The Facebook "I voted" button has been a digital election tradition since 2008. Given that millions of people who clicked the button at a rate of 358,000 people per hour, there's an argument to be made that Facebook could boost voter turnout.
As Vox reported, voters who saw the button in 2010 were more likely to click the button if they saw their friends had (boosting the odds about .39 percent, according to a 2010 study). As the Atlantic reported this week, social media might provide the nudge to vote that could, in theory, change the course of an entire election.
Take the 2000 election. Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain theorized that because George W. Bush won by a narrow margin of 537 votes, social media could have made all the difference — if it had existed.
While these are arguably positive aspects to the use of social media to get people to engage in their civil liberties, what's less clear is how and to what degree Facebook might use this data to potentially manipulate voting choices.
In theory, Mother Jones writer Micah L. Sifry argued, Facebook might not only be able to get people to vote — it might one day be able to get people to vote for a candidate of its choice. Sifry pointed specifically to a 2012 Facebook experiment in which a Facebook scientist admitted to "tweaking" the feeds of 1.9 million Facebook users so that news stories shared between friends were at the top of their feeds, making them more likely to see it.
After the election, Facebook then found that among the 1.9 million experimented on, the number of people who self-reported voting saw a 3 percent boost.
"While Facebook has been developing and promoting (the 'I voted' button), it has also been quietly conducting experiments on how the company's actions can affect the voting behavior of its users," Sifry wrote. "(Facebook's) unseen intervention boosted voter turnout by 3 percent."
The lack of transparency on Facebook's part, the Atlantic's Robinson Meyer wrote, is cause for concern.
"Facebook, frankly, may be altering elections already," Meyer argued. "Facebook can already figure out so much about us … the company could easily combine that tranche of data with selective deployment of its “I Voted” button and tilt an election. Just make certain populations more likely to see the button, and, ta-da: modification managed."
And with government requests for Facebook user data rising by 24 percent just in the last year, social media users might want to think twice before telling Facebook about performing their patriotic duty.