an important midterm election, can the same “monkey see, monkey do” principle apply to politics and voting?

It already does. Just ask Barack Obama.

THE BEGINNING OF SOCIAL MEDIA POLITICS

In 2008, Facebook and Twitter were just taking off. (Facebook had 100 million users and Twitter had just six million… compared to 1.3 billion and 250 million today, respectively.). But then-candidate Barack Obama saw the potential of the platforms in influencing young voters, and used them to his advantage. Team Obama handily out-posted the John McCain campaign throughout the election season, contributing to his first presidential victory.

Fast forward to 2012, when the Pew Center’s Journalism Project found in that in one week in June, the Obama camp tweeted 404 times, compared to 16 tweets from opponent Mitt Romney. Months later, President Obama was re-elected.

It’s not possible to draw conclusions on both campaigns based solely on social media activity, but the correlation is implicitly there. Politics is steadily becoming more social. As part of its Internet and American Life research, Pew asked people about how they treat politics on social media.

  • 25% said they debate politics with people on their social networks
  • 25% said they find out how others feel about politics using their social networks
  • 25% said they got more involved in politics because of reading social media posts

And if 87 percent of American adults are using the Internet, odds are some of that online political activity is bleeding into the offline world.

THE FRIEND EFFECT

As I stated before, seeing a friend do something on social media can often influence you to follow in his or her footsteps. Just look at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Countless shared videos, many of them populating the newsfeeds of Facebook’s billion users, have raised $94 million this summer to find a cure for the disease.

Similarly, seeing that your friend voted might inspire you to head to the polls yourself. In a study on Election Day 2010, researchers posted targeted messages on Facebook to 61 million users. The messages included the photos of up to six of each user’s Facebook friends who had clicked an embedded “I Voted” button when logging on to the network that day.

The study found that those messages led to 340,000 more votes nationwide, both directly and indirectly. In fact, on average, everyone who saw the message influenced four more people to vote. Furthermore, researchers said the closer the relationship with the friend, the more likely the Facebook user was to vote if he or she saw the message.

While imperfect and often skewed by people on the political fringes, the importance of social relationships in voting habits is hard to ignore. In addition, a Nielsen study found that in four different 2010 Congressional races, that candidate with the most social media buzz won his or her race.

A DIGITAL CALL TO ARMS

Despite the increase in political discussion online, voters are not more apt to head to the polls. Historically feeble turnout has plagued the 2014 primaries, despite the gravity of many races on the ballot for November. Even in the 2012 presidential election, only 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, down from 62 percent in 2008.

But if a simple message on a social network can generate hundreds of thousands more votes, we’d be wasting an opportunity to make elections more meaningful if we didn’t all do our part to get out the vote online.

So on Election Day, wear your “I Voted” sticker proudly. And don’t forget to tweet a picture of it to your friends.

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