Last week, Facebook announced the launch of its Voting Information Center, with the goal of “[helping] every eligible voter in the U.S. who uses our platform vote this year,” says Naomi Gleit, Facebook’s vice president of product and social impact.
The Voting Information Center is part of Facebook’s effort to run the “largest voting information campaign in American history.”
By putting voting information directly at the top of users’ feeds, Facebook estimates 160 million people will view it. Additionally, the social media giant hopes to help four million people register to vote—double the amount the company helped register leading up to the elections in both 2016 and 2018. The Voting Information Center will also be available on Instagram, which Facebook owns.
Users can access the Voting Information Center from the menu on Facebook or Instagram. There, they can check if they’re registered to vote. If they aren’t, Facebook will provide a link to their state’s website (according to the user’s location data) or Facebook’s nonpartisan voter registration partner.
The Center also serves as an information hub for the election. Part of this new feature includes resources to inform voters about how to access vote-by-mail or absentee ballots, reminders about registration and voting deadlines, “Voting Alerts” which allow state and local election officials to update constituents in the case of a change in voting procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, finally, election results.
The launch of the Voting Information Center comes following years of widespread criticism against the site. According to critics, Facebook’s advertising policies and news feed algorithm had helped influence the outcome of the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.
While Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies this criticism, it is clear that the unprecedented use of targeted political ads and propaganda spread through Facebook ads by pro-Kremlin Russian troll farms aided the Trump campaign, leading to his electoral victory against then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who still ended up winning the popular vote at the time.
At the basic level, Facebook’s News Feed curates content based on an individual user’s “engagement” with content—likes, comments and shares. Over time, a user’s News Feed becomes an “filter bubble,” showing the user content they are most likely to engage with. In Zuckerberg’s own words, “Our goal is to build the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world. We’re trying to personalize it and show you the stuff that’s going to be most interesting to you.”
Simultaneously, Facebook’s reluctance to crackdown on posts containing false or misleading information allowed “fake news” to flourish on the platform, ultimately further polarizing the American electorate. In the past, Zuckerberg has denied the characterization of Facebook as a “media company” because doing so allows Facebook to avoid complying with advertising regulations.
This is particularly alarming given Facebook’s power and influence on a large portion of the American public, particularly in swing states. Past studies have shown Facebook is capable of influencing voter mobilization.
For example, a 2010 study of 61 million users found an individual was 0.39 percent more likely to vote if Facebook told them their friends have voted. While this may not seem like a lot, that meant an estimated 340,000 more people voted in the 2010 election.
Given Facebook’s knowledge about our location, background, educational history and political views, the company has the potential to engage in “digital gerrymandering.” By selectively reminding users to vote, Facebook could potentially influence election outcomes.
Despite Zuckerberg’s grueling testimony on Capitol Hill in 2018, which definitely put further damage on the image of the once-popular social media network, Facebook has continued to deny claims that it would purposefully interfere in an election. As a company representative put it, “We as a company are neutral—we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.”
Facebook’s new Voting Information Center also comes with tools that allow the user to disable whether or not they see political ads while using the website, which could possibly help prevent the spread of “fake news” and political toxicity on the website.
Ultimately, the new Voting Information System is a positive step for democracy because it will help Americans exercise their voting rights.
At the same time, however, we must always remain cognizant of the impact Facebook has on our lives—and hold the company accountable when it interferes with democracy.