The social networks have access (or more to the point can give their users access) to an unprecedented trove of information on political views and activities. Could this make a radical difference in affecting who actually shows up to vote, and thus decide the outcome of elections?
I’ve written before about how the biggest factor in US elections is the power of GOTV - Get Out the Vote. US Electoral turnout is so low — about 60% in Presidential elections and 40% in off-year — that the winner is determined by which side is able to convince more of their weak supporters to actually show up and vote. All those political ads you see are not going to make a Democrat vote Republican or vice versa, they are going to scare a weak supporter to actually show up. It’s much cheaper, in terms of votes per dollar (or volunteer hour) to bring in these weak supporters than it is to swing a swing voter.
The US voter turnout numbers are among the worst in the wealthy world. Much of this is blamed on the fact the US, unlike most other countries, has voter registration; effectively 2 step voting. Voter registration was originally implemented in the USA as a form of vote suppression, and it’s stuck with the country ever since. In almost all other countries, some agency is responsible for preparing a list of citizens and giving it to each polling place. There are people working to change that, but for now it’s the reality. Registration is about 75%, Presidential voting about 60%. (Turnout of registered voters is around 80%)
Scary negative ads are one thing, but one of the most powerful GOTV forces is social pressure. Republicans used this well under Karl Rove, working to make social groups like churches create peer pressure to vote. But let’s look at the sort of data sites like Facebook have or could have access to:
- They can calculate a reasonably accurate estimate of your political leaning with modern AI tools and access to your status updates (where people talk politics) and your friend network, along with the usual geographic and demographic data
- They can measure the strength of your political convictions through your updates
- They can bring in the voter registration databases (which are public in most states, with political use allowed on the data. Commercial use is forbidden in a portion of states but this would not be commercial.)
- In many cases, the voter registration data also reveals if you voted in prior elections
- Your status updates and geographical check-ins and postings will reveal voting activity. Some sites (like Google) that have mobile apps with location sensing can detect visits to polling places. Of course, for the social site to aggregate and use this data for its own purposes would be a gross violation of many important privacy principles. But social networks don’t actually do (too many) things; instead they provide tools for their users to do things. As such, while Facebook should not attempt to detect and use political data about its users, it could give tools to its users that let them select subsets of their friends, based only on information that those friends overtly shared. On Facebook, you can enter the query, “My friends who like Donald Trump” and it will show you that list. They could also let you ask “My Friends who match me politically” if they wanted to provide that capability.
Now imagine more complex queries aimed specifically at GOTV, such as: “My friends who match me politically but are not scored as likely to vote” or “My friends who match me politically and are not registered to vote.” Possibly adding “Sorted by the closeness of our connection” which is something they already score.
There is even further they could go. They could establish databases allowing people to “claim” a person, and then let people query for a list of friends to target for GOTV who have not already been claimed by other friends. That’s because a smart social network doesn’t want you to be bombarded to the point of fatigue, nor do those who want you to vote. They could also let people opt out, so they won’t be bothered to vote by more friends. (In addition, those of us who can’t vote would certainly want to opt out.)
The result of such tools would be parties would recruit loyal supporters, and assign them the task of finding out using the social networks which of their closer friends should be the subject of social GOTV pressure, and then applying that pressure.
The result would be a tool where for each ideal GOTV target voter, they would receive social pressure from a couple of their closer friends who wish to push the party that they and the voter support, and more people would vote.
Social networks (as well as our mobile providers and OS platform) also get location tracklogs. They know if we’ve been to a polling place while any sort of app with geo access was busy. (Such places can be located with GPS but also with the presence of wifi access points commonly found near or in the locations. This uses less battery power.)
This would allow the creation of a digital “I voted” badge — a means where you could prove to your friends through the social network that you visited the polls. (Of course you could visit the polls and not vote but that’s not going to be too likely.) Of course could just declare it yourself and the vast majority would be trustworthy, especially when there is opt-out and no motive to lie.
This would mean that GOTV volunteers could find out which of their friends who they need to encourage have voted or not, and then focus on those who have not, with messages and offers of things like free rides to the polls (most parties will arrange that for those who need it) or the arrangement of social groups to go vote — “Hey, let’s all go to the polling station together after work.”
Of course in today’s world of social networks, many people have a community that is online but neighbourhood based. So your friends may be less likely to vote at the same polling station as you do, or even in the same town. But digital voting pressure can still be quite strong.
Is this a good idea?
In general, it’s a bad thing that GOTV plays such a large role in deciding elections. Creating tools to make GOTV easier could have several effects:
- It could bias voting towards the users of the social networks which support the tools. In the past, the online community tended to be younger, more urban and more technology-driven, which probably swung left, but that has started balancing out. Everybody uses these networks now.
- Making GOTV easier means making it cheaper, which means campaigns need less money to do it, and the playing field may be leveled somewhat. If candidates don’t need to raise as much money to do this essential campaign technique, that can be good.
- To some, it would be annoying.
- Even though you have shared your status with friends and they can read your political screeds and see your friend networks, it can still be creepy if your friends have tools that let them understand what you shared and target their political “marketing” at you.
- We would certainly be bothered if this analysis started being done on a global level. I mean it already is, to target ads, but having AI understand our political leanings can be disconcerting.
There are several theories about the cause of low US turnout. If voting were compulsory it would be a lot higher, but surprisingly there are countries with voluntary voting that have higher turnout than many of the compulsory ones. Some of it is just social convention. US elections are (for ancient reasons which should be changed) on a Tuesday, which is a working day for most. Unlike many places, the US does not require employers to give staff enough time off to vote that day. (Canada requires 4 continuous hours while polls are open.) US elections are very complex, with sometimes dozens of choices on the ballot.
One factor that is not as large as I expected is futility. It’s true that many people feel their vote won’t change anything or that they have to choose the lesser of two evils. At the same time, turnout is only about 5% higher in “swing states” where your vote has a very very tiny chance of making of difference than it is in safe states, where the result is already settled before you vote. (Swing states also get much more attention, candidate visits and advertising to get voters engaged.)
It would be interesting to learn what turnout would be if voting were trivial (say you could do it on your phone,) all citizens were automatically registered, simple, compulsory and equally meaningful (popular vote instead of electoral college.)