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A Modest Proposal: Start

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 25 2013

By Derzsi Elekes Andor via Wikimedia Commons

Back in late November 2011, I got an email from my friend Marko Rakar, the Croatian political blogger and transparency activist. "We have elections for the Parliament on Sunday. Do you have a contact at Facebook to someone who will put that warning sign on top of the page on Election Day?" he asked me.

"What warning sign?" I replied.

"On Election Day on the top of your Facebook wall they put a sign, 'there are elections today; have you voted yet?" he answered.

I reached out to contacts at Facebook and got this reply: "Unfortunately our tool we use for elections is currently broken and being fixed.  Apologies and thanks for the email."

Needless to say, the 1.6 million Facebook users in Croatia--about 40% of the voting age population--didn't get their election day reminder from Facebook.

I bring up this story of a dog that didn't bark in light of this weekend's report by Carla Marinucci, that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is joining with other tech entrepreneurs to create a new political group aimed at pushing immigration reform and other issues. It is rumored that Zuckerberg may have pledged as much as $20 million towards the effort, with others putting in seven-figure pledges as well.

As they say, it's a free country, and Zuckerberg is welcome to join the long list of billionaires and non-billionaires who are trying to influence policy by using their money to massage the political process. Let's hope they choose to do it transparently.

But the question I'd like to see Facebook itself address is, when is this giant social network going to start taking its own civic responsibilities more seriously, especially as it comes to how Facebook implicitly influences political processes all over the world?

Eighty percent of Facebook users are outside the United States, yet as of today there is no clear address at the company to take concern's like Rakar's. Despite having so many users overseas, the company's culture is decidedly America-centric, Judd Antin, a user experience researcher at the company, commented to me last week during a conference on civic engagement that was sponsored by the World Bank.

This isn't to say that Facebook is incapable of all kinds of positive civic initiatives. Responding to pressure from human rights activists during the height of the Arab Spring, the company moved to implement https for its users in Egypt and Tunisia, to afford them a greater (though far from perfect) level of online security. Complaints about people's accounts being arbitrarily suspended led the company to eventually create an appeals process. The "I Voted" button placed on user pages in the United States has had a significant impact on voter participation during elections here. And Sheryl Sandberg's push to include organ donor status as part of one's Facebook profile demonstrably increased participation in organ donation programs.

So here's a modest proposal: start I'm told that this very idea was raised not long ago during one of the company's weekly all-staff meetings, when anyone working there can ask questions of top executives. Word is that the notion was received favorably.

Like, could be the hub for all the things that the company does that affect the civic arena. It could be stocked with engineers who know their way around Facebook's platform who want to code for good, but also include some policy specialists who can interact with the outside world and be a more responsive bridge between the company and the rest of us. Questions like the company's role in elections could be addressed in a more pro-active and responsible way, rather than the adhocracy at work today.

Whatever Facebook's billionaire founder does with his money to influence politics, he's just going to encounter more questions about how the platform he invented and popularized is also influencing the process. Here's hoping that he and his colleagues embrace the challenge head on.