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Is Facebook becoming the new arena of political discourse?

  • Facebook politics
    Facebook politics  Jaime Settle, assistant professor of government at William & Mary, is investigating how social-media exchanges may influence voting behavior.  Photo by Steve Salpukas
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How do people act in front of the all-seeing eye of their friends’ Facebook newsfeed, especially as a big election approaches? Jaime Settle wants to find out. She seeks to outline what our online behavior means for us as a society and how we adjust that behavior in the faces of our digital friends.

Settle, an assistant professor of government at William & Mary, and her team are studying the emotional tone of people communicating through social networks during the run-up to the Romney vs Obama 2012 general election.

Settle notes that her research is focusing on Facebook discussions, in addition to single status messages. The exchange of views in discussions, she says, tend to be more revelatory than status reports that go without comment.

“On Facebook, you can’t misperceive as much as you can in real life. It’s much more in your face what your friends believe,” says Settle.

Settle has a couple of areas of interest. First, she intends to analyze the Facebook exchanges surrounding the always-contentious proposed healthcare reform plan known as Obamacare.

“I’m curious how the discussion on Facebook might’ve influenced people to change their views,” explains Settle. She says she’s looking for identifiable connection between what people are talking about online and what they are hearing about in the media and policy world.

The second aspect of political behavior Settle intends to investigate involves what she terms “opinion leadership”—the projection of strong personalities who can demonstrate the power to shape others around them. She said she would like to examine the social networks of opinion leaders, to learn how their social networks might be different and how opinion leaders might be able to become uniquely positioned to influence other people in those networks.

Settle has already made a name for herself in the investigation of Facebook as a force in American politics. In 2010, during her time as a graduate student at University of California, San Diego, Settle collaborated with her advisor, other graduate students and the head of what is known as the Data Science Team of Facebook to design an experiment testing the impact of social media mobilization on real world voting behavior. The results were published in Nature magazine.

Settle says that this experiment found that the direct effect is that people who saw their friends voting, thumbnails of friends’ pictures who had chosen to claim “I Voted” via a mouse click, were about 2 percent more likely to report that they had also voted.

“The effects are huge when you actually multiply it out by the millions of people who are influenced,” says Settle. “I think that’s the key point of this idea of social network analysis.”