If voters leave an Obama rally, do Facebook users hear about it?

Some Facebook users have reported a potentially embarrassing story about President Obama as spam, making it difficult for some others to access the article from their news feeds or post the story themselves. 

Cliff Owen/AP
President Obama shakes hands with the audience after speaking on behalf of Maryland gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown at an Early Vote Rally at Dr. Henry Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., Sunday.

A story about voters leaving an election rally that featured President Obama has had trouble gaining traction on Facebook after some users flagged the article as spam. 

The story in question – written by Reuters and posted on Yahoo! News – reported that a large number of attendees at a campaign event for Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown walked out during a stump speech by Mr. Obama Sunday. One pro-immigration reform protester loudly interrupted the president during his speech.

As Democrats gear up for the Nov. 4 midterm elections, which typically struggle to attract Democratic voters, a story about audience members walking out on the president could be seen as unflattering to the Democratic party, especially at a time when the president's approval ratings are at an all-time low.

The Daily Caller reported Monday, some Facebook users flagged the Reuters' story about Sunday's walkout as spam. Presumably, they were dissatisfied it. That left Facebook's algorithms to be the judge of whether the story was suitable for other users.

Because of this, some users who have since tried to click on the story post when it appears in their news feeds have received messages telling them that "Facebook thinks this site might be unsafe," The Daily Caller reports. Similarly, some users who have tried to post the story themselves have been greeted with messages telling them the post "contains a link that might be unsafe." 

Although it is unclear just how many users received spam warnings – attempts by Monitor staff to post the Reuters story to Facebook were successful – this episode raises questions about whether the behavior of some Facebook users can influence what others are able to see.

This is of particular concern as more Americans turn to social media for news. The share of Americans relying on social media sites such as Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn for their news rose to 12 percent in 2012, according to Pew Research. The pollster found that young people are even more likely to turn to social media, with one third of people under 30 years old turning to social media for news.

According to Facebook's spam policy, users receive spam alerts when they send messages that others have marked as spam or engage in acts others have deemed to constitute harassing behavior. Facebook also does not permit bullying, threats of self-harm, threats to others, hate speech, graphic content, and nudity, among other restrictions. And yet, as The Daily Caller noted, the Reuters story contains no apparent violations of Facebook's Community Standards that would warrant censoring the posting and linking of the piece. 

As Nov. 4 approaches, past elections have shown that social media can have an effect on elections. For example, a 2012 study published in the journal Nature examined 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 congressional elections. That study found that "get out the vote" messages sent to individuals showing pictures of friends who said they had already voted produced an extra 340,000 votes nationwide, according to The New York Times, making it the first conclusive study to reveal the impact of social networks on elections results. 

Social media campaigns played a key role in Obama's 2008 presidential victory. A 2012 opinion piece in The Huffington Post by Daniel Burrus contends that social media may have been decisive in 2012, too. On Election Day 2012, Obama had 32 million Facebook fans and 21 million Twitter followers, Mr. Burrus reported. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had 12 million Facebook fans and 1.7 million Twitter followers, according to The Huffington Post. That disparity led Burrus, who studies trends in business and innovation, to conclude that "the biggest problem for Mitt Romney and his team was not making an integrated social media strategy a strategic priority. If it had been a priority, the election may have ended very differently."

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