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.

2014 Democrats echo 2012 Republicans in arguing political polls are skewed

Apparently, this is a strategy common to both political parties: when the poll numbers aren’t in your favor on the national stage, argue that the numbers are flawed.

The [Democratic] party is stoking skepticism in the final stretch of the midterm campaign, providing a mirror image of conservative complaints in 2012 about “skewed” polls in the presidential race between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

Democrats who do not want their party faithful to lose hope — particularly in a midterm election that will be largely decided on voter turnout — are taking aim at the pollsters, arguing that they are underestimating the party’s chances in November.

At the center of the storm, just as he was in 2012, is Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com…

This year, Democrats have been upset with Silver’s predictions that Republicans are likely to retake the Senate. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) mocked Silver at a fundraising luncheon in Seattle that was also addressed by Vice President Biden, according to a White House pool report on Thursday.

“Pollsters and polling have sort of elbowed their way to the table in terms of coverage,” Berkovitz said. “Pollsters have become high profile: They are showing up on cable TV all the time.”

This phenomenon, in turn, has led to greatly increased media coverage of the differences between polling analyses. In recent days, a public spat played out between Silver and the Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang, which in turn elicited headlines such as The Daily Beast’s “Why is Nate Silver so afraid of Sam Wang?”

There are lots of good questions to ask about political polls, including looking at their sampling, the questions they ask, and how they make their projections. Yet, that doesn’t automatically mean that everything has been manipulated to lead to a certain outcome.

One way around this? Try to aggregate among various polls and projections. RealClearPolitics has a variety of polls in many races for the 2014 elections. Aggregation also helps get around the issue of celebrity where people like Nate Silver build careers on being right – until they are wrong.

At the most basic level, the argument about flawed polls is probably about turning out the base to vote. If some people won’t vote because they think their vote won’t overturn the majority, then you have to find ways to convince them that their vote still matters.

Large “sociological exercise”: nearly 1 in 6 global residents to vote in India’s elections

While Americans may think our country does things on a large scale, nothing quite matches the “sociological exercise” of democracy in India:

The world’s largest democracy is bracing itself for the most anticipated event every 5 years. To keep things in perspective, almost 1 in 6 on earth would be voting this April-May 2014. More than the election extravaganza, this is the world’s largest sociological exercise; an exercise that places everything else outside and puts the Indian at heart and mind while casting the ballot. As much as the focus on this has been the youth, there is a particular section of society which is slightly undermined yet equally important; the Indian women.

India has over 1.2 billion people while the US has over 310 million. While the American Revolution led to a new kind of country and government sometimes referred to as the American experiment (attributed to de Toqueville), this is quite different than developing a modern government and economy for so many people.

I sometimes think part of the current issues in the United States simply have to do with our relatively large population. Coming to a consensus among so many groups and interests is difficult. In comparison, other industrialized nations have smaller populations and are often more homogeneous. But, these issues are multiplied in India with even more interests.

More aldermen voting with Emanuel than did with Daley

Chicago may have a newer mayor but a new study shows voting with the mayor is now even more pronounced for Chicago aldermen:

After analyzing 30 divided roll calls in the nearly two years since Emanuel took office, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers concluded that Emanuel has enjoyed more iron-fisted control over the council than former mayors Richard M. Daley, Richard J. Daley or Ed Kelly, the Democratic machine co-founder.

Twenty-one aldermen supported the mayor’s programs 100 percent of the time, while 18 others were more than 90 percent in lock-step.

There have been no shortage of controversies — ranging from speed cameras, police station and mental health clinic closings to the mayor’s Infrastructure Trust and his plan to nearly double water and sewer fees.

But only seven of the 30 issues drew six or more dissenting votes. Emanuel’s average level of support on all of the divided roll calls was 93 percent, compared to 83 percent during Richard J. Daley’s first two years in office and Kelly’s 88 percent…

Pressed to explain the City Council’s obedience, Simpson pointed to the take-no-prisoners reputation Emanuel built while working under former President Bill Clinton and current President Barack Obama and as chief architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover of the U.S. House.

Still Chicago, “the city that works“?

