Facebook May Have Made a Difference in This Year's Midterm Elections

People should soon be able to use Facebook for more work-related activities. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

You may have noticed an "I'm a Voter" app sitting on top of your Facebook news feed yesterday and may have thought it was another form of slacktivism—one that would have little impact other than allowing the person behind the social media profile to achieve some sense of satisfaction. But there's more to it than that.

Back in 2010, Facebook, along with a group of political scientists, conducted an experiment. They planted the following in the news feeds of tens of millions of users: a graphic containing a link to look up polling places, a button to announce you had voted and six profile pictures of friends who had already indicated they had voted. Other users were shown a generic message about voting or nothing at all. The researchers then cross-referenced each user's name with that day's voting records and crunched the numbers.

It turns out users who were given the option of letting their friends know that they had voted were 0.39 percent more likely to vote than those who were shown nothing. The researchers also found that the behavior was contagious: People were influenced by seeing that their close friends had voted. It was like a virtual version of the old "I Voted" button: part brag, part guilt trip. According to The New Republic, "The researchers concluded that their Facebook graphic directly mobilized 60,000 voters, and, thanks to the ripple effect, ultimately caused an additional 340,000 votes to be cast that day."

The researchers noted that the 2000 election was decided by 537 voters in Florida, making it clear that Facebook has the potential to influence elections. But what about these midterm elections?

This year, Facebook featured the "I'm a Voter" app to all adults in the United States. According to a Pew Research Study from this year, 57 percent of American adults use Facebook. With the U.S. adult population somewhere around 242.4 million, some 138.2 million voting-age Americans were 0.39 percent more likely to vote because they had seen the app. This means about 539,000 voters may have been directly influenced by Facebook to cast ballots in these midterm elections.

While many are calling the voter turnout "dismal" this year, without Facebook, it could have been worse.