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Facebook gets results? 2010 vote experiment worked, scientists say.

More than 61 million Facebook users unknowingly participated in the study, which sought to measure the ability of online social networks to catalyze actions in the real world. 

By Staff writer / September 12, 2012

This Nov. 2010 file photo shows a sticker handed out to a voter on Election Day, in Waterville, Maine.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

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If you logged onto your Facebook account on Nov. 2, 2010, saw a cluster of familiar faces on your "wall" whose owners indicated that they voted, and it rousted you out of your chair for a trip to the polls, thank political scientist James Fowler and six colleagues for the poke.

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The nonpartisan go-vote messages, with links to sites showing local polling places and the appearance of voting "friends" on Facebook walls were part of an experiment involving 61 million "subjects" on Facebook. The goal of Dr. Fowler's team was to gauge the ability of on-line social networks to convey messages that affect real-world actions.

The answer: They certainly can, at least for voting. And the most effective means of steering the behavior of a large group appears to involve highlighting the actions of friends with whom an on-line network member is most likely to have a real-world, face-to-face relationship.

The results of the experiment are being published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

"The network is the key," says Fowler, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego whose work focuses on social networks and their influence on fields ranging from public health and politics to personal tastes.

"If we want to make the world a better place on a massive scale, we should focus not just on changing a person's behavior, but also on utilizing the network to influence that person's friends," says Fowler, who led the study.

Nationally, the experiment's effect appears modest. The team, which includes Cameron Marlow, an in-house researcher at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif., estimates that as a result of the get-out-and-vote message, some 340,000 people voted who otherwise were unlikely to vote in the 13 states that make voting records public. Those states account for 40 percent of the nation's registered voters.

The number of additional voters prodded into action might actually have been higher, Fowler adds. Roughly one-third of the voters participating in the 2010 mid-term elections had voted ahead of Election Day, either via absentee ballot or early-voting programs. But the team included these voters in its calculations, diluting the effect of the Election Day-only message in the team's calculations. Other potential voters – he estimates around 20 percent – probably saw the message too late in the day to reach polling place in time or saw it but simply couldn't get to the polls.

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