One issue with this analysis is that is still leaves Chicago residents with little knowledge of whether these voting patterns are unusual or not. Do other major cities have more contentious voting patterns? Or, is this fairly normal for big cities outside of the occasional wide disagreement? There are always references to more contentious times in the history of the Chicago City Council (see the short-lived Council Wars) but how about even a long view within Chicago for sake of comparison? I imagine this consistent voting together is fairly unusual but once you are around Chicago long enough, this becomes normal.

And regardless of the voting patterns, how about more analysis about whether Mayor Emanuel’s decisions have been good for Chicago in the long-term? Some of this will take time to sort out…

Religious nones vote overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012 presidential election

A number of commentators have pointed out the advantage for President Obama among the religious “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation who now make up almost 20% of the US population, in the 2012 election. Here is another look at the voting gap:

— In Ohio, Obama lost the Protestant vote by 3 points and the Catholic vote by 11, but he won the “nones” — 12 percent of the state’s electorate — by 47 points.— In Virginia, Obama lost Protestants by 9 points and Catholics by 10 points, but won 76 percent of the “nones,” who were 10 percent of the electorate.

— In Florida, Obama lost Protestants by 16 points and Catholics by 5 points, but captured 72 percent of the “nones.” They were 15 percent of the electorate.

Similar results were seen in states including Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania…

Nationally, Obama lost the Protestant vote by 15 points, won the Catholic vote by 2 points, and captured 70 percent of the “nones.”

If the late 1970s and 1980s were about the rise of conservative religious voters, the Moral Majority and all that, are the 2010s going to be about the rise of the “nones”? While the article cautions at the end that religious switching is common in the United States, I haven’t seen commentators or political types address this question: how could Republicans change their pitch to attract more of the “nones”?

View from foreign observers: American voting system heavily reliant on trust

Foreign observers watching the voting process in the United States suggested it is a system that involves a lot of trust:

“It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today’s presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

“It’s very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it,” Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there’s often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there’s no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

It can be helpful to get outside perspectives on what takes place in the United States. Two thoughts based on these observations:

1. How long will this trust last? There was a lot of chatter online yesterday about voting irregularities. Do the two parties and Americans in general trust each other to handle voting? This reminds me of the oft-quoted de Toqueville who wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more prone to join civic and political groups. The United States was born in the Enlightenment era where old ways of governing, church and tradition (meaning: monarchies), were overthrown and citizens turned to each other and a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (Lincoln in the Gettsyburg Address). Of course, we can contrast this with Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone which suggested Americans have retreated from the civic and social realm in recent decades. Plus, confidence in American institutions has declined in recent decades.

2. Trying to implement an American-style voting and government system in countries that don’t have the same history and culture is a difficult and lengthy task. In other words, this sort of system and trust doesn’t just develop overnight or in a few years. Voting systems are culturally informed. This should help shape our foreign policy.

Facebook runs 2010 voting experiment with over 61 million users

Experiments don’t just take place in laboratories; they also happen on Facebook.

On November 2nd, 2010, more than 61 million adults visited Facebook’s website, and every single one of them unwittingly took part in a massive experiment. It was a randomised controlled trial, of the sort used to conclusively test the worth of new medicines. But rather than drugs or vaccines, this trial looked at the effectiveness of political messages, and the influence of our friends, in swaying our actions. And unlike most medical trials, this one had a sample size in the millions.

It was the day of the US congressional elections. The vast majority of the users aged 18 and over (98 percent of them) saw a “social message” at the top of their News Feed, encouraging them to vote. It gave them a link to local polling places, and clickable button that said “I voted”. They could see how many people had clicked the button on a counter, and which of their friends had done so through a set of randomly selected profile pictures.

But the remaining 2 percent saw something different, thanks to a team of scientists, led by James Fowler from the University of California, San Diego. Half of them saw the same box, wording, button and counter, but without the pictures of their friends—this was the “informational message” group. The other half saw nothing—they were the “no message” group.

By comparing the three groups, Fowler’s team showed that the messages mobilised people to express their desire to vote by clicking the button, and the social ones even spurred some to vote. These effects rippled through the network, affecting not just friends, but friends of friends. By linking the accounts to actual voting records, Fowler estimated that tens of thousands of votes eventually cast during the election were generated by this single Facebook message.

The effects appear to be small but could still be influential when multiplied through large social networks.

I suspect we’ll continue to see more and more of this in the future. Platforms like Facebook or Google or Amazon have access to millions of users and can run experiments that don’t change a user’s experience of the website much.

