The Facebook Presidential Election Experiment

, Another rant from , 1 Comment

One of my favourite parts of the work I do is getting to look at data.

No. Scratch that!

One of my favourite parts of the work I do is coming up with ideas based on data.

I spend most days pawing through data. I work with businesses to help them figure out how to collect and decipher this data into insights and ultimately into ideas, tactics and strategies.

But other times, I get to work with business’s that have massive amounts of information that I get to play with. Things like their customer journey data, business process experiments and effectiveness, technical performance analytics – any number of things.

But even the largest businesses I’ve worked with pale in comparison to the data being collected by one business. The mecca of social information. The gatekeepers to largest collection of correlated human data ever collected.

Facebook.

“Fun fact: As of today, there are more active users on Facebook than there are Catholics in the world.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard this all before. Big, bad data collecting Facebook. blah blah, blah ” I hear you say.

But this article is a bit of a twist on that story that you’ve likely heard at least 10 times already. This story is about as single experiment they ran a couple of years ago. (And No, it’s not the Emotional Manipulation of Newsfeed experiment that everyone lost their mind over either)

Vote or DieThis one took place in 2012. One the eve of the US Presidential election.
Spoiler: Obama won.

As you may or may not be aware, voter turnouts in the USA are not compulsory and have been in a bit of a decline over the past few decades.

Facebook decided they wanted to run an experiment that would encourage people to get out and vote. Kind of similar to the Rock the Vote thing people like Puff Daddy (or what ever he’s calling himself this week) promote.

Except whereas P-Diddy showed up on MTV, looking tough urging people to ‘Get out and vote yo’, the message was received by whoever was (unfortunate enough to be) watching MTV at the time, Facebook was targeting people directly into their newsfeed.

The experiment target 1.9million random users across the country with a message like this:

Facebook Voting Algorithm

The idea was that when you voted you clicked the button and the ‘I voted’ message would be pushed out to your friends list. Additionally, when one of your friends had voted, their image would appear within this message to you (EG: Jim has voted. Have you?)

By the end of ballot day, the numbers of the experiment showed that this message resulted in a 3% increase in voter turn out. Roughly about 340,000 additional votes.

Great! Voter turn out is low. Facebook is helping democracy. Yay for Facebook!

But wait just a second, let me go get my tinfoil hat to put on….

Now, as mentioned above, Facebook is the largest compilation of human data that has ever been collected. They know A LOT about the people who are on their platform (more info here about that). They know your friends, your location, your favorite bands, a lot of things. And with 1.3billion people’s intricate and organised information, they can get some pretty in-depth trends about people.
Including your political preferences.

Case in point: Over 43 million people have liked Barack Obama’s Facebook page, it’s pretty safe to assume that those people won’t be voting for Jeb Bush next year.

So, if with targeting 1.9million people with a post can encourage over 340,000 votes, imagine if this ad was shown to only one demographic of political preference…

Encourage group A to vote, but don’t worry about group B. You could literally encourage more votes for supporters of one party, but avoid doing it for the other.

Now let’s add a few more ingredients to this insane theory that Facebook actually would want to do such a thing.

  • In 2014 Facebook increased the amount spent on political lobbying by 45% ($9,500,000 in 2014)
  • Their very aggressive bid to bring the internet to the entire planet (http://internet.org/) – that’s a hell of a lot of info on a hell of a lot of people huh.
  • Oh, and of course their stance on privacy

I’ll take the tinfoil hat off shortly, but on a scale of 1 to 10 in scariness, this is sitting around a 9.8. Facebook is kind of starting to look like something you’d get if Rupert Murdoch had a love child with Orson Wells.
(I don’t recommend trying to visualise that either. Ergh…)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Of course, this is just one of thousands of experiments they run with the data of 1.3billion people each year; albeit a pretty interesting one. When you have the worlds largest data set, you’re gonna pull it apart and play with the information in every way you can.

The amount of intricate and structured data these guys have is scarily cool and using it can literally change the world.

I should end this post by stating that I’m not suggesting that Facebook are manipulating elections or influencing global politics at all, but I guess what I am suggesting is …

well…

they’ve proven they can.

Author

Who the hell is Daylan Pearce?

Daylan is a digital strategist for branding agency Principals. Looking after digital and customer experience projects, Daylan has been featured in The New York Times, News.com.au, B&T, ProBlogger and more. He once ate 13 McDonald's cheeseburgers in under 5 minutes, but strongly advises against anyone else ever trying that. He also feels slightly odd when writing about himself in the third person for blog biography summaries.

 

One Response

  1. Michelle @ Leo Sigh

    June 4, 2015 1:25 AM

    Oh I wouldn’t put it past them to manipulate election results at all. Zuckerberg and his ilk are disgusting enough, as they now own or run a company that, once upon a time, was all about connecting people. Now it’s just about manipulation and gathering data to make themselves even more obscenely rich than they already are, and to give themselves more and more power. Manipulating election results would certainly do that.

    Personally, I’m seeing a lot more people moving away from Facebook than staying on it. Many of the people who are ‘friended’ to my page rarely show up anymore, and the ones who do are pretty much promoting their own business (which is just about the only reason I go there anymore either, and that is seldom).

    Much of the movement away from it too is because of Facebook’s nefarious business practices, and the rest of it is just because the people I know can’t stand Zuckerberg or have found other less invasive ways online to connect with friends.

    Ello, the anti-Facebook social platform, is looking promising too. I’ve just signed up for it so can’t comment much about it, but I do like the way they are running their business so far. It’s about the users and not the advertisers or the owners.