(TNS) -- WASHINGTON — Facebook users now have the option to pin “constituent badges” to their profiles, letting friends — and members of Congress — know which district they live in. And users can now search for articles, links, and posts that other residents in their districts engage with most frequently.
“When we think about civic engagement, we think about building communities of people,” said Erin Egan, Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy. “And this is about making sure that people engage with government.”
The new features can also help identify the issues that voters care about most. That could be a valuable tool for lawmakers — and their opponents — during election season.
“I’ve always been fascinated by how the internet helps citizens have a voice like never before,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s head of civic engagement, told reporters and congressional staffers at the unveiling Wednesday. “But at the same time, it makes it more complicated for decision-makers to actually make sense of it all.”
Facebook’s new technology can help, he said.
The constituent badge unlocks a number of possibilities for lawmakers looking to engage voters more directly.
They can now choose to make their posts available exclusively to voters in their district, which Facebook calls “district targeting.” In the past, policymakers could only post publicly from their pages.
California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham’s communications team has already added the district targeting tool to its marketing and messaging arsenal.
“It is helpful that we’re able to more effectively reach our constituents as opposed to having conversations with those outside of our district,” said Jessica McFaul, Denham’s communications director.
The badge tool also enables lawmakers to host virtual town halls with an exclusive audience of their own constituents via the Facebook Live streaming medium and to tailor their messages to a narrower band of local media sources and citizens.
One unintended consequence of these more private Facebook Live sessions is that reporters who don’t live in a lawmaker’s district may not be able to view it. Facebook users can only provide one address, and that determines their constituent badge.
“I don’t know that there’s going to be a way for the press to override that district’s specific targeting,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said.
A number of tech-savvy lawmakers have led the charge in leveraging new social media features and platforms to promote their image and policies.
In March, two Texas House members, Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Republican Will Hurd, struck out on a multiday “bipartisan road trip” from the Lone Star State back to Washington, using Facebook Live and the livestreaming app Periscope to update viewers and answer questions on policy.
Democrat Rick Nolan and Republican Jason Lewis copied that approach in April when the two Minnesota congressmen traveled back to their home state.
Louisiana Republican Rep. Garret Graves, who spoke at the Facebook unveiling on Wednesday, has gone full bore with his use of Facebook Live, hosting town halls every Friday around lunchtime and periodically on evenings throughout the week.
The second-term congressman said the traditional town hall setting — including telephone call-in sessions, which cost thousands of dollars — tended to attract only an “older crowd.” And the high-water mark for his in-person town halls was roughly 200 attendees.
“You’re missing a huge sector of the people that you’re supposed to be representing,” Graves said.
But Graves said his free Facebook Live sessions — which are converted to videos — often reach 9,000 viewers within 24 hours. He has reached as many as 235,000 users in 48 hours.
“I always kid with people when we’re doing Facebook Lives. I’ll say, ‘Hey, I can see you in your underwear at home,’” Graves said. “But the reality is people are really sitting at home. They don’t have to leave their house, they don’t have to leave their office. … The reach for people, the convenience for people, the access was extraordinary.”
Facebook’s reputation in the political realm has taken a beating over the last couple of years.
News media and nonprofit watchdogs criticized the tech giant after the 2016 U.S. elections for not doing enough to combat the proliferation of fake news on its platform, which hosts more than 2 billion users.
Roughly a third of the top 200 stories about presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump shared on Facebook were from fake news sources in the two months leading up to the election, according to NewsWhip, a social media database. Many pedaled false, negative information about Clinton, believed by some to have been a factor in swinging the election for Trump.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly brushed aside the notion that his website was partially responsible for Trump’s victory.
“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — of which it’s a small amount of content — influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said at a conference two days after election night.
Behind the scenes, Facebook expanded its efforts to identify and flag fake news stories circulating on its site before the recent French presidential election.
Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of the fierce nationalist Marine Le Pen was seen as a victory for Facebook. Many of the stories flagged as fake presented harmful information about Macron.
The Facebook civics team wants to build on that momentum by facilitating closer connections between Americans and their representatives in Washington with the new tools launched Wednesday.
“We’re trying to help people have a stronger voice in government and work better and more collaboratively with their representatives,” Chakrabarti said, “so that together they can build the kinds of communities that they want to see.”
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