Facebook now lets users petition local government for changes in neighbourhood

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New Delhi | Updated: January 25, 2019 5:38:20 PM

Facebook is rolling out a feature that will let the citizens ask the municipalities for a change in the locality

Facebook is rolling the Community Actions feature in the US (Source: Reuters)

Based on the idea of ‘call to action’, Facebook is launching a new feature that will enable users to gather and demand change in their locality. Called Community Actions, Facebook’s new News Feed petition feature, has sparked concerns over encouraging mob mentality and giving way to polarising groups.

What is Facebook’s Community Actions and What It Does

Community Actions is rolling out in the US this week after weeks of testing in a few markets. Facebook users will be able to add a title, description, along with an image to their Community Action, and also tag government agencies and officials who will get a notification. Furthermore, a user can extend it into a campaign as the main aim is to make the particular Community Action viral and bring people on board to hit the “Support” button. Facebook’s Community Actions will have own discussion feed where users can comment, create fundraisers, and organise Facebook Events or Call Your Rep campaigns. Facebook will also show the numbers of supporters behind that particular Community Action. However, the users will only see the names of their friends or Pages or public figures.

Inevitable Challenges

Although the new feature could possibly help a community in uniting and requesting ‘change ’ from authorities, chances of it snowballing it into a bullying or political propaganda for a mob to gather is all too real.

The fact that Facebook which was once focussed on ‘bringing people together and making friends’ has turned into a totally unrecognisable entity with serious privacy concerns, cases of suicides and rapes on Facebook Live, unstoppable fake news, bullying comments and political propaganda influencing millions of its users.

Source: TechCrunch

What makes the Community Actions more ironic is the fact it represents the main challenge the social media giant is facing today. Almost every feature of Facebook which it supposedly designs for users to voice their expression freely and connecting people is suspectable to polarization and fake news, as we have seen in the recent 2016 US Presidential Campaign and the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked the company. Not only on Facebook, but the messaging platform WhatsApp’s Forward also wrecked havock in India with a 33 killed in 69 mob attacks in child-kidnapping rumours since January 2017. Prior to that only one such attack was reported in 2012, says a report by IndiaSpend.

The potential misuses that can arise from the new petition feature is all too real. However, it cannot be said with certainty that it says more about us as humans or is it just Facebook.

It remains to be seen how Facebook tackles the same challenges it has been facing in other forms in its new Petition feature it calls Community Actions. It is surely up to the social media giant to devise ways to safeguard its new features and come with a policy and monitor.

What policy Facebook has for the new feature

It seems that the company has given the new feature at least some thought. It is also noteworthy that Facebook is attempting Community Actions to be concentrated more on encouraging government action than just any random cause.

While it will not be immediately replacing platforms such as Change.org, a single click on Support button will bring the user straight from the News Feed to the cause, thereby considerably reducing the hassle of signing up, attracting organizations and individuals to add more numbers to their group.

The new rollout is similar to Facebooks’s other civic features such as its Town Hall and Candidate Info to assess politicians, Community Help for finding assistance after a disaster, and local news digest Today In. A Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch –

“Building informed and civically engaged communities is at the core of Facebook’s mission. Every day, people come together on Facebook to advocate for causes they care about, including by contacting their elected officials, launching a fundraiser, or starting a group. Through these and other tools, we have seen people marshal support for and get results on issues that matter to them. Community Action is another way for people to advocate for changes in their communities and partner with elected officials and government agencies on solutions.”

Although Facebook has taken steps to crack down on various challenges by allowing users to flag objectionable content, having a proactive algorithmic detection, and human moderators to manage the feature but what could be free expression for some could be hate speech or harassment for others.

TechCrunch reported that Facebook is trying to focus on local Actions where members have a real stake allowing user display “constituent” badges so that their elected officials know they are real people with real causes. This is the reason why the social media giant is not letting, say President Donald Trump, be tagged in Community Actions. However, users are free to tag all their state representatives.

Facebook’s spokesperson told TechCrunch that their initial tests did not seem to show any concerns and the company is “trying to balance safety with efficiency” and it will take into consideration on “how to evolve the feature for emergent behaviours”.

Facebook will have to take the responsibility to safeguard the new feature against and define a policy. If the new feature is what Facebook claims it to be then it could be revolutionary for the citizenry to come together against unfair practices and force change but if it fails, it would go the same way Facebook is dealing with today or even worse.

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