By Sofia Grafanaki
Facebook rolled out a new feature last week, allowing users to officially endorse a presidential candidate. It is very simple to use – all a user needs to do is go on the candidate’s Facebook page and click on the “endorsement” tab to add his/her own endorsement. One can also add a message with it, presumably explaining their position. The feature has already sparked several interesting discussions, ranging from whether journalists should use this tool, given the conflicting values of neutrality and transparency in the context of political journalism, to the potential harassment that can result from expressing political opinions.
Facebook seems to have a bigger agenda than just the upcoming presidential election by planning to make the feature more widely available, to state and local election candidates for instance. Detailed instructions on Facebook’s Help Center page explain that to receive endorsements, all a user needs to do is change the category of his/her page to “Politician, Political Candidate, or Government Official.”
The feature is not just directed to users who are open about their political opinions and positions, as the feature allows you to select the audience who can view your endorsement post. Detailed instructions on Facebook’s Help Center page warn users to:
Keep in mind that if you choose Public as the audience of your endorsement, it may also appear on the candidate’s Page if the candidate chooses to feature your endorsement.
Interestingly, while this may seem somewhat respectful to voter privacy, it also helps a reluctant user feel more comfortable to share their political preferences, making it almost as if the user were completing a missing piece of their profile, one that no one needs to see. The result however is that Facebook obtains more accurate data on their users, allowing for more accurate targeted advertising.
The fact that the Company has been tracking political preferences is not news; it has been doing that since the launch of its ad personalization tool, in order to bring users ads that cater to their interests. Theoretically users’ can see and somewhat control their political labels among others, but as they are “tucked away” in the ad preferences section on Facebook, this is not always intuitive.
Most importantly, while previously these labels were based on inferences Facebook algorithms were “taught” to make based on information collected from the users’ profiles and activity, with the new endorsement feature, these inferences are now confirmed or even corrected by the users themselves.
Ultimately this is just a glance at a much larger discussion on the acceptable boundaries of voter-micro targeting. Is it just the natural evolution of political campaigning or are we starting to cross lines that affect our democratic process?