// In the wake of the 2016 election, Facebook unveils Town Hall. The new feature will ‘strengthen the online community’ by connecting users to the elected officials that represent them. If keeping users on-site to create marketable data is in Facebook’s best interest, can Town Hall really deliver? Will the ad platform use Town Hall data for targeting? Who gets left out when pollsters turn to social networks to take the pulse of the whole country? 

As we close in on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s Presidency, the American political climate remains anything but docile. Fractures within both major political parties are driving an already emotionally exhausted electorate to demand visibility and representation on the beltway. Everyday citizens are requesting in-person meetings, answers to basic questions of great consequence, and clarity around who lobbied whom for how much. In cases when elected officials underdeliver or flat out refuse to respond, the people connect online and in person. The people organize.

Heightened tensions, seen as early as the invisible primary, came to a tipping point as it became apparent that pervasive online networks like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit were manipulated to disseminate false stories, stir up infighting among political ranks, and strategically dominate the news cycle as a diversion tactic.

(All of this, of course, appears to be separate from the reported methods Facebook used to determine which news stories should be labeled as ‘trending’ – many of which were found to be heavily biased in their application.)

Facebook, known for providing users with digital I Voted stickers, “is committed to encouraging people who use [the] service to participate in the democratic process.”

Perhaps that is why they felt the sting of the 2016 election the worst:

Following the [January] U.S. presidential elections… [Facebook] 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.

[Facebook CEO Mark 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.

Soon after, Zuckerberg responded by publishing ‘Building Global Community” directly to Facebook, “a technology platform, not a media company“.

Occasional updates highlighting new features and initiatives are far from new – it’s how we learned about such great disruptors and mainstays as Beacon, Check-In Deals, and every UX redesign you’ve loved to hate getting used to.

Building Global Community

What makes the ‘Building Global Community’ post so endearing is the post-election commitment to growing a stronger, more inviting network:

  • How do we help people build supportive communities that strengthen traditional institutions in a world where membership in these institutions is declining?
  • How do we help people build a safe community that prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards in a world where anyone across the world can affect us?
  • How do we help people build an informed community that exposes us to new ideas and builds common understanding in a world where every person has a voice?
  • How do we help people build a civically-engaged community in a world where participation in voting sometimes includes less than half our population?
  • How do we help people build an inclusive community that reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels, spanning cultures, nations and regions in a world with few examples of global communities?

In an attempt to build a more supportive, informed, inclusive and civically-engaged community, Facebook has rolled out a new feature. “Facebook Town Hall” aims to help users “easily locate, follow and contact their local, state and federal government representatives.”

As of March 27th, TechCrunch is reporting a U.S. only rollout on “desktop and mobile [devices] 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.”

All users have to provide is a home address – presumably the one they are registered to vote at. Voter registration data… now that sounds valuable.

How does Town Hall work?

Users can find the Town Hall feature in the ‘More’ menu on mobile devices, as well as searching for ‘Town Hall’ using the Open Graph search (the big blue one at the top with your exes names’ in the search history). Alternatively, you can simply visit Facebook.com/townhall

Once a user has opted into the feature, they are prompted to enter a home address. Facebook makes a point to remind you that “[y]our address won’t be displayed or shared” – presumably with advertisers or other users – though the jury is still out on that.

Worth noting – you can enter as many addresses as you’d like. Not sure who your local rep would be if you moved across town? Now you can find out.

Finding Your Representatives

Following that step, users are presented with a list of elected representatives at the Local, State and Federal levels. The results are listed in alphabetical order, by appointment. Representatives with verified Facebook accounts (that little blue check mark) are given no preferential treatment over their less tech savvy colleagues. As Town Hall focuses on elected officials, there isn’t a box for maniacal puppet masters that sit above the Federal reps.

Users are also provided with a one-click ‘Follow’ option for each representative that has a Facebook presence as well as an option labeled ‘Contact’.

You’ll also be presented with the number of friends who have opted in to Town Hall – including their names and profile pictures. As far as I can tell, there is no way to participate in this feature without being included in your friends’ tallies (or their cheap jokes screenshots – sorry Yev).

Following Your Representatives

Once you ‘Follow’ an elected official, you may notice some changes as you scroll through your newsfeed. Liking or commenting on a post from one of your elected officials now prompts you to call, message or email them – directly from the post. Angry that Pat Toomey is straight up ignoring his constituents? Let him know after you’ve gotten the ALL CAPS out of your system on some poor high school acquaintance’s slacktivism post.

Here’s where reaching out to your reps can start to get interesting:

“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. Facebook says that this Contact Your Rep post is not shown to everyone, but only to those who are also already engaging with an elected official’s post, through a like or comment.”

Sounds like the makings of an echo chamber to me – but hey who am I to talk about internet filter bubbles?

Contacting Your Representatives

Worth noting here, is that representatives are not required to provide any direct lines of communication – for example some may have addresses and phone numbers and some may have a one-click email button.

As of now, I’m under the impression that page admins for the reps dictate what and how much contact information is provided. I have yet to see any representative with a blank contact box – but I wouldn’t put it out of the question. To be fair, though, most of this information is public knowledge and can be found by a simple Google search. In the event that one of these pages are compromised, however, it is possible that false or misleading information could be provided and disseminated.

TechCrunch adds, “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.” Facebook does plan to scrape that info and display it eventually.

