In case you weren’t aware, midterm elections were today and the usual “get out and vote” efforts were in full swing on social media.
The one getting all the attention, however, is Facebook’s “I’m a Voter” button that appeared at the top of everyone’s news feeds this morning. The setup was pretty simple: clicking the button (also known as the “voter megaphone”) would broadcast to your friends that you had, in fact, fulfilled your civic duty for the day.
“It’s Election Day,” the announcement read. “Share that you’re voting in the U.S. Election and find out where to vote.”
On the surface, the button is just another media giant’s attempt to be socially responsible and encourage eligible citizens to carve out some time for the polls (see Google’s “polling place lookup” doodle today for Exhibit B). For Facebook, the button itself isn’t really new: the megaphone has appeared in one form or another every election year since 2008.
Concerned Citizens or Malicious Intent?
Where the controversy comes into play is whether or not the button is being used to influence voter activity. As CNN’s Doug Gross points out:
In past elections, critics have complained that Facebook’s testing of the megaphone tool — for example, using the worlds “I Voted” on some and “I’m Voting” on others to see which had more impact — could have an unfair impact on turnout.
Facebook insists that this year there will be no research and that the megaphone is purely to drive voter participation, but that hasn’t stopped some observers from assuming the worst based on past behavior. Chief among them is Mother Jones’ Micah Sifry, who caused a bit of a stir last week in an article decrying the social network’s lack of transparency during the 2012 election.
“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,” he wrote. “Yet the process by which Facebook has developed this tool has not been very transparent, raising questions about its use and Facebook’s ability to influence elections.”
The Ends Justify The Means
Given the trouble Facebook has gotten itself into in the past, this isn’t an entirely outrageous perspective. Being labeled by CNBC as “America’s most feared tech company” certainly doesn’t help either. But if there’s a chance that a button will help improve the United States’ historically low voter turnout in midterm elections, is there really a problem?
That’s the question TIME Magazine’s Alex Fitzpatrick raised earlier this week. Considering Facebook’s near-universal ubiquity, and the fact that the 2014 megaphone appeared on everyone’s news feeds this year (as opposed to 2012, where placement of the megaphone was less consistent), the chances that one side would be encouraged to vote more than another are unlikely at this point.
To drive the point home, he concludes that “Facebook’s ‘I Voted’ sticker isn’t evil. There’s nothing wrong and everything right about the company leveraging its massive influence to get more people to the polls on Election Day in a non-partisan way.”
Perhaps one thing we can all agree on is the need for more transparency, particularly for a company that has been criticized more than once for its clandestine experiments with user data. But if a button is all it takes to boost voter participation, we shouldn’t be so easily offended.
Photo Credit: Vox Efx via Flickr