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Facebook launches petition feature, its next battlefield (techcrunch.com)
62 points by jamesg_oca 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

> Community Actions could unite neighbors to request change from their local and national elected officials and government agencies. But it could also provide vocal interest groups a bully pulpit from which to pressure politicians and bureaucrats with their fringe agendas.

Or, hot take here, Facebook really doesn't care too much what the petitions are about, but is mostly interested in gathering more data on its users' political beliefs so they can allow domestic and foreign campaign spending groups to better target advertisements meant to change or reinforce those beliefs (or suppress civic participation of those with such beliefs) and increase FB's total share of campaign-related ad spend.

Bingo. I'm going to have a really hard time taking any new development coming out of Facebook as genuine, honest or non-privacy invasive. I simply do not foresee my opinion of Facebook, Zuckerberg or anyone still working there changing radically in the near future.

So bots and fake accounts now have a direct line to influencing local politics.

Regular hat:

The immediate solution to this (assuming the feature stays) seems to be a stricter sign-up / verification process that ties your account closer to your real-world identity before you can use political features like this, to make bots and fake accounts more difficult to create and/or influence politics through these direct lines.

Tinfoil hat:

Fortunately (or unfortunately), that's also a step closer towards (but not at, yet) the verification necessary to start, I don't know, actually voting through Facebook. I wonder if giving bots a direct line to local politics would actually result in people/lawmakers _begging_ more verifiability to Facebook accounts, instead of Facebook trying to implement such a process/feature without the inevitable backlash they'd no doubt get if they said "you can now link your social security number to Facebook!". Being verified as a real human on Facebook ultimately helps Facebook get closer to a potential goal of giving petitions (or votes) on Facebook more weight.

I've given up on the idea that political engagement on social media can make society better. It seems to be a one-way ratchet toward political extremism, because it encourages people to immerse themselves in communities that respond with adulation whenever someone sinks deeper into their ideological wing and respond with cold silence whenever someone hesitates or questions the wing's narrative.

In case this isn't already obvious, I don't think it's a coincidence that we are in the midst of a global crisis of populist uprisings, most of which leave their countries worse off than they were before.

This is not only going to have the direct effect of intensifying the above, it's going to be mined for data used to crank up political ad targeting to partisans on Facebook. It should be fought, violently. It is poison enacting the slow death of democracy.

A good form of effective action would be to create and popularize to the top of the list a petition like 'Dismantle Facebook' or 'Fire Mark Zuckerberg'.

> It seems to be a one-way ratchet toward political extremism, because it encourages people to immerse themselves in communities that respond with adulation whenever someone sinks deeper into their ideological wing

It's more nefarious than that. Social media lets you curate not only your message, but who sees and gets to react to your message. Anger is–by far–the most viral emotion. (Second place, if I remember correctly, is awe.) Previously, deploying anger in politics was constrained by the opposition objecting. But if they see your message long after your base has reacted, that's no longer a problem.

In a world with Facebook, if you want to get people to show up to a rally, you piss them off. How? Take exaggerated pot shots at a totem of your enemy.

The irony is all sides are hiring–and friendly with–similar people at similar lobbying and activist engagement shops. But on the ground level, hyper-targeted AE is (a) an effective way to re-position policy priorities (particularly at the state and local levels) and (b) more cost and time effective than traditional door-to-door knocking.

Your comment explains well the anger against Facebook.

Online petitions are among the very least you can do.

The effort is minimal as is the understanding required of the topic or the petition itself.

If anyone starts accepting these petitions as valid expressions of the electorate you can look forward to more Boaty McBoatface-type results.

Plus, myself and a growing number of others are not on Facebook and therefore will not be represented.

It's not the right platform or medium for real political dialogue.

To be fair, all (minimally relevant) social media has been designed with goals to optimise that have nothing to do with the betterment of society - the variables to max out are retention of users, engagement/addiction, etc. A network with positive effects might be feasible, we've literally never tried.

> A network with positive effects might be feasible, we've literally never tried.

I'd argue that Hacker News and Stack Exchange are two clear examples of relevant social networks with overwhelmingly positive effects (neither is without flaws of course). Github might very reasonably make the list as well.

I think the line is functional networks vs general networks. Not all functional networks are net positive, LinkedIn for example went negative in my opinion after initially being a positive. However I think functional networks tend to rapidly fail (competition) or erode if they go negative (eg Experts Exchange), rather than persist (with LinkedIn being one of the few exceptions).

