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How our social networks help “get out the vote”

Does what happens in our online social networks affect our behaviors and decisions in our offline reality? This question was the subject of research led by James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego. While previous research has documented the ways in which behaviors spread within online or offline contexts, Professor Fowler notes that as of yet, the question of how our online network influences our offline behavior has yet to be fully addressed.

To tackle this question, Fowler partnered with Facebook, who agreed to display two distinct banners on user profiles urging members to vote in midterm elections. The first banner, displayed on 600,000 user profiles, contained a reminder that voting booths were open as well as information about nearby polling stations. The second banner was identical to the first, with the important addition of information about the user’s friends voting activity, including a list of six friends who had already voted. The research team then compared the profiles of those who reported on their profile that they had voted against actual polling records. Fowler’s results indicated that users who viewed the ‘social’ banner on their profile were 0.4% more likely to actually vote, and 2% more likely to claim they had voted. While undoubtedly a small percentage of the national population, Fowler estimates that the social banner accounted for nearly 340,000 additional votes – no small contribution considering the 2000 Presidential election was ultimately decided by less than 600 votes.

Perhaps the most interesting component of Fowler’s research was the finding that users were up to .22% more likely to vote for each “close” friend displayed on their banner, measured by degree of social interaction. Fowler noted his findings suggest that the so-called ‘friend’ vote more than quadrupled voting behavior. These findings illustrate the power of strong ties among nodes in a social network. The research lends credibility to the notion that the strong ties in our social networks greatly influence our real world behavior and decision-making.


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