Sep 13, 2012 10:56 AM by Lauren Molenburg
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Here's something most politicians can "like": Facebook friends played a big role in getting hundreds of thousands of people to vote in 2010, a new scientific study claims.
Facebook researchers and scientists at the University of California, San Diego conducted a massive online experiment in the mid-term congressional election to test and measure the political power of online peer pressure.
The friend-prodding likely increased voter turnout by as much as 340,000 in the non-presidential election that voted in a new Republican congress, the scientists calculated. They said that it could potentially change the outcome of close elections.
"Our study is the first large-scale scientific test of the idea that online social networks affect real world political behavior," said study lead author James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego.
He has studied friend and social media influences on public health and politics over the past decade. While pundits have pointed to social media-inspired revolutions in the Arab world, this is more verifiable scientifically because it is a controlled study comparing groups that had different inputs. It's the voting equivalent of testing real drugs versus sugar pills.
Nearly every American of voting age who logged into Facebook on Election Day 2010 was part of the experiment, even though they didn't know it.
Most of them - more than 60 million - saw an announcement on top of their Facebook news feed: Today is Election Day. It showed how many Facebook users as well as their friends had clicked an "I voted" button and showed up to six pictures of those friends. It also linked to a list of polling places.
Researchers compared voter turnout with two groups that didn't receive that same message. One group of 611,000 people simply got a generic announcement encouraging voting, but no pictures or count of friends. Another 613,000 users didn't receive any message.
Those who got the peer pressure message were less than half a percent (0.39 percent) more likely to vote than those who got no message or the generic one.
While that seems like a very small increase, it is statistically significant and it adds up, Fowler said.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)