Is Facebook the new political town hall?

Presidential candidate Ben Carson has run 240 ads on Facebook targeting different audiences

Facebook is rapidly swallowing up the news business. Will political debate be next?

Candidates for the U.S. presidential nomination are turning to Facebook to reach potential voters, and the social network is happy to oblige.

“We’re excited about the election, because we think we give politicians and people a really compelling way to interact,” COO Sheryl Sandberg said on Facebook's quarterly earnings call Wednesday.

“If you wanted to feel like you were interacting with someone running for office before, you had to go to a town hall meeting, and increasingly that’s happening on Facebook,” she said.

Republican candidate Ben Carson has run 240 ads on Facebook targeting different audiences, Sandberg said. “So we’re starting to see candidates use our platform to communicate and to share.”

It's easy to see the appeal for politicians. Facebook had 217 million users in North America at the end of September (it doesn't provide a figure for the U.S., but it's sure to be the lion's share). Facebook gives them broad reach and lets them craft messages for specific segments of the population.

"We think we offer something compelling, which is the reach of Facebook with very unique targeting, so on Facebook you can target ads by district, by interest,” Sandberg said.

>And people do use Facebook to discuss politics. Between the start of the year and Oct. 7, she said, 68 million people in the U.S. had more than a billion "interactions" about the presidential campaign. She didn't elaborate, but presumably it means they posted something about the campaign or liked a post on the topic by someone else.

And a study in July from the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of American Millennials (those aged 18-33) get political news from Facebook in a given week.

It's another way the social network plays a role in shaping public debate, but it might trigger similar concerns to those raised about Facebook disseminating news.Essentially, the argument goes, Facebook's algorithms are designed to benefit Facebook and keep people engaged on the site, rather than to ensure people are well informed.

Still, for Ben Carson at least, campaigning on Facebook might be paying off. A poll from Quinnipiac University on Wednesday showed him virtually tied with Donald Trump as a front runner for the Republican nomination.

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James Niccolai

IDG News Service
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