In 2017, it’s impossible to deny that social media is now decidedly political. The US President’s main communication channel is Twitter, Facebook reminds us to vote, and election night is covered as much on Snapchat as it is on the news.
A recent announcement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is only serving to further that trend. In a 6,000 word manifesto that the founder recently wrote about the future of the behemoth social network, he devoted an entire section to the idea of civic engagement, writing: “Giving people a voice is a principle our community has been committed to since we began. As we look ahead to building the social infrastructure for a global community, we will work on building new tools that encourage thoughtful civic engagement. Empowering us to use our voices will only become more important.”
The most recent example of this kind of tool for civic engagement is Facebook’s new Town Hall feature, which informs users on the easiest ways to find out who their elected officials are and how to reach them. The feature is limited to US users for now, but the network says it hopes to expand the feature in the coming months.
There are several reasons why Facebook might be delving into the political realm—other than Zuckerberg’s personal aspirations, that is. As TechCrunch noted, the feature and focus on civic engagement could be an indirect response to the widespread criticism Facebook received during last year’s election season: “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.”
Despite Zuckerberg’s initial insistence that Facebook was a technology company—and thus not responsible for the media found there, fake or not—he eventually had to accept responsibility and begin rolling out measures to combat the spread of fake and one-sided news. It could be that these new civic engagement measures are an extension of that trend. It’s important, too, to remember that Facebook’s guiding credo is making the world more open and connected. Thus, helping users keep in touch with their elected reps fits more under that umbrella than policing content does.
However, as the world’s largest and most influential social network continues to spread in the direction of civic engagement, some questions are raised about both the ethics and mechanics of a major social media network forcing politicians to become slightly more reachable and open to their constituents. For example, TechCrunch reported that “Not all reps offer their contact information via Facebook, and Facebook doesn’t yet pull in the missing phone numbers or emails from off-site sources, like official government websites, for example,” though it plans to in the future.
It’s possible that there may be a backlash from politicians who are seeing an onslaught of social-media fueled calls and inquiries from their constituents (some of them potentially automated and not legitimate). In that case, Facebook would have to be prepared to take a stand—on the side of its users, presumably—if the features became problematic.
Overall, a move in this political direction underscores the fact that no company as large as Facebook can remain an entirely agnostic or neutral platform for long. While it’s encouraging that Zuckerberg wants his network to be used for good, he must also show a willingness to be incredibly hands-on when dealing with the consequences of that decision. It remains to be seen if he really has seen the error of his initial response to fake news—in other words: “not our problem”—and will be willing to take more responsibility as his platform becomes more political.