Facebook not going to run voting experiments in 2014

Facebook is taking an increasing role in curating your news but has decided to not conducts experiments with the 2014 elections:

Election Day is coming up, and if you use Facebook, you’ll see an option to tell everyone you voted. This isn’t new; Facebook introduced the “I Voted” button in 2008. What is new is that, according to Facebook, this year the company isn’t conducting any experiments related to election season.

That’d be the first time in a long time. Facebook has experimented with the voting button in several elections since 2008, and the company’s researchers have presented evidence that the button actually influences voter behavior…

Facebook’s experiments in 2012 are also believed to have influenced voter behavior. Of course, everything is user-reported, so there’s no way of knowing how many people are being honest and who is lying; the social network’s influence could be larger or smaller than reported.

Facebook has not been very forthright about these experiments. It didn’t tell people at the time that they were being conducted. This lack of transparency is troubling, but not surprising. Facebook can introduce and change features that influence elections, and that means it is an enormously powerful political tool. And that means the company’s ability to sway voters will be of great interest to politicians and other powerful figures.

Facebook will still have the “I voted” button this week:

On Tuesday, the company will again deploy its voting tool. But Facebook’s Buckley insists that the firm will not this time be conducting any research experiments with the voter megaphone. That day, he says, almost every Facebook user in the United States over the age of 18 will see the “I Voted” button. And if the friends they typically interact with on Facebook click on it, users will see that too. The message: Facebook wants its users to vote, and the social-networking firm will not be manipulating its voter promotion effort for research purposes. How do we know this? Only because Facebook says so.

It seems like there are two related issues here:

1. Should Facebook promote voting? I would guess many experts would like popular efforts to try to get people to vote. After all, how good is democracy if many people don’t take advantage of their rights to vote? Facebook is a popular tool and if this can help boost political and civic engagement, what could be wrong with that?

2. However, Facebook is also a corporation that is collecting data. Their efforts to promote voting might be part of experiments. Users aren’t immediately aware that they are participating in an experiment when they see a “I voted” button. Or, the company may decide to try to influence elections.

Facebook is not alone in promoting elections. Hundreds of media outlets promote election news. Don’t they encourage voting? Aren’t they major corporations? The key here appears to be the experimental angle: people might be manipulated. Might this be okay if (1) they know they are taking part (voluntary participation is key to social science experiments) and (2) it promotes the public good? This sort of critique implies that the first part is necessary because fulfilling a public good is not enough to justify the potential manipulation.

Wait, What’s Your Problem: the Census does or does not require people to participate?

Sunday’s What’s Your Problem? column in the Chicago Tribune featured a woman irritated by some Census workers who did sound like creepers. Yet, a Census employee is still unclear about whether U.S. residents have to participate in Census surveys:

He said census interviewers are trained to be professional, courteous, and to never use the possibility of a fine to coerce people into participating.

Olson said the American Community Survey is mandatory and there is a potential fine for people who fail to participate, but the Census Bureau relies on public cooperation to encourage responses.

The survey is important because its data guide nearly 70 percent of federal grants, Olson said.

This is a common response from the Census but it is still vague. Is participating in the Census and the American Community Survey mandatory or not? Is there a fine for participation or not? The answer seems to be yes and yes – mandatory, a fine is possible, and yet no has to really worry about incurring a penalty.

Typical social science research, which is akin to what the Census Bureau is doing (and the organization has been led by sociologists), has several basic rules regarding ethics in collecting information from people. Don’t harm people. (See the above story about peeking in people’s windows.) And participation has to be voluntary. This can include contacting people multiple times. So is participation really voluntary if there is even the implicit idea of a fine? This is where it is less like social science research and more like government action, which is a fine line the Census is walking here. Clearing this up might help improve relations with people who are suspicious of why the Census wants basic information about their lives.