We've all heard about how Facebook has been used to inspire grassroots, revolutionary movements and act as an important communications portal for millions of people during big events. But just how influential is it during an election?

Well, it can be quite influential, according to a study published this fall in Nature.

It might not be surprising that in the U.S., people aged 18-24 are more active on Facebook than they are engaged in politics. In fact, 98 per cent of Americans in that age group use some sort of social media regularly.

That figure is nearly double the number (48.5 per cent) in that age category who voted in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

But the Nature study also shows those who received a call to vote -- via Facebook -- were more likely to get out and actually do it, than those who didn't receive that message.

What Nature did was randomly assign more than 61 million Facebook users in the U.S. to receive either:

  • a 'social message' urging them to vote;
  • an 'informational message' supporting the process of voting; or
  • no message at all

Sixty million of those users saw -- at the top of their news feed on Election Day 2010 -- a message encouraging them to vote, along with a clickable button reading 'I Voted'; a link to find a local polling station; a counter showing how many other Facebook users have voted; and a display of up to 6 Facebook friends who clicked the 'I Voted' button.

Six-hundred thousand users got the same News Feed message, but without the friends' profile photos.

The control group received no message.

The Nature study found that the Facebook users who got the social message were more likely to click the 'I Voted' button and look for a polling station compared to those who received just the informational message, or no message.

For every voter directly mobilized by the message:

  • 4 more were also inspired to vote
  • Therefore 60,000 votes yielded 280,000 more -- for a total of 340,000 votes

Further, candidates most frequently mentioned in social media win elections 75 per cent of the time, according to a Nielsen study.