• Can people be “poked” to act through social networks?


    Fascinating letter in Nature, discussed in this news and views article, analyzing the impact of a facebook message inciting people to vote in the 2010 US Congressional elections.

    Human behaviour is thought to spread through face-to-face social networks, but it is difficult to identify social influence effects in observational studies, and it is unknown whether online social networks operate in the same way. Here we report results from a randomized controlled trial of political mobilization messages delivered to 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 US congressional elections. The results show that the messages directly influenced political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behaviour of millions of people. Furthermore, the messages not only influenced the users who received them but also the users’ friends, and friends of friends. The effect of social transmission on real-world voting was greater than the direct effect of the messages themselves, and nearly all the transmission occurred between ‘close friends’ who were more likely to have a face-to-face relationship. These results suggest that strong ties are instrumental for spreading both online and real-world behaviour in human social networks.

    Two results stand out. First, messages displaying information about related close friends’ behaviour (the “social” message) is significantly more likely to push people to action. Second, the incitations are transmitted to the message recipients’ friends and to the friends of their friends. Clearly, this opens exciting research possibilities about the implementation of policies in developing countries contexts.

    The results show that users who received the social message were 2.08% more likely to report that they themselves voted, 0.26% more likely to seek information about a polling location, and 0.39% more likely to actually vote than users receiving the informational message (the authors estimated actual voting using data on 6.3 million users in their sample that could be matched to publicly available voting records). The authors also examined ‘contagion’ effects of the messages on users who themselves received neither the social nor the informational message, but who had a friend who received a message. Here, in the validated voting sample, individuals were 0.224% more likely to vote, for each close friend who received a message, than they would have been had their friend received no message.

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