Facebook, the 21st century ballot box

Published

Euan McTear

Quick question. What is blue, supports community and will win the US Presidential election this year?
No, not Papa Smurf, I’m talking about Facebook.

This is its year. It has amassed 800 million members and will act as the electoral tool as Barack Obama looks to build on his pioneering and successful use of social media during his ’08 campaign.

With 200 million or so Americans owning an account, or roughly two thirds of the population, the site will have a huge influence as the country goes to the polls this November. As it stands, Barack Obama has nearly 25 million users liking his page and thus receiving his updates. Mitt Romney, the current republican front-runner to face Obama has, by comparison, a meagre 1.4 million likes, meaning Obama already has nearly 18 times the facebook influence of his potential rival.

Obama himself had just over one million facebook supporters in the summer of 2008. That has grown to the millions he currently enjoys, highlighting the huge influence he has gained in his four years as president compared to when he was campaigning in the primaries.

The growing power of facebook could be the start of a new trend in politics. It seems we are beginning to see the current president, prime minister, MP, etc, receiving a headstart come election time.

While politicians fighting for a second term have often struggled to shake off the negative policies that they have put in place during their first period in office, the ‘facebook effect’ could introduce an advantage to the candidate seeking re-election. Because they have been in the public view for so many years and because it only takes a facebook user a second to click ‘like’ on their page (something that they will do en masse after such a candidate is first elected to the position), those politicians will be gifted the opportunity to spin out plenty of positive press in the news feeds of voters.

Chris Hughes, co-founder of facebook, left Mark Zucherberg in 2007 to work on Senator Obama’s new-media campaign. He believed the community aspect of facebook was key to winning support. He told the New York Times in 2008:

““You can have the best technology in the world, but if you don’t have a community who wants to use it and who are excited about it, then it has no purpose.”
There are still many who think it possible to buy an election. However, as economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have demonstrated with empirical examples, the influence of money in winning elections is actually not all that great. They point to evidence that shows a losing candidate who doubles his spending can expect to earn just 1% extra of the vote:

“What really matters for a political candidate,” they say, “is not how much you spend; what matters is who you are.”

Facebook, then, hands the candidates of today a never-before-had opportunity to influence just ‘who they are’ in the minds of voters. Just as we all have that particular view of that always-hung-over or always-moaning-about-work friend who we only really know and form such opinions about through facebook, so too are we starting to form views of politicians based on their online comments on every world event.

As Levitt and Dubner point out, there is no correlation between campaign expenditure and success at the polls. However, we are starting to see a correlation between subscribers or ‘likers’ to a politician on facebook and their chances of victory. The last presidential contest is just one example where Obama convincingly defeated John McCain who is yet to reach 1 million ‘likes.’

And here at Glasgow University, for example, The Rt. Hon. Charles Kennedy earned 82% of the vote in last February’s Rector’s election to A. L. Kennedy’s 18%. Charles’ facebook campaign was also the more popular, with 493 ‘likes’ to 100, or 83% of ‘likes,’ almost identical to the actual voting.

Interestingly, the results from the Rector’s election again suggest a headstart for the defending candidate, in this case Charles Kennedy, who had built up a popularity and corresponding facebook community in his three years already spent as Rector. A.L Kennedy, an unknown to most, understandably found it more difficult to build online support and awareness among those who had never heard of her.

2012, therefore, will be the year that facebook won its second consecutive US presidential election. And with Zucherberg’s dorm-room project expected to have influence over other elections as well this year, including those in France and Mexico, it wont be long until elections go hand in hand with logging onto facebook.
Could we one day conduct elections through the social networking site? At the very least, online voting will become a real consideration over the next decade.