(Header: Winter Mason giving a presentation on Facebook Research’s work in civic engagement. Photo credit: Alisa Zomer)

Facebook’s success hinges on holding user attention. Bluntly put, they need to keep as many eyeballs on their site for as long as possible. Group chat, event planning, and transactional marketplaces are some of the everyday social interactions that Facebook has entrenched itself in. Facebook considers it’s platform integral to community-building, and now Facebook’s research team is working to make those communities more civic minded.

In the lead up to the 2016 elections in the U.S. and abroad, Facebook designed, piloted, and launched a number of features (e.g. Voting Plan and constituent badges) aimed at increasing voter knowledge and political efficacy (i.e. an individual’s belief in their ability to affect political change). Winter Mason, Facebook Data Scientist, presented their civic engagement work at GOV/LAB’s seminar series and fielded some probing questions on the social media platform’s newfound role in the business of elections and democracy. Below we highlight some of the new tools.

Erhardt Graeff from MIT’s Center for Civic Media live-blogged Winter’s talk, so be sure to check it out for a comprehensive overview of the event.

Engaging women in online politics

In preliminary research, the research team uncovered discrepancies in the ways that different Facebook user groups interact with political topics. One example was the political participation gap between genders. An analysis of political comments on Facebook revealed that female users between ages 20 and 60 were less likely than comparable male users to engage in political conversations on Facebook.

A graph of the number of political comments left by male and female Facebook users by age. Credit: Winter Mason.

However, female users were more likely than males to engage in community-oriented online political activity, like sharing online petitions. Interviews revealed that women shied away from posting political comments because they feared becoming targets of verbal abuse. This insight — that women perceived Facebook’s political atmosphere as hostile — influenced the team to design their interventions to encourage female participation.

Planning to Vote

Mock-up of Facebook’s Voting Plan feature from Winter’s presentation.

Through qualitative research conducted to help design their interventions, the research team discovered that users viewed elections as the most effective (and sometimes the only) channel to impact political affairs and outcomes. So, leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections, Facebook introduced a feature to help users prepare their voting strategy: Voting Plan. Upon entering a street address, the feature gathered all relevant candidate and ballot information to help a user effectively plan how to vote on election day.

About 10 million unique people used this tool, and
Facebook analyzed their usage patterns to understand their specific
interactions. Among other findings, the research team found that while women were more likely to click on promotions for the Voting Plan, they were less
likely than men to actually use or complete the plan, especially if the
default option was to share with friends. (Remember: women often feared that engaging in political discussions on Facebook would make them targets for abuse.)

To correct for this, the team decided to remove the default privacy setting and instead force users to select whether they wanted to share their plan or keep it private. They found that this increased female engagement with the app, but that adding an extra step to the process drove down user engagement overall. The research team explained that their commitment to fairness led them to choose the default-less configuration, even at the expense of overall engagement, because it encouraged the politically disengaged to utilize a tool to make their voices heard.

These examples only begin to cover the new civic engagement tools that Facebook is testing on its global audience of more than 2 billion people. While Facebook has managed to redefine friendship and social networks, they are still working to understand what civic engagement means in a world of online communities and exchanges. We’ll be glued to our screens awaiting the next iteration.