Will Facebook save democracy? 'I'm a Voter' feature launches across Europe in time for parliamentary elections

Nigel Farage and political gaffes may light up Twitter, but can an appeal to Facebook users' narcissism also persuade people to visit a ballot box?

Thursday morning Facebook users in the UK will be greeted not just by the usual medley of selfies and status updates, but also by a small banner reminding them - unobtrusively but firmly - that today is "Election Day.”

The banner is the result of Facebook global roll-out of a feature named “I’m a Voter” that made its first appearance in American news feeds during the 2010 midterms. However, this year it will be accompanying elections everywhere from Colombia to South Korea – and, of course, popping up all over Europe for this week’s parliamentary elections.

Speaking to The Independent, Facebook’s head of political outreach Katie Harbarth, said that the feature was a “natural fit” for the social network, dovetailing with its mission to “make the world more open and connected” – as well as perhaps giving people an opportunity for a quick humblebrag about their democratic credentials.

“I think that we’re a platform for people to share who they are, whether they just bought a house or had a baby or got married,” says Harbarth. “But politics is something everyone has their own viewpoint on and is another thing people want to have a discussion about.”

Harbarth points out that in 2013, elections were the second most talked about topic on Facebook– second only to the one-man social-media goldmine that is Pope Francis – and that with 26 million daily active users in the UK, the social network has “become the place where people are having these conversations as well as getting a lot of their news."

Facebook's "I'm a Voter" button as it will appear to European users tomorrow. Building a sense of political identity into Facebook certainly plays to the site’s strengths, offering users another avenue for self-expression as well encouraging the sort of public spat that can make the social network feel lively and relevant.

Some people might decry this as another example of narcissism in digital life (‘does anyone care that you voted?’) but it might also have a beneficial effect for democracy. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature showed that Facebook’s US ‘I voted’ button encouraged (or shamed) an additional third of a million voters to hit the ballot box in 2010.

James Fowler, the lead author of the research, said the research “suggests that social influence may be the best way to increase voter turnout. Just as importantly, we show that what happens online matters a lot for the ‘real world.’”

With turn-out among first-time voters predicted to drop to around 27 per cent across Europe for this year's parliamentary elections, it seems that even a small bump would be appreciated.

And not only is the peer pressure useful – Facebook also provides an ideal method to disseminate basic facts such as poll station locations. For first-time voters especially, delivering this sort of information at the right time and in the right place could be the difference between ‘yeah, why not, I’ll vote’ and not bothering at all.

Some organizations have said that this doesn’t go far enough though, with research published this month by Swing the Vote showing that almost half of 16-to-25-year-olds wanted to see more information about policies and pledges on social networks.

A Ukip supporter at a shopping centre in Croydon Some parties may have got a minority interested in the EU elections - but you could hardly call their supporters youthful. Not everyone thinks that social media will be democracy’s panacea though. Michael Sani, the managing director of Bite the Ballot, said that although initiatives likes Facebook’s “I’m a Voter” button were “undoubtedly positive” they didn’t address the whole issue.

“It doesn’t rectify the core problem, which is a lack of engagement and education in school,” Sani told The Independent. “It’s such a huge black hole in this country, where people just aren’t educated and that initial spark isn’t created from a young age.”

There’s also the criticism that although social networks like Facebook allow users to share messages about their political alignment, they might also shut down debate by tailoring the content that users see to keep them happy and clicking.

This argument – the so-called ‘Filter Bubble’ proposed by Eli Pariser  in 2011 – applies to all of the web, and refers to how site’s algorithms tend to resurface content that they know the user likes, leading, in Pariser’s assessment, to “a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn.”

However, this sort of problem isn't likely to affect something as simple as Facebook's voter button, and with governments across Europe becoming ever more desperate to get young people interested in elections (see Denmark's recent sex-and-violence pro-democracy message for a how-not-to-do-it) anything that persuades more people to make a trip to the ballot box can only be a good thing.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Ashdown Group: C# Developer

    £30000 - £36000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: C# Developer A highly s...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Test Engineer

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A market leading software...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...