Everyone loves to dump on selfies. Either they’re “too narcissistic” or have caused “hundreds of fatal injuries all around the world.”
But not all selfies are built alike. Think of the humble “I voted” selfie, popping up on everyone’s social media feed this month, and especially on Election Day. In a democracy in which close to half the eligible voters choose not to vote, the “I voted” selfie has real potential to mobilize disaffected voters.
So go for it: Rock the selfie, everyone.
The “I voted” selfie isn’t the sexiest. Unlike traditional selfies, they generally don’t include pouty lips or dramatic mountain backdrops. “I voted” selfies are traditionally set in church basements or cinder block public schools. They almost always feature an “I voted” sticker and are often crushingly corny.
That doesn’t mean they’re not effective. Multiple studies have concluded that social media posts do have some power to persuade eligible voters to actually vote. A 2017 study using data from 61 million Facebook participants found that users who were exposed to pro-voting posts were both more likely to seek information about their polling sites and to self-report voting.
While the study didn’t focus specifically on the “I voted” selfie, William & Mary Professor Jamie Settle, who co-authored the report, believes that selfies in particular have the power to impact voter behavior:
“Activating pressure and influence within your social network is more influential than providing information alone,” Settle told Mashable. “The effect of one selfie is very small, but millions and millions of people posting these can actually have a large, impactful effect.”
For all their bad angles, selfies have all the core, evidence-based ingredients of a successful social media post: They’re emotional. They’re social. They’re personal. They’re free.
And if they’re good, they go viral.
“Campaigns and political parties make an effort to utilize digital technologies and social media, but people mobilizing others through their own social networks … we have reason to think that’s going to be more effective than a campaign contacting you with a text message or any other sort of technology,” Settle says.
The “I voted” selfie isn’t without risks. By posting it, you chance engaging voters on the other side of the aisle. If your political views are at all known, or even subtly intuitive, you could energize the opposition. That’s fine if what you’re seeking is true civic engagement, but self-defeating if you’re only trying to mobilize voters in your own party.
“If I have friends who are not politically engaged, my selfie might be the only one they see,” Virginia Tech Assistant Professor of Communication Katherine Haenschen told Mashable.
Haenschen studies how digital media influences people’s political choices. She believes that the “I voted” selfie is a particularly powerful persuasion tool for millennials, who are historically the least likely demographic group to vote. Unlike phone calls or news articles, selfies reach young voters who live on lifestyle-focused platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Stickers, which have also shown to improve voter turnout, only reach people in physical spaces. “I voted” selfies have the potential to access thousands more in digital environments, which are disproportionately used by young people.
“There’s a study done by the Knight Foundation who interviewed millennials who don’t vote in municipal races … they perceive that other young people don’t vote,” said Haenschen. “Non-participation is the descriptive social norm.”
Flooding the zone with selfies, Haenschen argues, likely increases “probability of people voting, particularly amongst groups that don’t perceive themselves as having high voter engagement … These selfies do help push back on perception that people don’t vote.”
In other words, they re-write the norm.
Not all selfies are going to be equally effective. Selfies with low engagement will likely have less of an impact than those with higher engagement. And selfies taken in the actual ballot booth or near a polling site can be illegal, depending on your state. (Please check your state’s voting laws before you selfie).
Haenschen has multiple recommendations for people seeking to maximize their selfie influence. Consider tagging friends who are less likely to vote. Go so far as to praise people for being registered voters. Encourage people to go vote! Be helpful: give them information about their polling place.
Even if your individual selfie doesn’t have a immediate statistical impact, Haenschen notes, hundreds of thousands of them likely do.
Hear that, fellow Americans? Your can use your selfie powers for good! Don’t be afraid to showcase your complimentary sticker today. And don’t you let anyone stop you from putting a sticker on your cat.
Together, we will rebuild this broken democracy, one cheeseball selfie at a time.
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