This Congress member wants to replace Facebook with text messages

May 23, 2018
In The News

This Congress member wants to replace Facebook with text messages
Written by: Alfred Ng
Published by: CNet

For one US lawmaker, the key to dropping Facebook might come from technology invented in 1992.

Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Arkansas, believes he’s found something better than Facebook. The congressman, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, deleted his Facebook page on April 23, and he wants his constituents to contact him by text messages instead at (870) 292-6747.

Crawford calls it a “clean breakup” and says that in his new relationship the messages are much nicer. So far, he says, quitting cold turkey has been a success.

“What Facebook has done is altered social interactions to such a degree that we don’t have that personal connection anymore,” Crawford said in a phone interview. “There’s a lack of respect in the way that people address others in this public space on social media.”

At first blush the strategy seems, well, insane. It runs counter to what happened in the last three elections for president, when Barack Obama and Donald Trump effectively used Facebook to help win the White House. But given the problems the world’s biggest social network has fostered — from Russian trolls launching disinformation campaigns across Facebook to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that led to our data being used to manipulate voters — it also marks a definitive response from a public official.

Crawford said he doesn’t want to be on a platform that violates people’s privacy, and he doesn’t want his constituents to risk exposure to foreign trolls just to get in touch with him. On Crawford’s website, he’s replaced a link to his Facebook page with a phone icon that sends a text message if you click on it.

Next to that icon are links to Crawford’s pages on Twitter and on Instagram, a platform Facebook owns. Twitter was also a part of Russian trolls’ efforts to spread disinformation. Though those two platforms also had their issues, Crawford directs most of his ire at Facebook.

The politician serves Arkansas’ 1st District, representing more than 725,000 people, with a median age of 40, according to US Census data. Text messaging isn’t exactly a relic to his voters, so leaving Facebook really hasn’t hurt his outreach, Crawford said.

The goal is to be able to reach out to people in a productive way, and not just broadly post something on a social media platform and leave it.

In fact, he’s getting more messages than ever, according to Sara Robertson, Crawford’s digital-media specialist. He used to get about three Facebook messages a day. Now he’s answering six or seven text messages every day, and he and his staff are hoping the number grows.

Political experts don’t expect the move to hurt Crawford, even in a crucial election year as midterms approach.

“Given that Rep. Crawford has around 16,000 Twitter followers,” said Harvey Palmer, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, “I cannot imagine that deleting his Facebook page would have much if any effect on how connected he is with his constituents, especially since text messaging is a more direct and private link.”

Palmer predicted the switch might even help the congressman, given the heightened concerns over Facebook.

‘Initial panic’
It’s been about a month since Crawford ditched Facebook. There was an “initial panic” from his constituents, more than 7,000 of whom followed his page, Robertson said.

“People felt like they were genuinely losing the relationship we built with them on Facebook,” she said. But it’s been mostly positive since then, she added. The experiment has even interested other members of Congress, who’ve asked about how they could do it themselves.

Crawford knows the challenge ahead of him, trying to replace Facebook’s massive reach with a phone number.

“When we have roughly 700,000 constituents that we’re trying to reach out to, that’s a tall order,” the politician said. “But the goal is to be able to reach out to people in a productive way, and not just broadly post something on a social media platform and leave it.”

When he did have a Facebook page, it was hard for Crawford to tell if an angry post was one of his own constituents, or a frustrated person online who wanted to argue at his expense. People would leave comments on his posts that had nothing to do with Crawford’s policies, stirring up arguments that didn’t affect the people in his district, the politician said.

With text messages, he said, he’s had more one-on-one conversations. The first reply to every text message that comes to Crawford’s new number asks for the person’s name and where he or she lives — to ensure they’re in his district.

There are fewer distractions in text messages, but for Crawford, there are fewer people, too. On Facebook, the representative was able to reach millions. Still, he still prefers the quieter alternative.

“On a social media platform, you really have no control on who may be on your Facebook page, and post anything they want to post,” he said. “It may have nothing to do with issues or concerns to your district, and yet we saw that happen a lot.”

Phoning it in
With the SMS experiment, Crawford isn’t constantly staring at his phone, replying to text messages about net neutrality all day.

He set up the new phone number for constituents to text with the OpenGov Foundation, and he’s the first elected official in Washington to use the organization’s Article One-txt tool.  

Instead of going to a single phone, the messages sent to the number go to computers in Crawford’s office, allowing his staff of 13 to respond. Every staff member is responsible for it, Crawford said.

“We have to rely heavily on each other,” he said. “Anybody at any point in time can be called on to respond.”

Sometimes, when the text message requires a personal touch, Crawford said he responds himself.

The OpenGov Foundation built its prototype tool in about a week after Crawford reached out to them with his idea. The tool uses Twilio’s texting service, and the group is constantly tweaking it with Crawford’s feedback, said Seamus Kraft, OpenGov’s executive director.

“If you look at things like 311 [and] ticketing systems, using text messages in government communications is not rocket science,” Kraft said. “And it’s working really well at scale. Bringing that power to how we communicate with Congress is what this is all about.”

Crawford argues that responding to people through text messages gives him a more hands-on experience, with a personal touch that Facebook could never provide.

I wish I could tell you what Crawford meant by that, but his office didn’t respond to my text message until I sent an email asking why.

I texted the number twice, once on a Friday morning and again with a follow-up on a Monday morning. I didn’t receive a response until I checked in with Robertson to see if my messages simply got lost.

It turns out they weren’t able to respond because a staff assistant wasn’t in the office during that time. As Crawford said, they’re still working out the wrinkles.

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