The Virtual Town Hall

During my senior year at BC, I had space in my schedule to take a few electives. Instead of just choosing Living Earth classes that were easy A’s, I decided I should use at least one of those slots to actually learn about something other than the rules of accounting. Besides, that’s what a liberal arts college education is for! I’d never really paid much attention to politics before so I figured I should learn at least a little about it since it might affect me at some point in my life. Therefore, I enrolled in a class called U.S. Congress.

As the name implies, it was a class that essentially discussed the inner workings of Congress, the election cycle, and all different kinds of implications regarding its processes. On the first day, the very first thing the professor did was ask a simple question: “Who here knows one of the people that represents them in Congress?” Only 6 people raised their hand. In about a 30 person class of college-aged students, only 20% of students knowing just one of their representatives in Congress was shocking to me. There are countless videos online of student organizations going around college campuses asking people political questions that are met with unfortunate results…

Obviously that’s just a small sample size but you get the idea. Upon this realization, I decided to become much more educated and follow politics more closely which brings me to the actual point of this blog.

As we discussed in class, on Monday, Facebook announced the release of the Town Hall feature which makes it easier for Facebook users to locate, follow, and contact their local, state, and federal government representatives. After my previous experiences, this initially sounded like a great idea, making it much easier for citizens to become politically literate on a service that the vast majority of voting Americans use. However, after thinking about it some more, it becomes unclear whether this feature will have much of an effect at all on political activism or civic engagement.

Pros:

1. People will become more knowledgable/politically active

This point is typically the first one that will pop into peoples’ heads when they hear about Town Hall and this truly is a good thing. There are so many people already on Facebook and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions for the platform is to use it to increase civic engagement. The best place to start is to make sure people know who represents them and how to contact them. While this information has always been a simple Google search away, the fact that it is being brought to Facebook, even closer to a user’s fingertips, may prove powerful.

2. Easier to contact representatives

This goes hand in hand with point number one. Town Hall is set up so that Facebook uses your address to provide you with a list of your representatives. If you lived at BC, this is what part of the list would look like:

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To the right of each representative, there are buttons that make it as simple as possible to follow their activity on Facebook as well as to figure out how best to contact them:

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While this would still require people to actually call their office or sit down and write a letter or email, having this information right on Facebook is a step towards greater civic engagement. In addition, if a user interacts with a post by an elected official, they will be prompted to contact their representative. Afterwards, they will be prompted to share this action with their friends to encourage them to do the same, spreading political awareness.

3. Election reminders

In addition to providing the list and contact info of representatives, Town Hall also pushes election reminders for appropriate local elections to a user’s News Feed. Facebook has been pushing election notifications for national elections since 2008 and claims that in 2010, they drove 340,000 more voters to the polls that otherwise would not have gone. Sharing that you voted on Facebook has become the new virtual “I Voted” sticker and by reminding citizens of local elections as well, civic engagement may increase across all levels of the government.

Cons:

1. Little visibility

While all of the above aspects are great, what good are they if people don’t use them? Personally, if I was not taking this class, I probably would not have even known this feature was released. The feature can be accessed through a button under the Explore tab on the left of the News Feed once you hit the See More button. Personally, I’ve only clicked that See More button a couple times in my entire life. And look at how hidden it is:

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Unless you knew to look for it, you would have no idea it was there. And the feature of sharing your contact with your representative that I mentioned before? Friends will only see that if they have been interacting with elected officials’ posts through comments or likes. So most likely, those that are not politically active will not even know this feature exists or see your activity.

Presumably (and hopefully) this feature will get a little more publicity. Since it only came out on Monday, I’ll give Facebook the benefit of the doubt and assume more publicity for it will come soon.

2. Easier to contact representatives

You may notice that this is the same title as one of the Pros. Well this is the typical double-edged sword of the Internet. While I can’t necessarily argue that political discourse in this country is very civil anywhere, Facebook is basically the Wild West with hot political takes and equally aggressive responses from both sides of the aisle. With the contact information even closer to Facebook users, some more irresponsible users may take those fiery comments, call their rep’s office, and weave a tapestry of hatred for whoever picks up the phone. While it makes it easier for citizens to contact representatives with legitimate and heartfelt concerns, it also opens the door for less responsible contact as well.

3. Information overload

As Professor Kane touched on in class, making it easier for Facebook users to contact representatives may result in information overload. If this feature truly has such a large impact and drastically increases civic engagement among the population, the representatives may find it difficult to sift through all of the responses and information to get a feel for their constituency.

My Verdict:

First things first, before this feature will have any impact at all, people will need to know it exists. This may come in the form of word-of-mouth marketing, more targeted publicity on the part of Facebook, or maybe no one will know about it until they start getting more reminders around election season. Either way, none of the pros or cons will result without people actually being aware of the feature.

Assuming people do become aware, I believe this feature will increase political awareness but perhaps not as much as Zuckerberg hopes. As I mentioned before, all of this information has always existed on the Internet and could be accessed relatively easily. Aside from election reminders (which, I admit, will be beneficial), those that didn’t take the time to call or write their representatives before won’t take the time now just because they can find the information on Facebook. While it’s a great spot to find a complete list of your representatives, I don’t believe that it will have a major impact on political activism as a whole.

As with most things political, I’m sure that a lot of you will come to a different conclusion. So let me know in the comments just how wrong I am. Here is my prepared response:

Trump

4 comments

  1. Nice post, Nolan! It will be interesting to see whether the results are a huge uptick in contacts to local representatives, AND whether that uptick will be too much for them to handle in terms of responsiveness. I’m inclined to believe that the real reason people don’t know who their representatives are, or seek to contact them regularly, is that they don’t have a clear sense of how those reps actually get anything done. In other words, I might ask, “Should I put in a phone call to my representative? Is this actually going to matter, or will it just be a waste of time?”

  2. Nice post. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are intentionally keeping it low key to start in order for them to start figuring out the platform. I bet as 2018 looms closer that the feature will start to become more prominent.

  3. Great post! I definitely think it’s important to stay up to date with the happenings of government at all levels, even local government. There’s so much information out there about your reps, their votes, and pending legislation but most people just wait for the news to tell them about the headlines. I think I feel closer to the community the more I stay in the loop and social media has made this so much easier. I actually follow all my reps on Twitter and have started using an app called Countable that lets me see how they vote.

  4. Really interesting look into the release of Facebook Town Hall. I see a huge opportunity to track the data surrounding the impact that this will have on various political agendas over the next few years. However, I also worry that it will create a lot of noise in an already noisy space. The fact that Facebook found in their data that 340,000 more voters went to the national polls due to the election reminders seems difficult to track considering that the pre-election polling system is flawed. Ultimately, the low-key launch of Town Hall may be important as the platform works out the kinks with regards to false, polarizing articles surfacing as news on people’s feeds.

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