After the election, Facebook took a lot of heat for the role it played in spreading misinformation that kept people isolated in “news bubbles.” It was the proliferation of those bubbles, also known as echo chambers, that led to so many being shocked about President Donald Trump’s win.
No longer able to hide behind the “We’re just a platform!” defense, the social media megalith soon after added a fact-checking feature that flags potentially suspicious “news” articles as “disputed.“ While it may have felt like too little too late, it was a step in the right direction—an acknowledgment from Mark Zuckerberg himself that Facebook has grown beyond its original intent to simply connect people. It is now a major news source for most of America and not only determines what news people consume, but also what they believe to be true.
Facebook is now taking its dominant ubiquity a step further with two new political features: A “Town Hall” tool that provides information about your representatives and a voting reminder that lets you know about upcoming elections in your area.
Both of these tools are important and actually useful; since the election, we’ve seen how the impact of speaking to, and in some cases pressuring, representatives directly. And this country’s biggest problem may be the low voter turnout. While low turnout may be less immediately harmful than Trump’s plan to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, the latter might not now be happening if the former wasn’t the norm. So, tools that connect Americans with their representatives and remind them to vote are much-needed. Facebook, of course, is perfectly positioned to provide them.
But before we heap praise on Facebook, let’s take a second to acknowledge that the social media network is slithering its digital tendrils tighter around every aspect of our lives, and that maybe that’s a bad thing. First it was our social lives, then it was the way we consumed media and now it’s inching its way into the foundation of our democracy. It’s just voting reminders for now, but is it so hard to imagine a not-so-distant future where you cast your e-ballot through Facebook instead of going to the polls in person? The idea of instituting online voting to increase accessibility is much discussed and already in-use in some states, but Facebook voting is probably not what the designers had in mind.
Sometimes it feels like Facebook is the beta Matrix, slowly taking over until we live our entire lives through its interface. This is especially problematic because, as we’ve learned, we aren’t Facebook’s primary customers; advertisers are. Every post we share, every location we tag and every page we like is tracked and stored to further personalize our online experience. And now the phone calls we make to protest legislation will also be tabulated by Facebook’s massive database and sold in batches to advertisers so they can show ads we’re more likely to click. Facebook may make our lives easier, but it’s doing so for profit.
That makes the idea of the platform becoming involved in the voting process more than a little scary. We’ve seen what profit does to health insurance, the prison system and higher education. There’s no reason to think it would have a less harmful impact on voting. This wariness of Facebook’s ever-expanding reach may not be enough to outweigh the benefits of making it easier for people to get involved politically—especially since Facebook already holds sway over politics so they might as well use it for good—but it’s important to be aware of what’s happening. Mark Zuckerberg could very well choose the next president (unless, or maybe especially if, he runs for the office himself).