There’s been a lot of consternation in recent months about Facebook’s impact on politics. If it’s not fears of partisan censorship and suppressed trending topics, it’s worries about echo chambers or hyper-targeted campaign ads.
But in the upcoming presidential election, at least, Facebook’s influence will lie somewhere else: The social network is driving huge numbers of people to the polls -- and most of those people are likely to vote Democrat.
This effect is not at all by design. Instead, it’s an accident of demographics. Facebook skews both young and female, which means the site’s powerful get-out-the-vote campaigns reach more potential voters in the Hillary Clinton camp. The same could be said of Twitter, which over-indexes with people of color. Or Airbnb, which is popular among older, white adults - those statistically most likely to be Republican voters.
In the past week, dozens of technology companies have launched nonpartisan, apolitical voter registration drives, meant to increase civic participation on Election Day. But all could have potent political consequences, even if none of the companies frame them that way.
“Facebook can influence millions of votes by the literal press of a button,” said Michael Brand, a professor of data science at Monash University in Australia. “Any decision it now makes regarding the political content of its pages . . . is inherently politically loaded.”
How loaded, of course, is a matter of conjecture -- at least until after Election Day. Many technology companies, including Twitter and Uber, don’t release any data on the number or types of voters reached by their campaigns. Other companies, such as the blogging platform Tumblr, report the number of times a get-out-the-vote campaign was shared (in Tumblr’s case, 172,500), but not how many people actually registered as a result of it.
Facebook, on the other hand, is fairly unique: The social network has a long history of running voter registration and Election Day prompts, which means we have a good idea how well they work. The site has, for the past several years, displayed an “I Voted” button on Nov. 8, which allows users to notify their friends when they’ve voted and shows pictures of their friends who have voted already. Last weekend, Facebook also displayed a prominent News Feed banner encouraging users to register with their state board of elections.
In 2010, a team of researchers from the University of California at San Diego, working with Facebook’s internal data science team, estimated that the site’s “I Voted” button pushed an additional 340,000 voters to the polls. When Facebook added a publicly displayed organ donor option to profiles, organ donor registration rates increased 21-fold.
It’s a pattern that seems to be repeating in this election, as well. While only a few states have released data about the registrations they’ve seen since Facebook began displaying a voting banner in News Feeds earlier this week, the numbers we do have are stunning. The reminder prompted 200,000 registrations in California, 30,000 in Indiana and 25,000 in Kentucky. Connecticut’s voter applications increased tenfold over the previous week, and Minnesota saw 27,000 applications in a single day - the largest ever in the state’s history.
“I applaud Facebook for joining our efforts to increase voter registration awareness in Georgia,” reads a statement by Brian Kemp, the secretary of state of Georgia, where hits to the online voter registration system are up more than 2,000 percent. “I am encouraging all Facebook users to take action now and verify their registration status leading up to this year’s historic election.”
Kemp is a Republican; his party wouldn’t benefit, in all likelihood, if “all Facebook users” heeded his call. Georgia’s current active electorate skews white and Republican. Facebook’s demographics, on the other hand, favor young people, people of color and women.
According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of female Internet users are on Facebook, while only 66 percent of men are. Eighty-two percent of those ages 18 to 29 use the site, as do 75 percent of Hispanics.
That means that any efforts to encourage voter registration through Facebook will necessarily have an outsize impact on those communities, explained Katherine Haenschen, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University who studies digital media and political participation. And while there’s more variation here than some pundits would have us believe, those voting blocs generally come out for Democrats.
Haenschen stresses that this shouldn’t be political: “It’s not Facebook’s fault if a candidate fails to be a credible choice for everyone,” she said. And of course, people and politics are both fantastically complicated - perhaps Facebook’s “voter megaphone” won’t have the impact we expect. Brand points out that studies show Republican voters tend to be motivated by consensus, so maybe they’d be more persuaded by a social voting prompt than a Democratic voter would. Or maybe all these people will register, but they’ll never show up to vote.
Experiments published in the Journal of Politics in 2015 found that while voter-registration drives do get people signed up, particularly in impoverished areas, they don’t change the overall composition of the electorate. That’s because, when Election Day rolls around, underrepresented voters - even if they’re registered - still don’t make it to the polls at the same rates as older, wealthier white people. They face larger structural and procedural obstacles that can’t yet be addressed by Facebook.
Still, there’s no doubt that Facebook will impact November’s election: Its size and power guarantees it, if nothing else does. Brandon Naylor, the communications director for Democracy Works, a nonpartisan voting organization, says efforts like Facebook’s are “making democracy more representative.” The social network, together with Airbnb, Spotify, Uber, Foursquare and Lyft, has recently partnered with Democracy Works on its “Turbovote Challenge,” an ambitious project that hopes to boost turnout to 80 percent by the 2020 presidential election.
“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility,” Naylor said. “Companies like Facebook have tremendous reach - we believe we’re touching every eligible voter who did not turn out in the last election.”