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During recent elections in Poland, Polish Facebook users were continuously bugged to vote, asked to share that they had voted, and were informed which of their friends voted, and when.

Voting, hand putting an envelope in a wooden box

Corporate USA thanks you

The pro-attendance action of the social network giant has become a tool of a dangerous social experiment – says Anna Piotrowska, a publicist and a sociologist. Last Sunday, as more than half of Poles have the right to vote, Anna took part in parliamentary elections. She was reminded that she needed to vote by a message displayed every moment on her Facebook newsfeed bugging her like an intrusive fly. “It’s the day of elections today. Have you been to vote yet? Share it”

During the whole day whenever you checked what was happening with your friends on Facebook, you would be informed that Alicia P. or Wojtek K. have already fulfilled their civic duty. And you would feel guilty for still sitting at home. Especially at a time when a message would suddenly pop up: “Sophie C. and 58 thousand users have already voted.”

Political mobilisation

According to a press release from Facebook a few days before the elections, the messages described above were supposed to have a pro-attendance effect – encourage users to vote.

But Anna decided not to tell her Facebook friends that she had visited the polling station. Why? Because she did not want to participate in a social experiment carried out with the help of Facebook.

Facebook meddled with USA elections in 2010

To understand what was going on, we should go back to autumn 2012, when the weekly “Nature” published a paper signed by the team of James Fowler, a political scientist from the University of California in San Diego. It describes the Facebook experiment on more than 61 million US adults conducted during the election to Congress in 2010. In its description it looked quite similar to what we recently observed with the ​​Polish Facebook. The idea was to explore the power of social influence on political mobilisation, or to what extent the behaviour of one’s Facebook friends would push users to action (i.e. to vote).

Findings published two years later

Two years had passed from the experiment to the actual publishing of the paper in “Nature”, partly because it had to be checked in the records of the electoral commissions what was the relationship between the display of information that “your friends have already voted,” and taking part in the elections by a particular user. As calculations have shown, among those who clicked: “I voted” showing the message earlier generated additional 340,000 votes.

Interestingly, in a statement for “MIT Technology Review,” Fowler said, however, that in his view the information about your friends having voted made about a million people participate in the elections, only most of them did not share it on Facebook later.

Should arouse our civic vigilance

Therefore, Piotrowska suggests the Polish pro-attendance action on Facebook we experienced last Sunday should arouse our civic vigilance. Questions that arise in connection with these actions are numerous. First of all, whether the conduct of such activities / experiments (it is not known how the data acquired during the election will be used) by an American company in Poland is ethical. In theory, by accepting the terms of use of Facebook we consent to such actions.

If we had to consciously express our consent to the processing of such data, would we click “already voted” as readily?

Who benefits

If more Facebook users who were online that day voted than non-Facebook due to the interference, that demographic is more strongly represented at the ballot.

Another issue is the fact that this action was carried out in collaboration with the National Electoral Commission – a link to its website was attached to one of Facebook messages. Do the members of the Commission know of the publication in “Nature”, which simply states that nowadays elections are sometimes won by hundreds of votes, thus mobilising the electorate remains a key issue? Are they aware that in this way it might’ve been possible to mobilise only a part of the voters?

Having an account on Facebook is popular, but not for the entire electorate. Interesting, then, is also the question of the Polish political outlook of Facebook users – if the mobilisation works in favour of a particular party.

For example, in the US increased attendance works in favour of the Democrats. Is it possible to say which Polish political party gained most from the experiment of the American network?

 
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