Earlier this month, TechCrunch reported Facebook was rolling out a new feature called “Town Hall,” which would allow the social network’s users to easily locate, follow and contact their local, state and federal government representatives. The company today confirmed the feature is available to all U.S. users on desktop and mobile, and will now include News Feed integration. Along with this news, Facebook also announced it’s launching local election reminders for the first time, to encourage users to vote in state, county, and municipal elections.
The changes follow Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent penning of a nearly 6,000-word manifesto where he discussed a number of ambitions for the social network in the days ahead. One of these was focused on using the network to increase civic engagement – a tacit acknowledgement of the role Facebook plays in today’s political landscape.
Following the U.S. presidential elections, the company was accused of helping Donald Trump win, by doing nothing to prevent the spread of fake news and disinformation across its network. Its algorithms which show users more of what they like to keep people in the app longer were also blamed for keeping people in “bubbles” where they believe that everyone thinks the same way they do, increasing polarization.
Zuckerberg initially downplayed the concerns over the spread of “fake news” on Facebook by saying that the network was a technology platform, not a media company. He later changed his position on this, and the company has since begun rolling out a variety of fact-checking measures to combat fake news.
In the letter, Zuckerberg also said he wanted Facebook to focus on increasing civic engagement in a world where “participation in voting sometimes includes less than half our population.”
With the addition of “Town Hall,” Facebook took a step towards this goal. The feature makes it simpler for users to know who represents them in government, and reach out through whichever means the politician lists on their Facebook page.
The feature was recently made available in the “More” menu on mobile and on desktop to a subset of users.
When you launch it, you would be presented with a list of reps at the local, state and federal level, and you could click to visit their Facebook page or send them a message, call them, or email.
Not all reps offer their contact information via Facebook, however. And Facebook doesn’t yet pull in the missing phone numbers or emails from off-site sources, like official government websites, for example.
The company tell us that’s something it wants to address in time, though.
Today, Town Hall is available all U.S. Facebook users and some of its features will now be integrated in the News Feed.
If you like or comment on a post made by one of your elected officials, a new feature below the comments will invite you to call, message or email the rep. After doing so, users will then be prompted to share a post saying that they contacted the rep, as a means of encouraging their friends to do the same.
While this is seemingly meant to inspire more grassroots political activism, Facebook says that this shared post is not shown to everyone, but only to those who are also already engaging with an elected official’s Page or post.
Unfortunately, this could limit the feature’s ability to increase civic engagement among the more politically apathetic crowd – who are those who need to be inspired to get involved.
But Facebook likely made this decision in an effort to keep its News Feed from becoming too politicized. It could anger those who would interpret these shares as Facebook itself directing them to take a specific political action.
Additionally, Facebook says it will now offer Election Reminders for local elections.
The company has already been running reminders at the top of the News Feed for national elections since 2008 – something it says has increased voter turnout. Here, Facebook cited its own internal research and a study in the Nature journal, which had found that its 2010 message impacted real-world turnout by 340,000 votes.
To make this feature possible, Facebook had to upgrade its civic data infrastructure to automate the reminders for thousands of elections across the U.S., it says.
The new, local election reminders will appear for all state, county, and municipal elections in the U.S. in areas with a population of over 10,000 people, and will include both primaries and general elections.
All three features are publicly available as of today on web and mobile.
Image credit, top: Marcbela (Marc N. Belanger) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; others: Facebook