Facebook 'I Voted' button experiment: praiseworthy or propaganda?

Facebook is helping to boost voter turnout with an 'I voted' button in the news feed of users. Is this social experiment really helpful or does it hide ulterior motives? 

Facebook screengrab

If you posted Facebook’s “I voted” sticker on your wall congratulations, you were part of the most recent social experiment being conducted by the social media giant. The goal: Can users be nudged to vote by saturating their news feeds and offering propaganda stickers as rewards?

While the word ‘propaganda” may seem harsh, the dictionary definition is one of a double-edged sword. 

“The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person,” says Merriam-Webster

Some publications, including Mother Jones last Friday, pointed out the down side of manipulation as it discussed how Facebook has conducted numerous social experiments on users without their knowledge in recent years.

In this instance, it may be hard to argue against the promotion of higher voter turnout. In 2010, a similar Facebook "I voted" button produced a slight boost in voter participation. But Mother Jones points out that Facebook’s experiments have also included efforts to manipulate the moods of users by altering their news feeds.

In June, Forbes reported that “Facebook conducted a massive psychological experiment on 689,003 users, manipulating their news feeds to assess the effects on their emotions. “

The results of this experiment were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America under the title, “Experimental Evidence Of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks.”

Basically the report said that the social media giant took liberties with users’ news feeds in order to see how peer pressure might affect mood.

“Now, Facebook says it has finished fine-tuning the tool, and if all goes according to plan, on Tuesday many of its more than 150 million American users will feel a gentle but effective nudge to vote, courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg & Co,” according to Mother Jones. “If past research is any guide, up to a few million more people will head to the polls partly because their Facebook friends encouraged them.”

It may be hard to argue against a social experiment that produces greater participation in a democratic system. But underlying this effort is what some may consider a less-than-forthcoming approach.

The Forbes story raised the question of how this type of manipulative study data might be used to influence people to make purchases of products, which advertisers are paying Facebook to promote.

Facebook may feel that the ends justify the means in this scenario. It is up to subscribers to ultimately decide if the use of a free social media platform is worth the price they are increasingly, unwittingly paying as test subjects.

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