Why couldn't Facebook convince (more) millennials to vote?
Republicans have taken the Senate, and it's all millennials' fault.
It's no secret that young people tend to vote for Democrats. Gallup reported in March that 53 percent of millennials lean Democratic while just 35 percent lean Republican. (The remainder was unwilling to commit to either party or identified as independent.)
The problem is that they only vote when they think it's important, and apparently the midterm elections held Tuesday don't count. NBC reports that only 12 percent of midterm voters were under 30 years old, while 37 percent were over the age of 60. Many of the millennials who voted did so in favor of the Democratic party, while older generations continued to vote for Republicans.
All of which raises an interesting question: where the hell was Facebook?
It seemed like all anyone could talk about before the midterm elections was Facebook and its efforts to convince users to vote. The company introduced for the first time a special button allowing people in the United States to trumpet the fact that they voted in the midterms, and some wondered if the company's algorithms might also have influenced its users' political ideas.
That doesn't even take into consideration all the hubbub about Facebook's role as intermediary between readers and publishers. If Facebook was "wrecking political news" by encouraging any publishers worried about pageviews --so pretty much all of them -- to game its "trending" section, why didn't more people care about the midterms? Wouldn't they have seen the absurd number of reports about every single race written by every publisher that writes about politics?
Now, there is some evidence that Facebook's button did encourage its users to go out and vote, at least in the 2010 election, as researchers claimed in a study published by Nature in 2012:
The social message, the researchers estimate, directly increased turnout by about 60,000 votes. But a further 280,000 people were indirectly nudged to the polls by seeing messages in their news feeds, for example, telling them that their friends had clicked the 'I voted' button.But those are small numbers, especially when compared against Facebook's size. The button was probably less a "You should vote!" mechanism and more a "Today's election day, just in case, like, you wanted to do that kind of thing" reminder. Why is that? Why can't Facebook exert more influence over its users? I mean, it's not like it hasn't had practice or anything.
There are two possibilities here. Either Facebook isn't able to influence its users as much as many have feared, or the company did manage to get political news in front of more readers, and they didn't vote for another reason. Neither option is particularly compelling, but I'm sure that many of the millennials who actually voted felt the same about their candidates.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone in the media that Republicans took control of the Senate. Publishers have been crowing about that for months. They've also said the midterms are just going to lead to a gridlocked Washington, and that 2016's elections will be even more important, because Democrats might be able to take back Congress and keep the presidency.
Perhaps millennials saw all of those reports, columns, and editorials on Facebook and decided not to vote. What's the point in voting for a Democrat if the media has made it seem like the Republicans have already won? Maybe Facebook had an influence on the election after all -- it just wasn't one that it, the media, or all the Democrats who lost last night wanted them to have.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]