Got something to tell the president? Try the White House's new Facebook bot
The White House's new Messenger bot will let citizens send notes to President Obama, possibly winding up among the 10 citizen letters he reads each night.
Have something you want to say to President Obama? Now, thanks to the White House's new Messenger bot, you can send it to him in a Facebook message.
Since taking office, President Barack Obama has reportedly read 10 letters from citizens each night, responding to some with hand-written notes. With the help of a new Messenger chatbot, announced on Wednesday, a number of selected Facebook messages will also be added to the mix.
Presidents going back as far as Thomas Jefferson have made an effort to communicate with the public, mostly through written letters. Today, the evolution of technology and social media has made it easier than ever for everyday citizens to keep in touch with the White House, whether by following the First Lady on Snapchat, mentioning Obama in tweets, or, now, sending a Facebook message. But with the ease and accessibility of social media also come challenges.
"Our goal is to meet people where they are," Jason Goldman, the chief digital officer of the White House, writes in a press release, and "technology makes it possible for anyone with an internet connection to send a message to the President and his Administration." Messaging the president, he adds, will now be "as easy as messaging your closest friends."
Many Americans have taken advantage of the opportunities that already exist: A Pew survey from 2014 found that 16 percent of registered voters followed candidates for office, political parties, or elected officials on social media, a 10 percentage increase from four years prior.
But, as anyone who has spent time on the internet knows, while the accessibility of such tools can be incredibly useful, they're also easily abused.
In 2011, the White House launched "We the People," an initiative that allowed citizens to start petitions online with the promise that any petition with 5,000 signatures (upped to 25,000 a month later and 100,000 in January of 2015) would receive an "official response" from the White House.
While many of the petitions address legitimate concerns, the site also, predictably, has attracted its fair share of prank proposals, ranging from a wish to change the national anthem to R&B singer R. Kelly's 2003 hit "Ignition (Remix)" to the construction of a real-life Death Star.
"This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For," Paul Shawcross, the chief of the White House's Science and Space Branch, told disappointed Star Wars fans when the latter petition earned its "official response." The Obama administration is not a fan of "blowing up planets," he noted, and the project would cost upwards of 850 quadrillion dollars.
Another challenge for the new chat set-up may be security, and maintaining a balance between collecting user information while retaining their privacy.
Currently, the bot asks for users' zip code, full address, email, and phone number: information that some people may be reluctant to give, particularly as it's unclear who exactly – the White House? Facebook itself? The Democratic party? – has access to the information, notes Computerworld's John Brandon.
So, what are the chances of your message making its way to the desk of the president?
While it's impossible to say how many Facebookers will take advantage of the new Messenger feature, the White House receives about 65,000 print letters a week, along with 100,000 emails, 1,000 faxes, and 2,500 phone calls each day, The Christian Science Monitor's Dave Cook reported in 2009.
In order to be one of the lucky 10 chosen out of thousands, a letter must be compelling, relevant to current events, and representative of the mail coming in, according to White House officials.
"[N]ot only do these letters help me stay in touch with the people who sent me here, or the people who voted against me, but a lot of times they identify problems that might not have percolated up through the various agencies and bureaucracies," President Obama said in Wednesday's press release. "And more than once there have been occasions where these letters inspired action on real problems that are out there."