Facebook Wants to Help You Be a Better Citizen
Millions of us turn to Facebook to talk politics. Now the social network wants to get us more politically active in the real world.
Facebook has rolled out a nonpartisan civic engagement service in the U.S. called Town Hall. It identifies your elected officials -- even local ones -- sends reminders to vote and goads you to pick up the phone.
It is one of the first glimpses of how Facebook will execute on Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg's vision of using the social network's influence -- built on keeping up with friends -- to address humanity's biggest problems.
"Our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community -- for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all," Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a manifesto last month.
Facebook has a mixed record in tackling these issues. Its first major voter drive in the U.S. last year helped register more than two million people. But its main product, the News Feed, also had an invisible hand in spreading misinformation and contributing to polarization during the election season.
Town Hall won't address all those concerns, but it offers civic information that can be devilishly hard to track down on your own. On the web, Town Hall is accessible via a blue icon on the right side of members' News Feed. On phones, it lives with other Facebook tools under a button with three vertical bars.
One of Town Hall's most useful capabilities is identifying your elected officials. To do that, you have to tell Facebook where you live. The more precise you are, the more representatives it will identify. Many Facebook members already share some location information, and an address you enter in Town Hall won't be displayed, shared or used to serve ads, says Facebook
The social network doesn't have comprehensive data on the roughly 519,000 elected officials in the U.S. -- but no other database does either. (Facebook found 11 of the roughly 30 officials who represent me in San Francisco.) What's better, with one click, Town Hall lets you choose to follow all your officials' posts on Facebook.
And now when you post about one of your representatives on Facebook, the social network will prompt you to "share your thoughts directly" by more traditional means -- phone, fax or mail. Particularly in Washington, phone calls and faxes from constituents can hold greater sway than emails, tweets and posts.
"This suite of products is committed to a version of civic life where voting is a cornerstone but not the end of it," said Facebook product marketing manager Jeremy Philip Galen.
A number of startups and nonprofits have also introduced nonpartisan tools to track and contact representatives, but none have Facebook's reach. And Facebook says it has more tools planned. "The more information you have at your disposal, the more active you can be in a strategic way," said Mr. Galen.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at firstname.lastname@example.org