HN does very little to ensure max engagement or retention. To the extent HN self promotes Y Combinator, it's quite modest compared to the number of stories passing through the front page. The type of content that might drive a huge spike in engagement via comments (overt senationalism, anger-baiting articles, political flaming), is frequently kept off the site because it's fundamentally anti what HN is about. And of course you can use HN mostly anonymously.

It's funny, I would not really have counted HN or Reddit as social networks (much less SE or github) even though they clearly have a social aspect.

What makes a social network a social network?

I think in my mind a social network is a site where the information you can see is a feed either created or curated by a group of people you know. twitter and other asymmetrical networks fit in because you know famous people even if they don't know you. that would leave sites like reddit or HN in the outer edge of the definition, since you're seeing content curated by like minded strangers (spotify or pornhub would also qualify there), and sites like stackexchange out since the feed is either non existent or of low importance.

> What makes a social network a social network?

I'd boil it down to something that offers 2 way communication instead of read-only (I'm not including clicking on a link [GET request] to get to a different page as part of 2 way communication, although technically it is). If it has a commenting system, voting system, or any other way for a user to be able to change/alter the information that is displayed on the site/platform to other users, I'd call that a social network.

News sites used to be more like news papers. You could only read the article. Then they just about all added Disqus/commenting systems, which turned them into more social networks.

A typical weather type app is not a social network. It only shows the weather.

> I've given up on the idea that political engagement on social media can make society better.

There is a name for it, it's called virtue signaling


> A good form of effective action would be to create and popularize to the top of the list a petition like 'Dismantle Facebook' or 'Fire Mark Zuckerberg'.

Thanks to the FB algorithm, this kind of 'troll' petition wouldn't appear on anyone's feed. And ultimately, the type of person motivated to use this for its actual use cases (building supporters for causes, or just looking for people to scam), their opinon of Zuckerberg wouldn't change one iota.

This does seem like something of a hostage to fortune, I can't imagine how they intend to moderate it. Obviously people are going to poll their echo-chamber in support of toxic ideas.

Even more alarming for Facebook, what if their polls come to be seen as having legitimate democratic force - what Government is going to be comfortable with that?

I suspect a dogmatic belief in the goodness of Facebook triumphed over reasoned reflection on the likely uses of this feature.

People are going to poll their connections in support of all kinds of ideas.

Some of those ideas will be perceived as toxic by some while some others will be perceived as toxic by others.

I think that it's a strange idea to argue against collaboration with the argument that everyone can do it. As if there were something immoral in providing unmoderated collaboration.

I'm sharing your second criticism though. The feature is probably designed to gain legitimacy by being the petition platform people actually use. Would be very unwise for a bueraucracy to allow anything like that provided by a private company.

You are correct, 'toxic' is a value judgement, I should have said extremist.

One problem is that it will be impossible to know if a Facebook poll is representative; most likely it will not be, and will instead be taken mostly by people who already have similar views to the author of the poll.

However, the polls may help convince users their views are actually mainstream (even if the "mainstream media" is ignoring them). Such users may feel free to take an even more extreme position if they believe their current views are actually about average. This is one mechanism Cass Sunstein has identified for driving extremism is groups.

Voting isn't intrinsically democratic or empowering for voters - North Korea has elections. Presenting informed people with meaningful choices is what matters.

At this point fb doesnt care about losing small authoritarian regimes. Heck it doesn’t and will never be allowed to have China. I think it’s attempting to fight for legitimacy in the US.. ie trying to raise its brand. Without holding the American cultural ground and inherent approval of Americans, a company based mostly on brand (I’m sure a small shop of extra talented engineers can hack a fb clone together using distributed cloud machines on awe and google), will suffer from user attrition both in the USA and worldwide, as anything not inherently “endeared by Americans themselves” will be seen by the world as the black sheep of America.

Just what we need from a platform known for manipulation of users: For them to enter the field of politics.

Also, I imagine there will be some vague yet enforced criteria for valid or invalid petitions. Facebook mediating what people may or may not be petitioning doesn't sound like progress to me.

> Just what we need from a platform known for manipulation of users: For them to enter the field of politics.

From Facebook's perspective, the solution to every problem is more Facebook.

Including too much Facebook.

I'm pretty sure they entered the field of politics long ago. It just wasn't publicly announced.

In the UK at least we already have official petitions - the UK one is https://petition.parliament.uk/

This is the ONLY one that impels the UK government to debate, and ultimately vote on each petition (providing the petition has garnered enough signatures).

