Algorithms & Elections – Dialogue & Discourse

Gerrymander: (verb) manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.

— Definition provided by Google

In an article in the Harvard Law Review, Jonathan Zittrain explained an experiment conducted by Facebook on November 2, 2010. Facebook wanted to see if they had an ability to move their users to vote. They conducted this experiment on 60 million users during the 2010 congressional elections.

Users were shown an image asking them if they planned to vote. This image also showed other Facebook friends who had voted. The image had information for local polling stations as well. Facebook compared users who were shown this image to a control group who were not. The users in the experiment were cross referenced against names who voted at the local polling stations to see who actually voted.

Facebook found that the users shown the image were .39% more likely to vote than those who weren’t shown the image. It sounds like the effort was insignificant, but that percentage equated to 60,000 voters.

Furthermore, Facebook found there was a “ripple effect”. In this ripple effect, close friends of the users who saw the image were more likely to vote. This ripple effect worked out to be 340,000 people who were influenced to vote. A number like this, even across the whole United States, could change election results. This is especially valid when you consider there were a number of congressional elections that were determined by thousands of votes.

Jonathan Zittrain poses an interesting question after looking at this experiment. What if Facebook decided to go through with this experiment for real to influence an election? What if they chose to show this vote message to users who identified with one political party? That would more than likely enable the social media giant to manipulate an election. It would also barely be noticed.

Zittrain referred to a possible manipulation like this as “digital gerrymandering”. It would enable one CEO or group of high level corporate executives to exercise an incredible amount of influence over an election without being noticed. At least with monetary donations, they flow both ways. A cyber gatekeeper this size wouldn’t be challenged.

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