How social networking and peer pressure swept Obama to victory

voting peer pressure presidential election 2012

Hey, did you vote yesterday? Oh, that’s right – you told me in some odd million ways that you did: You hit the Facebook “I’m Voting” button, checked in to your polling place using Foursquare and received your “I Voted” badge that you then tweeted out using the #ivoted hashtag. And then there was that possibly illegal photo of your ballot and local polling place you posted on Instagram.

This is being called the social media election – the first time that candidates and the world are using social media to campaign, predict, and get out the vote. But after today, it’s clear this is our peer pressure election.

Up until now, social networking efforts have been focused on educating users, as well as serving as data sources for a barrage of infographics and charts (the effectiveness of these being debateable). But things took a turn yesterday as the polls opened: Social networks were flooded with bragging rights, badges, pictures, and hashtags showing off civic engagement.

When did participating in politics on the civic level warrant a pat on the back from your entire social circle? People have been voting for a really, really long time and that little sticker used to be enough. Talking about politics and voting traditionally was a private matter, something you kept close to the chest because it wasn’t polite to initiate a potential disagreement.

Of course, nothing is personal anymore. Social networking made it okay and normal to talk about what you had for breakfast, whether or not you should cut your hair, how exactly you feel about your new running shoes … everything. Everything is relevant and interesting and up for discussion – even if it’s not. So, of course, that’s going to include politics.

It’s been made cool to get politically involved and motivated, and to simultaneously flood your friends’ feeds with near-threatening statements about voting. The same people that you’ve seen posting drunken bar photos and needy song lyrics and bathroom mirror-taken profile pictures have also been the ones bragging about their vote and urging – shaming, even – you to do the same. Every time I got an app-prompted email or text pushed from a friend or saw a tweet or Facebook post roll in touting their voting accomplishment and telling me to be as politically engaged as they are and do the same, I just want to scream, “Yes. Got it. I voted too, I just don’t feel the need to scream it from the rooftops. Way to go for doing the bare minimum in a functioning democracy, something that people in other countries fight and die for. You’re a national hero!”

But here’s the thing: If it worked, if it increased voter turnout, then it was worth it. One thing we already know is that the youth vote looks to be even more important during this election than four years ago. As of press time, national exit polling shows that 19 percent of the electorate was between 18 and 29 and that Obama won this group by 24 points – in fact, Obama captured 60 percent of the youth vote. 

A study also shows that being able to hit this button and immediately share your activism is motivating people to vote, and that just seeing it is also increasing voter turnout. There’s also this report from the American Political Science Association that explains people get a kick out of others recognizing their activism: 

“A large-scale field experiment involving several hundred thousand registered voters used a series of mailings to gauge these effects. Substantially higher turnout was observed among those who received mailings promising to publicize their turnout to their household or their neighbors. These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation.”

As of press time, overall voter turnout appeared down from 2008 and whether or not the youth vote was up or down was unclear. Pundits are going back and forth on this, as well as the overall effect of Hurricane Sandy on voting in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. But one thing is clear: the youth vote cannot be ignored, and all presidential hopefuls will need to court this age bracket. 

Facebook also had some numbers to report. According to the network, 9,682,443 (as of press time) of its users hit the I Voted app to log their engagement. 

We’ve yet to see official metrics on voter turnout, young voters, or any hard numbers (if those can even exist) on social media’s influence, but a correlation seems implicit. There’s something much more emotional about seeing your entire social network buzzing about the election than there is about getting a pamphlet in the mail. That whole “fear of missing out” theory that social networking exacerbates absolutely applies to this election, and – annoying though it may be – it’s becoming clear that the connections we forge on Facebook are stronger than we may have thought.

While that means the cynical among us (like, you know, me) have to suffer through a barrage of slactivists who checked two boxes on a ballot, took an Instagram photo, tossed it in the mail, and want a virtual pat on the back … well, in the name of increased civic engagement: Here’s to you, socially-motivated and peer-pressured voters. We’ll see you in 2016 – because you’ll make sure we do. 


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