However a LOT people in the UK use the change.org system, which has absolutely NO legal standing, and they get upset when the government ignores them. I can see this Facebook system being exactly the same. If Facebook REALLY cared about fair democracy, they'd just highlight and link to each countries existing online petition systems (if one exists) instead of building their own system. Of course they can't data mine the official petition systems can they...

Isn't it true that not a single petition on the UK gov website has resulted in a change in the law? Isn't it also true that most petitions are quickly dismissed with the claim that the topic has already been debated?

The petition system actually just made me think how futile and dysfunctional this [bourgeois, if I may use the word] democracy is.

Alas, yes and yes. :(

What happens when, say, Iran wants and - legally - requests the identities of everyone that supports the "Democracy in Iran" group?

I don't think facebook is very used in Iran, at least it was blocked in 2015.

The interesting question is what happens when Turkey asks for the members of a "justice for unfairly sacked teachers" petition, or Saudi Arabia asking for the supporters of the local "End discrimination of Shia" petition.

Yes, Facebook is blocked in Iran, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not being used. Just about everyone I met in Iran was on several supposedly blocked social media platforms, mostly through dodgy VPNs. Apple isn’t allowed to sell phones in Iran either, but I’ve never seen so many second-hand iPhones.

You understand the point of the parent's example and are only arguing semantics.

I'd wager that Iranians have a good idea of what might happen in such scenarios, since the 2009 protests against Ahmedinejad's re-election were partially fueled by Twitter, which authorities clamped down on afterwards. This was a couple of years before smartphones were ubiquitous. Chances are both protestors and the authorities would act much faster now.

I'm more concerned about political operatives right here at home who are likely rubbing their hands with glee, as FB gives them the tools to make it easier than ever to drum up online lynch mobs to further poison political discourse.

I'm not even going to mention how much easier this makes it for scammers to find their marks. The guy who collected $20m on Gofundme for 'the wall' comes to mind.

>The guy who collected $20m on Gofundme for 'the wall' comes to mind.

Can you explain how this guy is a scammer? It looks like everyone who donated before the Gofundme plan switched from "donate it to the government" to "pay to build it ourselves" is having their money automatically refunded to them unless they explicitly opt in to the new approach, and donations still keep rolling in from people opting in to this new we'll-just-build-it-ourselves approach. Where's the scam?

They'd probably be the ones running the group, or a like-group. One simple tactic is to just pose as your enemy online, which is quite easy to do when it is a digitally created persona/group and not in-person.

The Russians proved how easy that is. Putin has been doing this internally for a very long time before messing with the 2016 election. Create a pro-gay group, create an anti-gay group. Foster hate between them. Others join the respective "causes" that they align with. You now know a lot of the pro/con supporters because you're running the group(s).

Here's an 11 minute clip from Adam Curtis' HyperNormalization, which illustrates this tactic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwglZTNhMNE

It's alive and well in the USA too, and things make more sense after watching it. I'd find the whole video and watch it. It's quite fascinating.

> Facebook is purposefully trying to focus Community Actions to be more narrowly concentrated on spurring government action than just any random cause.

So you can’t use this feature to ask FB to fix problems with its own platform? My first thought about this feature was: well, most organizations can ignore these petitions, but at least we can use them to get FB to quit doing bad/annoying stuff. Apparently not!

What if we started a FB petition for the government to regulate FB?

> What if we started a FB petition for the government to regulate FB?

You'd motivate this months-dormant user to engage with the platform for a few minutes.

Well, at least this will hasten their death. Hopefully people are leaving FB because of their toxic "political discussions" (more like insult-flinging), and with this crap, they'll stay away even more from it, because every time they log in, they'll see Wendy is telling them to support her cause of vegan lipsticks, or similar.

Yup. One more nail in the coffin.

They are trying to be everything to everyone. And in the process alienating the people who make social media interesting...

The influencers and sponsored content was the beginning of the end. This is the next step, along with manipulation of media and democracy.

Facebook is the epitome of dystopian dysfunction.

I hope facebook die soon. It have too strong network effect. It need to die before alternative arise.


Might as well tell them to be born in the correct place. Hn in multinational, and english is not always a primary language.

>Hopefully people are leaving FB because of their toxic "political discussions" (more like insult-flinging)...

If that were the case, reddit should be suffering the same mass exodus plight but - it seems to me - that people (predominantly in the states) revel in that sort of behaviour.

Due to the way reddit is subdivided, it mostly keeps that toxicity quarantined to the groups that revel in it. For people who want to avoid it, it isn't particularly difficult to.

