Facebook's Voting Experiments Mess With Your News Feed in the Name of Democracy

It turns out that the scariest thing to happen on Halloween was Mother Jones publishing an expose on the clandestine workings of Facebook’s data scientists. And guess what guys? Facebook has been experimenting on users... again. This isn’t the first time that Facebook has been found guilty of covertly manipulating the experience of users for experiments, but these new studies were supposedly done in the name of democracy.

The first study was conducted by manipulating the newsfeeds of 1.9 million users just before the 2012 elections. Facebook changed the usual order of the feeds to make “hard” news posts much more prominent than personal posts, in order to gauge how and if increased exposure to news would affect the user’s voting behavior. Facebook claims that while they increased the prominence of news on some user’s feeds, they did not manipulate the politics of the news shown. According to Facebook data scientists, this tweak actually did change how interested users were in politics, and increased civic engagement and voter turn out. After the election, researchers surveyed some of the users whose newsfeed swere tinkered with, and found data that suggests that their meddling increased voter turn out by three percent.

But Facebook’s so-called “voter promotion efforts” reach further than this isolated experiment. Facebook’s “I voted” button (which you may have seen in your feed today) is also part of Facebook’s proclaimed efforts to get more users to the polls, as was there polling location service included. The button was introduced years ago, but the social media giant has been experimenting with the wording (such as “I am a Voter” versus “I Voted”) and page placement of the button. Data scientists studied the potential ability of this button to get users to vote, and found that this mechanism increased voter turn out by at least 340,000 people. The theory behind this is positive social pressure; if you see that your friends and community voted, you are more likely to do the same.

There are still questions that remain unanswered in regards to the newsfeed experiment, though it seems as if none will be getting answered until 2015. Facebook claims that they are being quiet about this experiment in order to protect the researchers who are planning to publish an academic paper with their findings in 2015. Facebook also claims that their actions were all spurred by their commitment to getting users to the polls. In response to this story breaking, a Facebook spokesman told the Huffington Post, “voting is a core value of democracy and we believe that encouraging civic participation is an important contribution we can make to the community."

It's great that Facebook wants to encourage it’s massive user base to vote — after all, we all know that voting is important and we should all get to the polls today. But Facebook is missing, or choosing to avoid, the larger picture. To experiment on users without telling them is a breech of trust, and causes me to question what is really going on when I log into my profile. Though it seems as if this wont be the last time that we hear about Facebook violating the privacy and confidence of it’s users. These experiments were conducted in 2012, and we just got wind of them last week. Who knows what has been going on for the past two years.

Image: Dimitris Kalogeropoylos/Flickr, Facebook (3)