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Facebook Adds Petition Feature to Global Community-Building Effort

By John P. Mello Jr.
Jan 22, 2019 5:00 AM PT
facebook has introduced a government petition feature as part of its global community building efforts

Facebook on Monday began rolling out a new feature that's bound to charm the political activists among its users.

Called "Community Actions," it lets Facebook members create an action page where they can describe what they'd like done, and set up a button that like-minded members can click to show their support, TechCrunch reported Sunday.

The page will show the government agencies and officials notified about the action, as well as the number of its supporters.

When you support an action, you'll be able to see any of your friends who also support it, but no other names except the tagged public officials and agencies.

Action pages also have discussion feeds, where people can leave comments, create fundraisers and organize Facebook Events or Call Your Rep campaigns.

The feature will be rolled out gradually so that all Facebook members won't have immediate access to it. It will be limited initially to the United States.

No Tagging Trump

Facebook is trying to keep Community Actions focused on getting government to act so it won't be as freewheeling as some petition sites on the Web, wrote TechCrunch's Josh Constine.

Change.org, for example, has petitions that range from urging Maroon 5 against performing at the Super Bowl to docking congressional pay during government shutdowns, to removing Holocaust denial pages from Facebook, to providing air conditioning for UPS drivers.

Facebook also aims to tamp down controversy by blocking Community Actions activists from tagging President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence as targets for their petitions.

Some sample Community Actions cited by Constine, who got a sneak peek at the feature, included a Colorado group calling for the governor to put a moratorium on oil and gas drilling, citizens asking for a performing arts center, and a Philadelphia neighborhood association requesting that the city put in crosswalks near the library.

Going Viral

Narrow or not, petitions arising in Community Actions probably have a better chance of capturing lots of eyeballs than competing petition sites.

"Facebook activity has a lot better chance of going viral than a number of these do-gooder sites and would have a higher profile," said John Carroll, a media analyst for WBUR in Boston.

"A Facebook user has 2 billion people as a potential audience," he told TechNewsWorld. "Change.org is a very active site, but it doesn't get a critical mass behind its petitions all that often and relies on the mainstream media to give it an extra boost."

The media will play a role in the success of Community Actions petitions, maintained Karen North, director of the Annenberg Online Communities program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"The question is whether the media will deem Facebook petitions as newsworthy. If they do, then they become more relevant because they get broader attention," she told TechNewsWorld.

"It's like Donald Trump's tweets," North added. "Most people don't see them on Twitter. They read them in the news."

Staying Relevant

Facebook's motives behind Community Actions may be more than the social network trying to be a good citizen.

"Facebook is always in search for the next feature that will make them or keep them relevant," North said.

"Right now, one of the things that's energizing to people around the country and around the world is political dispute," she continued.

"We have a very polarized situation right now, and people are engaged in passionate political discussions. So it's not a surprise that Facebook would take that social activity and turn it into a Facebook feature," said North.

For Facebook, everything is about public relations and marketing, maintained Carroll.

"This Community Actions feature ticks both those boxes They're trying to look like good citizens and do good in the community, but this is a marketing gold mine for Facebook," he said. "They're going to know something that you're dedicated to. That's powerful information for their business, which is selling their users."

Sandberg's Political DNA

In addition to Community Actions, Facebook has launched a number of civic-minded projects in the past, such as Town Hall and Candidate Info.

Town Hall gives Facebook members a convenient way to locate, follow and contact their local, state and federal government officials.

Candidate Info offers thousands of vertical videos. Candidates look their constituents straight in the camera's eye and talk about themselves, their top policy priorities, and their biggest goal if they win office.

"When you look at some of the things that have been rolled out in the last couple of years, they speak to Sheryl Sandberg's political DNA," North said.

Facebook COO Sandberg worked in the administration of President Bill Clinton as chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. She was rumored to be a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton.

"Facebook seems to be drawn to political activities and features. I don't know if it comes from user data or from Sheryl Sandberg, and maybe Mark Zuckerberg," said North.

However, "Facebook needs to remember what draws people to Facebook is to share experiences and photos with friends and family, so it needs to be careful not to turn it into a hostile community," she cautioned.

An Infrastructure for Community

Community Actions appears to be part of a pledge made by Facebook two years ago to develop the social infrastructure for community.

"For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families," wrote CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a 6,000-word manifesto posted on the social network.

"With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community -- for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all," he added.

"Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation. Facebook is a work in progress, and we are dedicated to learning and improving," Zuckerberg maintained.

"We may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today," he added. "In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us."


John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.


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