Technology Tuesdays: Everyone’s Doing It! How Facebook’s Peer Pressure Effect Might Help Enroll Millions

By Jennifer Sullivan

This blog entry is a part of Enroll America’s Technology Tuesdays blog series.

We often hear about peer pressure as something that leads people to do things they shouldn’t. Picture the classic afterschool special: The teenager falls in with the “wrong crowd” and takes up all kinds of wayward behavior before he sees the error in his ways and repents. But peer pressure can also be a powerful force for good. A recent Facebook effort to increase registered organ donors suggests that applying some virtual peer pressure might be an effective way to encourage people to do certain things, especially when those things are easy to do and share online.Facebook organ donor registration form

In a press release last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg announced a new partnership with Donate Life America designed to make it easier for Facebook users to become organ donors. They hope to raise “broader awareness about organ donation” through the “power of sharing and connection” that embodies Facebook’s vast communications network. Zuckerberg and Sandberg believe that peer influence has a role to play in improving rates of organ donation, and the initial outcomes of their efforts suggest they may be on to something.

According to Donate Life America, as of Friday, “forty-four donor registries reported a total of 24,354 online donor designations in the first two days, a 23-fold increase over average enrollment activity.” Donate Life California reported that, in the first day alone, California witnessed a 700 percent increase in the number of organ donors who registered in a typical day.

If people are influenced by their “virtual” peers to consider signing up for organ donation, could their peers also influence them when it comes to enrolling in health coverage?

The significance of social media as a tool to encourage certain norms among social networks has been demonstrated in many studies in recent years, and it was the subject of a Scientific American article this past weekend. Research appears to confirm an “everyone is doing it” effect, including a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that found higher rates of behavior adoption when individuals received multiple signals reinforcing certain patterns. If members of your social network—people who you’ve vetted and with whom you likely have more than a few things in common—all start to take up a certain behavior, you’re more likely to take up that behavior, too (if for no other reason than to avoid being judged for not taking up that behavior). Fortunately for us, our friends were never into Farmville…

Reasonable concerns have surfaced in the last few days surrounding the wisdom of sharing medical information through social media websites. But the fact of the matter is that in just a few days, tens of thousands of people took affirmative action to become donors because Facebook made them aware of the problem, made it easy to do something about it, and provided a platform where networks of friends could publicly take action. In some cases, Facebook also allowed friends to dispel one another’s long-held misconceptions about the risks associated with being a donor. Hearing that information on a TV or radio ad might not have made a difference, but hearing it from trusted friends and being able to immediately take action proved highly effective.

So, if people are willing to share their organ donor status online, then why not an “I filled out an application for health coverage” Facebook status update with a link to the application, an exchange website, or a Navigator’s contact information? This might be just enough to encourage someone to apply who might not have known where to start otherwise. Different populations will require different outreach strategies, but many people will likely look to their online friends to validate that the new enrollment process is easy and that it actually works. We’re hopeful that Facebook can do for health coverage enrollment what it appears to be doing for organ donation.


Enroll America Menu
Are you looking for affordable health insurance?