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Social Networks and Voter Turnout

Social networking sites such as Facebook influence an extremely large number of people all over the world.  News about the election makes headlines every day, and it comes as no surprise that the candidates’ names show up quite frequently on social networking sites.  While people like and dislike social networking sites for a variety of reasons, they may prove to be useful for a very important thing: improving voter turnout.

According to an estimate that researchers who ran an experiment during the 2010 presidential election conducted, approximately 300,000 people turned out to vote in the election because of a Facebook message.  Estimates state that as many as 60 million people could have seen some type of message about voting on Election Day but researchers only estimate that this caused 60,000 people to vote.  This is a rather larger disparity from the estimate of 300,000.  Further research indicated that seeing that friends clicked a button saying “I voted” was more likely to entice people to vote, and may help account for the rest of the 300,000 people.

Merely seeing a message in another user’s newsfeed does not seem like it is enough to cause someone to vote though.  When broken down simply, social networks are just nodes (people in real life) and edges (representing friendships).  The average Facebook user has about one hundred and fifty friends.  This means that their posts have the potential to reach all of these people.  It seems natural that not all of these people are actually friends.  In fact, on average, of the one hundred and fifty “friends” that the average user has, they only have a close relationship, or strong ties, to approximately ten of them.  The study found that only “close” friends on Facebook actually mattered in influencing voting behavior and other friends had little effect.  This does not mean that seeing a message to vote from a distant friend would not cause someone to vote.  Any information telling someone to vote would probably help, and this is the beauty of social networking, but it was not the underlying reason for increased voter turnout.

Why exactly close friends influence voting behavior more than “normal” friends is still unclear.  If one defines closeness as a person having regular contact with that friend in daily life, then it would seem that this is almost a matter of peer pressure, or at least peer influence.  This notion magnifies if one partially defines closeness by the number of mutual friends between two people. This is because groups of mutual friends often have similar sentiments and are more easily influenced by people in their group.  One could also define a strong tie as a relationship between people who peruse each other’s profile, and chat with each other.  Hearing something from an actual friend will usually carry more weight than hearing something from an acquaintance.  Whatever the cause, the effect is no doubt a good one: more people taking an active role in government.



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