November 10, 2014

If you're not a Facebook user, don't watch ABC News' This Week With George Stephanopoulis, and don't read Buzzfeed, you may be surprised to discover that Facebook has partnered with those two to make 2016 the "Facebook Election."

Here's a snippet of Buzzfeed's announcement:

Facebook is on the cusp — and I suspect 2016 will be the year this becomes clear — of replacing television advertising as the place where American elections are fought and won. The vast new network of some 185 million Americans opens the possibility, for instance, of a congressional candidate gaining traction without the expense of television, and of an inexpensive new viral populism. The way people share will shape the outcome of the presidential election. Even during the 2014 midterms, which most Americans ignored, Facebook says it saw 43 million unique individuals engage in the political conversation. Now a rawly powerful video may reach far more voters in a few hours than a multimillion-dollar ad buy; and it will reach them from trusted sources — their friends — not via suspect, one-way channels.

And so we at BuzzFeed News are deeply excited to have nearly exclusive access (it’s shared with a broadcast partner, ABC News) to a powerful new window into the largest political conversation in America. This data will be drawn from a Facebook project working in the tricky field of “sentiment analysis,” the attempt to analyze people’s feelings based on what they write, which we think may be the most important new source of political data in the 2016 elections. This project will allow BuzzFeed News reporters to ask Facebook for data on, for instance, how Iowans feel about Hillary Clinton, or which Republican candidate appears to be best liked by women.

The field of sentiment analysis is as famous for its pitfalls as for any successes. Sentiment analysis has been bad at detecting sarcasm, for instance. But there’s good reason to think that if anyone can pull this off, it will be Facebook. First, it has access to a far, far larger sample of natural language than any other social network. What’s more, that carries with it contextual data that can serve as a point of departure for sentiment analysis — the field, in particular, that allows people to include how they’re feeling or what they’re doing when they post status updates. And third, Facebook quite simply has some of the best data scientists in the world, and has built a company on a deep and comprehensive understanding of user data. We’re also comfortable with Facebook’s approach to its users’ privacy with this data, which is anonymous and aggregate, with no data available for groups of interactions under 1,000.

Because of course, no one ever games Facebook, right? Let's start with the fact that the right wing has spent a bloody fortune over on Facebook over the past four years -- on ads and infrastructure building. Facebook is one of their organizing platforms. The left, not so much.

But anonymous! And no data for groups under 1000! Well, there ya go. I'm sure that will yield meaningful results from people who either end up using Facebook to argue politics with their crazy uncle or are like me, and avoid ever mentioning politics on Facebook if humanly possible in order to avoid arguments with old classmates and other people who I get along with if no politics are mentioned ever.

Given that there's about a 4:1 ratio of online conservative "news" websites to liberal "news" websites, I think we can more or less guess which way the pendulum on their data will swing.

But hey. It's new, shiny, meme-ish, and doesn't actually require much in the way of policy thought, so there's that.

Facebook election? We shall see.

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