Facebook UK has been working with the Electoral Commission to encourage young people to vote in the upcoming elections within Britain. Their campaign began with a notice sent out at the beginning of April to all 18-24 year olds on Facebook. This was an interesting partnership which has already driven over 140,000 people to register their interest on the Democracy UK Page on Facebook.
It would appear from the conversations that are flowing through my Facebook stream that young people in the UK are actively becoming engaged with the democratic process online. Votes are being placed on Facebook poles throughout the live TV debates, status updates are discussing the election and fan (Like) pages are being flagged for the multiple parties.
I have engaged with a few of these activities to a limited extent myself however on my last visit to Facebook one thing stood out. A poll was promoted in my sidebar that asked if I knew who I would be voting for at this stage. I selected my choice and was suprised to see that not only were they sharing data on the percentages but a person by person account within my circle of friends of who had voted for which candidate. There was no forewarning that this would happen and once a vote was placed there was no obviously apparent way to remove your vote.
The idea of creating social graphs of voters I’m sure will seem like a great opportunity for researchers, advertisers and the people behind Facebook but something about this process seems a little off for me. We have long had opinion polls in traditional media however this potentially offers some very different consequences.
Anybody who has studied psychology or marketing in any depth is likely to have come across the phenomenon known as social proof. I was first introduced to the concept by Robert Cialdini in his famous book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“. He essentially states that people will do things that they see other people doing. This effect can be seen with groups of complete strangers as well as circles of friends; an example would be when you suddenly notice a group of people staring and pointing in a certain direction and so take a look yourself.
Social proof alone is powerful enough, however when you include your peer group and people that you respect within the equation you can multiply the effects many times over. Marketers have been taking advantage of this concept with testimonials and more recently the kind of social marketing seen with the use of Facebook fan pages themselves. This can be beneficial if your friends have a similar taste as you usually have a good idea of what you are purchasing in advance and can return a product if it doesn’t meet your expectations. Unfortunately this is not always the case with politics…
Whichever party you are in favour of it is clear that there is a lot to take in when deciding who you want to vote for. Each party has in depth manifestos, their own personality, unique leaders and foundational beliefs. With so many considerations it makes me wonder how many people will make an attempt at truly understanding as opposed to simply following the social proof and voting in line with their social graph on Facebook.
Lets say that just 8 (5%) of your friends from an average friend count of 160 vote on this application and you see that 100% of them have voted in favour of one party this is going to have an impact. Whether you feel strongly about your party or are still forming your own decisions it is likely that a Facebook vote for an alternate party will make you at the very least take a second look or in the case of those still undecided to sway and vote entirely based on the social proof. Of course once this person chooses the same party the social proof which was initially swayed by a group of just 8 could potentially effect the large majority of your Facebook friends list. I’m not saying that this will have a significant impact on those who already have strong convictions on their choice of candidate but the potential effects can’t be ignored.
Another interesting possibility is the inaccurate representation of the parties due to their underlying ideas. Privacy advocates could potentially avoid voting in these polls all-together, preferring only to vote in the more anonymity centric official public elections. These people may naturally gravitate to certain policies and parties and as such social votes on these systems could gravitate towards other parties. Add in our social proof snowball and it’s possible that votes will be swayed even when the majority of a users friends wouldn’t vote for the party shown on these social graphs.
Overall it seems that whilst social voting definitely has it’s place within the world it may not provide the best platform for sharing and ultimately forming political opinions. I’d encourage anyone who is interested in the future of their country to use their initiative and actively research party politics from various independent sources as well as official party channels.
Interesting places to research the upcoming UK election: