Politics Technology

Are your social networks pushing secret ballots aside?

One of the cornerstones of the Internet as a cultural phenomenon is, in my estimation, political speech. That’s not just because I’m very political, though I obviously am. Rather the dawning of the wider acceptance of the Internet as a communication and entertainment medium goes hand-in-hand with the rise of news websites, political blogs, Net Roots Nation, online petitions and a host of other outlets that either are inherently political or else lend themselves to political action. We’ve even heard calls for online voting – just dispense with the meat-based world of civics, altogether.

But we’re so accoustomed to speaking our minds on the Internet, perhaps it is worth considering just what online voting might eventually take away from us. Pew Internet Research has released a report suggesting that the mere existence of the blabbermouth Social Networking set is taking away some of the anonymity of the secret ballot.

According to the report, 30% of us have been asked to vote for one candidate or the other and 20% have done the asking. Overall, 22% of us have told our social networks for whom we planned on voting. And if we’re being honest, most of us have social networks made up of a lot of people we don’t even know.

When I first voted, I was sternly admonished by a former girlfriend’s father to never tell anyone – including people who agreed with my selection – for whom I voted. Ever. But these days, people put Obama or Romney pictures up as their Timeline photos. We post someecards with snark about our opponents. There are even tools designed specifically to mute your politically-active friends and relations, should the need arise.

Vexingly, the report does not break the numbers down by social networks, which I think might also be illuminating. Regardless of the demographic break down, it is clear that our social network world is considerably more free with voter information than our time-honoured, traditional model.

But perhaps our behavior says as much about the culture and political climate around us as it says about anything? Perhaps social networking serves in this case as a metric, rather than a cause? The reason a secret ballot was so important in decades past was that there was a genuine threat of reprisal for voting “incorrectly.” Not simply a few nastygrams from your crazy aunt, but actual thugs from Boss Tweed’s organization to help you see the error of your ways. I don’t think that’s much of a threat in the United States, these days. The Black Panthers, of course, being the obvious exception.

The threat of reprisal remains genuine in other parts of the world. So the question then becomes: do people in other, less-secure democracies have the same libertine view of social “voting’ that we do?