Second-class shareholders

Commenting on James Surowiecki’s recent New Yorker piece, Felix Salmon decries the structure of Facebook’s IPO, which left Mark Zuckerberg with 57% of the voting shares while actually owning only 18% of the company:

The reason to be concerned about the rise of companies with dual-class share structures, then, is not all that dissimilar to the reason to be concerned about the rise of big private companies more generally. The stock market is no longer the common ownership of the means of production: it’s a place where early-stage investors can exit to a group of muppets and high-frequency traders.

Initial public offering (IPO) investors are increasingly being offered “ownership” of companies that comes with little or no actual control.  As Surowiecki puts it, companies are effectively telling investors, “Thanks for your money. Now shut up.”  It’s a very peculiar system that gives majority stockholders a non-majority say in corporate governance.

Media and product consumption by political views

This article looks at how political campaigns are using media and production consumption data to make appeals to voters and also includes some interesting charts that map out the differences between those with different political leanings:

Inside microtargeting offices in Washington and across the nation, individual voters are today coming through in HDTV clarity — every single digitally-active American consumer, which is 91 percent of us, according to Pew Internet research. Political strategists buy consumer information from data brokers, mash it up with voter records and online behavior, then run the seemingly-mundane minutiae of modern life — most-visited websites, which soda’s in the fridge — through complicated algorithms and: pow! They know with “amazing” accuracy not only if, but why, someone supports Barack Obama or Romney, says Willie Desmond of Strategic Telemetry, which works for the Obama reelection campaign…

All of these online movements contribute to what Gage calls “data exhaust.” Email, Amazon orders, resume uploads, tweets — especially tweets — cough out fumes that microtargeters or data brokers suck up to mold hyper-specific messaging. We’ve been hurled into an era of “Big Data,” Gage said. In the last eight years the amount of information slopped up by firms like his, which sell information to politicians, has tripled, from 300 distinct bits on each voter in 2004 to more than 900 today. We have the rise of social media and mobile technology to thank for this.

What I like about this analysis is that it starts to get at an understanding of different lifestyle behaviors or groups that underlie both consumer choices as well as political choices. Voting decisions are not made in a vacuum nor are consumer choices: these are guided by larger concerns that sociologists often talk about such as class, education level, race/ethnicity, and two factors that doesn’t get as much attention as perhaps they should, where people live and who they interact with on a regular basis (not necessarily the same things but related to each other). While the microtargeting may help tailor individual appeals, it might also obscure some of these larger concerns.

While the article suggests this data collection is all very creepy, this is made tricky because of one fact: some of this information is offered voluntarily by users.

Both Obama and Romney’s sites allow, if not encourage, visitors to login to their campaign websites with a Facebook account, thereby unveiling a wealth of information: email address, friend list, birthday, gender, and user ID. Obama’s team, in accordance with the president’s call for greater transparency, details his campaign’s privacy policyin an exhaustive 2,600-word treatise. It begins like an online Miranda Rights: “Make sure that you understand how any personal information you provide will be used.” Then things get a little weird.

Among other points, the policy says the campaign can monitor users’ messages and emails between members, share their personal information with any like-minded organization it chooses, and follow up by sending them news it deems they’d find worthwhile. In other words, target anger points. Then there’s something called “passive collection,” which means cookies — lots and lots of cookies. Obama’s campaign, as well as third-party vendors working with, spray trackers so other websites can flash personalized ads based on knowledge of the trip to barackobama.com. And finally, near the end of the policy, comes one more caveat: “Nothing herein restricts the sharing of aggregated or anonymized information, which may be shared with third parties without your consent.”

Romney’s site apparently wants even more from its visitors, asking users who login with Facebook to “post on (their) behalf” and “access (their) data any time” they’re not using the application. You can deny both functions.

Perhaps at the least, users should be made more aware upfront of how their information is going to be used. This could be similar to the new boxes included on credit card statements: the consumer should be able to clearly see what is going to happen rather than have to dig through online user agreements. At the same time, making users aware is different than stopping companies from using information in certain ways. I also wonder how these online companies, like banks and credit card providers, will find other ways to collect data and money if these avenues are closed off. For example, would the average internet user rather give up some of this personal information for the sale of targeted advertisements or pay a small fee to access a website each year?