What if voters could express approval for legislation making its way through Congress just as simply as clicking “like” on a video of cute baby seals shared on Facebook? House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has quietly developed a Facebook app for constituents to do just that, allowing them to track legislation and “cosponsor” bills with one click.
“New media is to me another place for people to express opinions, share ideas and come together. And it’s just been an unbelievable connector for people around the world,” the Virginia Republican said in an interview with Buzzfeed, adding that he “look[s] at it as an outlet, and really an interactive forum so that we have a chance to engage.”
In the interview, Cantor hailed the rise of new media but also noted it “provides a challenge. When we are formulating a policy and all of sudden someone forms an opinion and there goes a tweet, it can very easily set without much percolating as an idea … that’s just the way it is. I think you get more benefit with the back and forth that goes on with Twitter, Facebook and all the rest and I think you tend to make a better product.”
Cantor acknowledged that Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites allow consumers “to get the news from the source they like, the content they like [and] it tends to harden people’s perspective and philosophy … because people don’t come from that shared news experience anymore.”
The Citizen Cosponsor app aims to deliver some of that shared experience. It’s built on top of Facebook’s Open Graph — which services like Spotify, Pinterest and Farmville use to connect people. Users who install the app can sign up for alerts on specific measures before Congress to track their progress, and can comment on and “cosponsor” bills, which posts an item about the bill on the user’s Facebook Timeline.
Cantor also said that social media has also had “upped the standard for conduct. I mean, you better be on your toes and you better realize no back room deals, no secrecy, it is transparency … it’s realness.”
“People like genuineness, and the tools of new media really force that now, and you can’t get away with pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes. And in that way it’s pretty refreshing,” he said.
According to Cantor’s digital director Matt Lira, the app is explicitly designed to be bipartisan in nature, and will not feature news alerts to users news feeds that include press releases, partisan floor statements or other ideologically tainted material. Cantor is “limiting it to straight information” on a bill’s floor status, committee hearings and votes.
“By having a more inclusive and transparent legislative process, the hope is that we can avoid ever having those errors in bills,” said Lira.
Lira also quipped, “It’s a tough balance of making it entertaining enough people to want to engage with it by dry enough to be useful.”
Those participating in the beta test said they are pleased with the app so far.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Seamus Kraft, who works for Rep. Darrell Issa and who’s Data Act was one of the bills used in the latest beta test of the system.
Kraft said that it’s “going beyond the typical call, letter fax way to communicate … [and] harnessing technology to do that in real time. You and I are used to jumping on Google or contributing to a Wikipedia article and seeing it show up immediately. We’re not a snail mail based society anymore, and Congress has a lot of work to do to catch up.”