Facebook, Elections, & Ethics: How the Internet Could Influence Voting

John Hudak

In a recent piece in The New Republic, Jonathan Zittrain describes a scary scenario: Facebook manipulating a democratic election without the public being aware. It seems like a hysterical internet-based 1984 prophecy, but as Zittrain points out, it is technologically feasible, and he offers some ideas on how we can prevent it.

The article describes a 2010 online field experiment that Facebook authorized to be conducted on its site. In it, political scientists sought to measure whether peer pressure could induce voting behavior via an online platform. The sample of users on Facebook was divided into two subsamples. One group saw graphics indicating that their friends voted, and allowed users to indicate that they voted. The other subsample (control) saw no such graphic. The researcher, using actual voting data, found that the Facebook users who saw that their friends voted (treatment group) were statistically more likely to cast ballots themselves.

Zittrain argues that such power raises serious ethical questions about the proper role and ultimate capacity of public companies in the context of elections. Would it be improper for company executives to influence elections by boosting turnout among voters who share their views? For a publicly traded company, do executives owe a type of political or electoral loyalty to their shareholders? Should such behavior be made explicitly illegal? Is the possibility of public reaction enough of a safeguard against such behavior?

Zittrain engages many of these questions and discusses one possible solution: companies as information fiduciaries. This is a big ask, especially for corporations that owe profound success to keeping private specific trade secrets or in the context of Facebook or Google, algorithms that employ personal information. In a fascinating discussion merging technology, economics, democracy, and public policy, the piece thinks through the viability of the information fiduciary model and the variety of ways government may be able to induce companies into its use.

We encourage all of our readers to read Professor Zittrain’s piece and contribute to the conversation in the comments section of this blog. We promise anything you post will not be used to manipulate elections.

Click through to read, “Facebook Could Decide and Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out