Here's an obvious, yet poorly understood fact: A single social network could have a major influence on who gets to control our government in the future.
This isn't an accusation of corporate conspiracy or a condemnation of a technology company's power grab -- this is just a reality born out of the fact that Facebook has become ubiquitous in our daily lives. Facebook is where most of us now go to see what issues our friends are discussing. It's become a window into understanding what the people closest to us care about. As a result, the design, policies, and algorithms chosen by the company are having a major impact on how elections are run and how the electorate gets their information. A study the company conducted on its users found that increasing exposure to hard news "measurably increased civic engagement."
That leaves Facebook in a peculiar and unenviable position -- no matter what its intentions are, even minor decisions will have political impacts.
Every product change it makes leads to a set of winners and losers, and often these have their own unintended effects. A small alteration in deciding what types of stories get promoted, or what types of behaviors are highlighted, could potentially sway the outcome of an election somewhere. There is nothing it can do to make every side happy, and even doing nothing is a decision that has its own consequences.
The company announced yesterday that it was shutting down a feature that the Obama campaign used in 2012 to register over a million voters. During the election supporters shared access to their list of Facebook friends with the campaign through an app. Researchers have found that while people often view political messages with skepticism, they are more receptive and trusting when the information is coming from somebody they know. The feature was credited with boosting Obama's get-out-the-vote efforts which were crucial to his victory, but Facebook has decided to disable this ability in order to (rightfully) protect users from third-party apps collecting too much of their information.
When this feature was first released it provided the enterprising Obama campaign with a large advantage over the less technologically-inclined Romney campaign. Whenever there is an opportunity to advance the way messages are delivered to specific groups, political strategists are going to race to see who can most effectively use it to their advantage. So many elections have come down to mobilizing a relatively small portion of the voting population.
In addition to helping candidates target their messages and influencing how we perceive the importance of issues, Facebook has also proven its ability to impact voter turnout.
In fact, they've been testing this directly -- for years. In this area the company has been far less hands-off; starting in 2008 the social network has been showing users a "voting button" on election day specifying which of their friends had voted and allowing them to inform their network they had voted as well. While seemingly insignificant, Facebook's data scientists found a substantial impact.
In a study actually titled "A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization," the company checked public voting rolls to see whether those who had the button presented to them actually showed up to the voting booth. Many of them did -- the company believes that its efforts led to an additional 600,000 voters casting their ballot. (Professor Jonathan Zittrain reminds us that the contested 2000 presidential election came down to only 537 votes in Florida.) There was a control group who did not have the button shown to them, but it's not clear how these users were selected. Facebook plans to roll this out in more elections, all over the world.
The company insists that it favors no particular ideology and that its efforts are "neutral." The first part is likely true, but the second is not possible. The company's algorithms take into account a proprietary mix of our own biases, connections, and interests combined with Facebook's business priorities; that is the farthest thing from neutral. Facebook says it just want to encourage "civic participation," but politically mobilizing the subsection of people that are on their network is not without its own impacts.
Ben Smith of Buzzfeed sees large opportunities for campaigns in the "inexpensive viral populism" Facebook can provide, he believes that the "viral, mass conversation about politics on Facebook and other platforms has finally emerged as a third force in the core business of politics, mass persuasion." With digital ad spending up and over 500 campaigns now directly paying social media companies in this last cycle, the growth and reach of Facebook is only going to increase. The most recent midterm elections alone saw 184.2 million likes, shares, and comments. That means that future Karl Roves will need to know how to capitalize on the intricacies of targeting Facebook posts and ads.
Taken together, this puts Facebook in an incredibly powerful position to determine the political future of the several countries where it is most popular. Whether it wants this responsibility or not, Facebook has now become an integral part of the democratic process globally.
This article originally appeared on Forbes -- Disruption and Democracy.
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