How to Use Facebook to Increase Voter Turnout

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Reluctant voters respond to social pressure.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Reasonable responses to the current presidential election can range anywhere from hiding in the nearest closet to feeling a renewed determination to get your friends to the polls. Turnout, in all likelihood, will be the key to victory. So what’s the best way to get your like-minded but slothful buddies to fill out a ballot?

Newresearch suggests the most effective approach might be either subtly shaming them, or appealing to their pride. And the best platform to do either of those may be one you use every day: Facebook.

“Direct contact within digital networks might be even more effective at fomenting turnout than traditional methods,” reports Katherine Haenschen of the University of Texas–Austin. “American adults who use Facebook can be effectively contacted and mobilized to vote by members of their own network.”

Importantly, she finds simply nudging friends with reminders of their civic duty is ineffective. Rather, she writes in the Journal of Communication, the key seems to be applying “direct social pressure” by giving people “the impression that their voting behavior — either participation or abstention — is being publicized to their entire Facebook network.”

The best way to actually influence an election may be to identify the reluctant voters in your social circle, create a simple, emotionally resonant message, and press send.

Haenschen described three studies, the first of which featured 293 registered voters in Dallas County, Texas, who were contacted during the run-up to the 2014 general election. Seven people who were active in the local Democratic party agreed to send one of three targeted messages to Facebook friends who were also registered voters.

One such message linked to a list of “early voting” locations and the admonition “Do your civic duty and vote!” Another appealed to the recipient’s pride, noting “Voting records are public.” It then thanked five specific individuals for voting in past elections, and provided a link to that same list of polling places.

A third was shame-based: It listed five names and noted they “have not yet voted this year.” This implication that you, too, could be outed was followed by a reminder about where you can vote, and when early-voting concludes.

A fourth and final group was not contacted at all. After the election, researchers checked the records to see who had voted.

“The treatments containing social-pressure elements — pride and shame — were able to substantially increase voter turnout,” Haenschen reports. An impressive 76 percent of those who received the shaming message cast a ballot, as did nearly 68 percent of those who read the pride-based appeal. In contrast, among voters who were identified but not contacted, only 52 percent voted.

The “do your civic duty” message, however, was entirely unhelpful. Only 48 percent of people who receive it ultimately voted — a lower percentage than those who weren’t contacted at all.

Another study found the same pattern of results held for a low-turnout off-year election in another Texas county. A final one found “social pressure by proxy” — that is, simply letting people know that you and many of your friends have voted — did not significantly raise voter participation.

“Facebook status updates can be used to increase voter turnout,” Haenschen concludes. “These effects are substantially larger than those which have been generated by canvassing or social-pressure mailers, which are in the 3 to 5 percent and 5 to 8 percent range, respectively.”

“Simply tagging friends in a reminder to vote is insufficient,” she adds. “It is the heightened visibility of individuals’ voting behavior, made possible on Facebook, that appears to be driving turnout.”

So if you’re living in a swing state, it’s not too early to find out when early voting begins, and determine which of your friends will need a nudge.

The best way to actually influence an election may be to identify the reluctant voters in your social circle, create a simple, emotionally resonant message, and press send.