Can Facebook's campaign push users to the polls?

Facebook has launched a campaign aimed at users who aren't registered to vote, hoping to push them to sign up now and head to the polls in November. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
President Barack Obama attended a 2011 town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. The social media site's role in the electoral process has been amplified in recent years.

In a move to boost voting interest among those who aren’t currently registered, Facebook is urging its users to fulfill their civic duty in November by registering to vote now.

The social media site launched a four-day campaign Friday by sending a message to users 18 and older. The message, which appears at the top of a user’s News Feed, redirects them to a government site about voter registration, USA TODAY reported.

While Facebook didn't say how many people will see the message, the push marks the site's first attempt at national outreach regarding an election.

"We thought we had a unique ability and responsibility to show people this reminder that they should be checking their registration so they can participate in the election," Katie Harbath, Facebook's director of government outreach, told USA TODAY.

If the campaign is successful, it could usher in a new era in get-out-the-vote techniques. While politically active citizens have for years tried to track down unregistered, yet eligible, voters and coax them to the polls by knocking on doors or setting up informational booths, the presence of more subtle nudges on social media could help to determine Facebook’s influence on voting behavior.

The social network has issued similar campaigns on a smaller scale in the past, and research shows that the push had some impact on voters. A study conducted by Nature found that around 340,000 additional people voted in the 2010 congressional elections after Facebook sent out a message on election day. While the network’s push helped, users who saw that their closest friends had clicked an “I voted” button on the site were even more likely to vote.

“Online networks are powerful ... but it is those real-world ties that we have always had that are making a difference,” James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who led the study, said of the results. “The closest 10 friends on Facebook mattered; the other 140 didn't matter at all.”

Whether or not the new reminders will have the same success has yet to be seen, but the campaign isn’t the only way social media networks are jumping into the race. Both Facebook and Twitter plan to livestream the first general election debate on Monday, a move that could revolutionize how Americans watch, and participate, in the events.

"More and more, TV viewers are multitasking on their connected devices, primarily engaging on search and social sites while watching TV,” Thomas Ksiazek, a professor of communication at Villanova University, previously told The Christian Science Monitor. “By live-streaming the debate, Twitter is hoping to create a single platform for doing both – watching the debate and reacting to it – all in real-time."

The long-term effects of social media’s involvement in the electoral process aren’t clear, but one thing is certain: social media is becoming an increasingly important tool candidates must access to connect with potential voters.

Brian Donahue, chief executive of Craft Media/Digital, a Washington, D.C., agency focused on campaign advertising, expressed that sentiment to The Seattle Times when the primary campaigns kicked off last year.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for campaigns and political advertisers to reach audiences through traditional methods,” he said.

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