Since the election in November, U.S. lawmakers have received a deluge of phone calls from Americans weighing in on the GOP's congressional agenda. Now, those floodwaters may rise even higher as Facebook rolls out new tools making it easier for users to contact their representatives. The tools, which were being beta-tested but went live to all Facebook users Monday, could lead to a lot more calls from constituents who are pleading to be heard.
One of Facebook's new tools, Town Hall, allows you to find out who your local, state and federal representatives are. You can get to it by visiting facebook.com/townhall, by looking under the "Explore" section of your News Feed on a desktop, or by looking in the menu of your Facebook app on your phone.
“Building a civically-engaged community means building new tools to help people engage in a thoughtful and informed way,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post Monday. “The starting point is knowing who represents you and how you can make your voice heard on the decisions that affect your life.”
After submitting your address — which Facebook says it will use only for civic engagement tools, not for advertising purposes — Town Hall pulls information about your elected officials. The data comes from their public Facebook pages or a third-party database called Cicero, which tracks who your representatives may be, from members of Congress to your mayor and city council member. In some cases, it can even show you who your state attorney general is.
From there, Facebook will let you contact your elected representatives directly with a single click, by calling the first number listed on the official's Facebook page (if you're on the social network's mobile app) or by sending an email or a Facebook message.
The ability to contact to your political representatives will also be integrated into the News Feed, according to Facebook. When you like or comment on a post that's been published by an elected official you follow, you'll have the option to contact that representative directly. Then, you'll be prompted to tell other people who also follow that official that you've done so.
Could these tools have an effect on our politics? Research suggests they might. Field studies on voter participation have shown increases in turnout when people promise to tell their friends and family about their intention to vote. Sharing that type of information on Facebook can also shape other Facebook users' real-world voting behavior, according to research conducted during the 2010 election and published in the journal Nature. Facebook also said Monday that among the tools it's releasing this week are reminders to vote in local races on Election Day; previous reminders supported federal elections but not, for example, races for mayor or city council.
Along those lines, it's possible that using Facebook to call your representatives in Congress may influence other people in your network to do the same. (Here's a tip: People who've worked for Congress consistently say that phone calls, particularly to a member's home-state office, are more effective than tweets or emails.)
That said, the well-documented bifurcation of Facebook into two distinct ideological camps potentially makes the rollout of these tools just another new battleground for political organizers to fight over.