Voting Reminders

Town Hall also provides users with the option to schedule ‘Voting Reminders’ – a notification on your news feed about upcoming elections in your area. I have yet to see one of the reminders in the wild, but I’ll keep my eye out for one. Anyone with an example can feel free to screencap it and send it my way.

“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… Facebook cited its own internal research and a study in the Nature journal, which found that its 2010 message impacted real-world turnout by 340,000 votes.” – TechCrunch

Since users can only enter one address at a time, I’m not sure if you can receive voting reminders for multiple locations. For users in contentious states with busy districts, the tool may fall short as a campaign dashboard. Then again, if you’re tech savvy enough to want a campaign dashboard, you’re probably not getting your news directly from Facebook.

While the reminders may sound like a great idea on the surface, I do have some concerns.

TechCrunch is also reporting that “local election reminders will [only] cover state, county and municipal elections—primaries and general elections—in areas with populations of 10,000 or more.” So if you live in a remote part of the country with a small population, it may be better to pencil in the election date on your old school calendar app. Or you know, your old school calendar.

The Big Questions on Town Hall

While many media outlets jumped eagerly to praise the boy king’s next ‘feature’, there are still many outlying issues to be considered. We know that Facebook, at the end of the day, relies on turning a profit from it’s advertisement platform. We also know that they do this by looking at thousands and thousands of data points that users generate when liking, sharing and commenting on posts across the network.

As a quick refresher, digital marketers rely on the demographic information and users lists Facebook compiles based on your interests, activities and messaging. Ever wonder how they seem to always know exactly what ads to show you?

  • That birthday wish you posted? Monetized your friendship.
  • Your check-in at the airport? Monetized your travel plans.
  • Liked that new Shins album? Monetized your tastes.
  • Shared an article about Hillary’s email server / Donald’s taxes / Bernie’s infectious smile? Monetized your politics.
  • That time you provided a 3rd Party App with your birthdate, email address, contact list and access to your camera roll? Monetized your you-name-it.

If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.

With increasing evidence of outside influence permeating our elections (from the complex to the blissfully unaware) we would be smart to ask some tough questions of any Facebook feature that ties our accounts to political activity:

  • Who really stands to benefit?
  • Where does the money start, where does it go?
  • Am I (or my data) for sale?
  • What happens if this information is compromised?
  • Who is being left out of the equations?

In the case of Town Hall, for example, I’m sure there are local and state political party offices, not to mention merchandise retailers that would kill to get their hands on who’s taken the time to follow and/or contact an elected official.

Let’s hope Facebook sticks to Zuckerberg’s intentions, and that he truly developed Town Hall as part of “the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

That being said – his track history leaves many of us skeptical. We’ve heard the rallying cries for a global village before, only to be let down by poor privacy protections, blatant marketing plays and of course that hell-spawn FarmVille.

Collapsing Contexts: Why We Shouldn’t Rely on Facebook for Everything 

Many users (some with limited access to the internet, and especially those with less of a working media literacy) may rely on social networks as their main interface with the internet. So much so that some even confuse the two.

Why turn to a dozen different websites when you can get your news, sports, social life and calendar all in one place? Especially one that syncs across devices and easily allows you to share with your friends and family.

Remember, Facebook generates marketable data points when spend time on their network – not necessarily by clicking out via links to other websites. That’s why they’ve rolled out their own version of many features that we traditionally turned elsewhere to access:

  • Chat / SMS
  • Photo Sharing
  • Calendar and Events Management
  • Location Checkins and Reviews (lol remember FourSquare?)
  • News and Stories (this one in particular)
  • Internet Access In General (Internet.org)

Providing easy access to elected officials can certainly be looked at as a public service – especially for users who spend most of their time online within the confines of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks (as opposed to the rest of the web).  But keeping with other obvious business goals, Facebook may be looking at Town Hall as another way to keep you on site. How difficult would it be to imagine ‘Staying Politically Informed’ to the list above?

In fact, if users can now learn about their elected officials, contact them, and debate with friends and community members all in one place they may never find the need to explore elsewhere. Couple that with the fact that political discourse on Facebook is often insular and among like minded users.

Hypothetical here, but lets say this Town Hall feature goes on to receive widespread adoption across the political spectrum. We also, then, run the risk of giving too much credence to Facebook users’ opinions, while neglecting the opinions of constituents who don’t have access to Facebook (or the internet) just because they don’t participate (by choice or otherwise).

I liken this to the inaccuracies that come along with phone polling in modern times. Phone polling only represents people with landlines – and the time and willingness to actually talk.

The editorial staff of The Week articulated this well last April:

“Guess who answers the [landline] phone now? It’s all people over 50,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. That can make is for a more affluent and conservative sampling. In addition to overlooking younger voters, landline polling also gives short shrift to minorities and the poor, sectors most likely to rely on cellphones. Under representing those groups, McInturff explains, “means you are systematically undercounting [parts of the population].”

Similarly, turning exclusively to Facebook users (a notoriously insular portion of the web) to determine trends of the voting population as a whole is largely misguided…

So now what?

Remember that most of the things that Facebook is offering here can be replicated elsewhere – online and otherwise. Just because they’re repackaging something you know and love in Facebook Blue (#3b5998) doesn’t mean it’s new under the sun.

Photocredit to ABC News