Strategic Communications: Using Facebook to Influence and Gauge Voting Behavior

The Saint ReportStrategic Communications

By Owen EaganTouch To Share Facebook

We all know that Facebook has emerged as an essential tool for any political campaign. However, the methods for utilizing it to influence outcomes continues to evolve.

For instance, we previously discussed the various ways in which we are influenced by others such as through social proof. But social influence can take many forms and extends to Facebook as well. As an illustration, a study by James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, sheds light on the social influence of Facebook on our voting behavior. This study was conducted with the cooperation of the Facebook Data Team and examined the voting behavior of 61 million users after being exposed to different election day messages in the 2010 US congressional elections.

Specifically, one group received an ‘informational message’ urging them to vote, another group received a ‘social message’ which included the names of six randomly selected friends who had clicked the ‘I Voted’ button and the third group consisted of a control group which received no message. The study found that those who received the informational message and those who received no message voted at the same rates. However, those who received the social message were 2 percent more likely to have clicked the ‘I Voted’ button and were .4 percent more likely to turn out.

While these results may seem insignificant, the author notes that only 537 votes, or .01 percent, separated George Bush from Al Gore in Florida during the 2000 US presidential election. This margin of votes essentially determined the outcome of that campaign. Although, we also need to consider the scale of the Facebook study. For example, the researchers said that the study may have generated 340,000 more votes in the election. But perhaps the most significant finding in this study is the influence that close friends had on users. In particular, the study found that close friends had about four times more influence on voter turnout than the message itself.

In another study, Fowler examined the effects of political engagement between users in competitive “battleground” states and uncompetitive “blackout” states during the 2008 presidential election. Again with the assistance of the Facebook Data Team, this study examined 113 million status updates among users in the sample states which were then coded for their political content. The researchers found that those who posted a political status update were 37.46 percent more likely to self-report that they voted. Further, while the effect of competition on self-reported voting was only 1.37 percent, the researchers found that posting a political status update determines about 20 percent of the relationship between political competition and self-reported voter turnout.

So whether you’re a real estate developer or a candidate running for office, there are a few primary takeaways from these studies. First, when reaching out to voters, it’s important to leverage the personal relationships that your supporters have with others, which can be done cost-effectively through social media tools such as Facebook. Also, just as other studies have confirmed, there is a strong correlation between engagement with politics and the decision to vote. Therefore, you can enhance your outreach efforts by using political status updates as a metric for engagement.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Vice President for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics. He is also a faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. He can be reached at eagan@tscg.biz.