Well, people thought they could join FB to connect with their friends and family, but later on it turned to an insult-slinging platform, so hopefully the saner ones have left. As for reddit, I guess people are in the news and politics subreddits to actually fling shit at each other.

You can use reddit and completely avoid politics.

One could argue that the anonymity of Reddit in addition to the mods encourages a civil discussion

People aren't exactly nicer to each other when they're anonymous...

Sure, but it is a strange argument: morality is very sensitive to context, but in anonymous discussions lack most context and have to guess it.

So anonymous discussions are largely free of the restrictions imposed by the notions of common decency, so any civil discourse in unregulated media is a minor miracle.

The online disinhibition effect would argue the exact opposite.

Interesting approach from facebook, though its has its issues.

Its nice that they make it easier to get involved in local issues, for example adding bins to a park. However, if you do not like this, you cannot voice your concerns in the comment section of that petition, that is restricted to supporters of the petition. So you have to create your own "Please dont put bins into the XY park"

Yeah, that's a problem with petitions in general; they're really only useful for demonstrating _some_ minimum level of support or public interest in a particular issue.

They can't be used to gauge public opinion on anything remotely controversial, both because they're heavily influenced by selection bias and because it's much harder to express opposition to a petition than it is to express support.

And how are we supposed to trust the results and privacy?

Also I'm not on fecebook and don't want to create a user account, please don't force me to create one.

The point of this feature seems to be that Facebook knows the signatories are real people, which makes the petition more valid. Allowing votes from outside the FB user graph would defeat that.

The problem is that FB is a business, not a public service providing proof of identity. It is wrong to force people to get into a commercial agreement with a private company to carry out civic duties. Same issue as authorities publishing only word documents that can only be read with MS Word.

A petition feature provided by a centralized proprietary system that has an history of censorship and selling political data doesn't seem like a good deal.

But again, most facebook users don't even think about that kund of issues, so it might work.

Also on the hn front page today:

Decidim: Free Open-Source participatory democracy for cities and organizations


It feels like no matter what Facebook does, its brand will impede the efforts of any new product they build. TBH, if I were Snapchat, I'd see this as a huge opportunity, since I'd doubt Instagram would get into the political space.

Another option for Facebook would be to have something similar to Google X, where projects can eventually spin out to separate companies and own their brand.

Snap has its own brand to think about, it wouldn't bother trying to enter this arena. People don't talk politics on Snap, mainly because they skew younger and because it's photo-based, not text-based.

Cardi B did a video on Instagram about the government shutdown that got a lot of attention. I wouldn't count it out for Snapchat. Besides, no one thought Facebook was going to become a tool for politics when it first came out.

Similarly to indignant FB posts, reshares, and likes, petitions do jack squat in the real world. So this seems right up FB's alley.

They serve the very important purpose of giving citizens a feeling of agency. Without this, motivated citizens of democratic republics would have to resort to concrete action, eventually resulting in revolutions.

The general sentiment of the thread is pretty negative. I’d offer the contrary and say that this (provided that it’s moderated with some integrity) feature is one of the great potentially empowering uses of the platform. Bringing people together and connecting them to other likeminded individuals who would otherwise be strangers, I love that.

>provided that it’s moderated with some integrity

Given what I've seen on and from Facebook, I would be absolutely shocked if that happened

>Bringing people together and connecting them to other likeminded individuals who would otherwise be strangers

Yet another avenue for bigots and the uninformed to receive support in their social media echo chamber

What about those of us that refuse to use Facebook because of all the privacy problems? Are we suddenly voiceless in our community because we refuse to sell our identity to Facebook?

"Connecting them to other likeminded individuals"... you mean an even larger echo chamber where people can easily ignore beliefs and ideas that they don't agree with.

The negative sentiment can be described by "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on you".

How many time Facebook has been found to use its platform for activities that are illegal and nefarious in all but name?

This post sounds like it was taken right out of the Facebook "connecting people" PR playbook.

I want a block all petitions feature.

Facebook is already full of pointless petitions (at least it was the last time I was on there), it makes sense they'd want to bring this functionality in-house.

Why not full-on elections?

Because then we’d actually have to use Facebook.

That's interesting. I see that Facebook develops more feature to support different initiatives (FB groups, charity pages) and even petition pages.

I’m predicting they will acquire change.org

They probably tried, failed, and are building their own petition platform now.

Er... did anyone see the movie Circle? I'm pretty hard to creep out, but this seems to be walking down that path...

Disrupting Democracy 2.0

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