This past presidential election catalyzed civic engagement like never before. U.S. lawmakers and their communications teams have reported receiving more than 1.5 million calls per day on their most busy weeks as constituents voice their concerns over Trump’s cabinet nominees and new legislation.
According to The New York Times, “a phone call from a constituent can, indeed, hold more weight than an email, and far outweighs a Facebook post or a tweet.” However, Facebook’s new tool, Town Hall, may help bypass the ‘dreaded’ phone call, while being more effective than a simple social media post.
Town Hall went live for American Facebook users this past Monday. The tool uses your zip code or address (which Facebook said will only be used for civic-engagement tools) to find local, state and federal representatives near you. From there, users can either go to the representative’s Facebook page for a phone number, or even email or message them with one click. On your newsfeed, if you like or comment on a representative’s post, Facebook will give you the option to contact them directly.
To find Town Hall on your Facebook page: look in the ‘Explore’ section of your news feed on your laptop or desktop, or look in the Menu on the Facebook mobile app.
“The more you engage with the political process, the more you can ensure it reflects your values,” said Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg in a post launching Town Hall on Monday. “This is an important part of feeling connected to your community and your democracy, and it’s something we’re increasingly focused on at Facebook.”
Town Hall was enacted following Zuckerberg’s goals and ambitions for the platform published Thursday, Feb. 16. One of his main goals was to create a more civically-engaged community through Facebook.
“Today, most of us do not even know who our local representatives are, but many policies impacting our lives are local, and this is where our participation has the greatest influence…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,” Zuckerberg said.
Town Hall is that tool. It marks another step towards Facebook’s increasingly important role in politics. The same day Town Hall was launched, Facebook announced it would be launching local election reminders to nudge users to vote more often.
“I think that it is making members of congress, and not even at the federal level, but just any elected official more accountable to the people that they represent or could represent,” said Jessica Gail, communications director for U.S. Representative André Carson (IN-07), in an interview with MediaFile. “No official is going to be able to skirt under the table anymore. Town Hall may help officials and citizens pay attention and communicate.”
Gail said that members of Congress talk about the importance of civic engagement and put all their contact information out there; however, no one really uses that information. She believes that Town Hall is a positive tool, but will not change the frequency or methods they use to respond to citizens by much.
According to one Pew Research study conducted in October of 2016, one in five politically engaged users comment, discuss or post about political issues on their social media accounts. For those less politically engaged, only six percent of these users use social media to engage with political content.
“The reason we encourage people to call the office is because if the phones are ringing off the hook, everyone in the office will be dedicated to picking them up,” said Gail. “But not everybody has access to all of the other channels of communication like emails and social media. Everybody won’t see Facebook engagement, but they will be answering the phones.”
The easier access to elected officials, the better, according to Gail. However, this tool alone isn’t going to change the way people get involved with their government.
“I don’t think this tool alone is going to be the key that changes everything. I think this is one of many things that will help people to be connected to their representative and make it easier for people to know what’s going on in Washington that affects them,” said Gail. “Hopefully that will drive them to see the importance of getting out to vote.”
Facebook has been a facilitator of ideas, values and communities since its launch back in February of 2004. By embedding Town Hall into the platform, Facebook is trying to further extend its role to encourage active citizenship and expression of civic virtue. Just as Zuckerberg wants users to feel “connected to your community and your democracy,” Town Hall provides the means for people to do just that by making it easier for them to join political conversations and communities.