Social media, most notably Facebook, are becoming a staple of daily life. This election cycle, I saw many disturbing new trends in how my red-state and blue-state friends treated one another.
Old Arguments, New Battlegrounds
While Facebook itself is far from new, it seems to me this year’s debate was far more widespread and acrimonious than four years ago. Bad behavior online isn’t new. Some of the causes are well-known. People feel somewhat protected and anonymous when posting online, even to a more-or-less public forum like Facebook. What’s new is that we’ve all had time to build up hundreds, maybe thousands, of “Facebook friends” who may not mean much to us in the present moment. At the same time, most users have a small cadre of vocal “close friends” online who post and respond regularly. With this setup, it’s easy to believe you’re posting to just the close friends when in fact your reach is far greater.
I received a great number of posts from people with whom I’m not especially close expressing their passionate opinions on the election, including some venomous rebukes of the opposing party. To me, it felt like an over-share. I knew so little else about these people, yet here they were on their soapboxes, speaking to “me” as if we were close friends who could be trusted with strong political opinions.
After some time, it wasn’t the tone that bothered me so much as the sheer volume of political posts. When it got to the point that I had to scroll down through one or more screens to find non-political updates, I felt driven to mute, if not un-friend, the most verbose updaters.
Quickly I learned I wasn’t alone as I begin getting public declarations of unfriending due to political unfriendliness. My friends were making a public declaration that they wouldn’t tolerate this level of incivility. If social cohesion has anything to do with friending on Facebook, then clearly discourse was breaking down before our eyes.
Some people became so disenchanted with the political discourse that they created technical solutions. Technology blog Lifehacker describes how to use the Social Fixer software to block Facebook posts regarding the election. Another developer went one step further with his “unpolitic.me” browser extension, which replaces political rants with pictures of cute cats.
While I can understand the motivation for such filters, they come with some dark implications. Years ago, people started expressing concern that if we each had a custom-crafted news feed, we would end up hearing only the news we want to hear or agree with. Social blockers implement this idea wholesale. When we’d rather be blind that be offended, I have a hard time seeing how that makes us a more educated and informed electorate.
Who Is Political?
George Takei of Star Trek fame has gathered quite a following on Facebook, mostly due to his recent coming out and frequent light-hearted and wryly humorous posts. Then in October, he began posting about the election, and in response to the negative feedback, he posted the following “Some have written complaining that I share more than mere laughs on this page. Indeed, I do have opinions. So do most of you. I invite all to share theirs, as I share mine from time to time. Do so with respect and tolerance, and all are welcome.”
You don’t have to be as famous as George Takei to develop a following on Facebook. Inevitably, and without discussion, the people reading your posts will come to expect you to speak on certain topics, and not on others. When the trend is broken, some people will feel disappointed, if not betrayed. This year, many of us learned that people we had come to see as apolitical had deep-seated beliefs that only came to the surface on the pages of Facebook.
Speak No Evil
Another tactic I saw was for people to avoid taking sides on politics. They followed the pre-Facebook advice of “avoid speaking of sex, politics, or religion.” What’s new is the response to these refusals to engage: people got upset! Many have remarked how social media channels have pushed formerly-private topics into public. Sometimes the first indication someone has broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend is a change in their online relationship status. And it seems, at least as far as politics are concerned, that debate is not only allowed, but required. Going forward, there may be blowback if you fail to declare your colors online.
The Need for Net Civility
Even though the Internet and social media have been around for several years, Internet etiquette (or “netiquitte”) still has a long way to go. The biggest obstacle seems to be built into the medium itself: posting to Facebook takes away the immediacy and a sense that what you say is being read by others and affects their thoughts and feelings. Because friend lists have grown long, it becomes harder and harder to know exactly who you are addressing, and “friends” are becoming closer and closer to the general public. Finally, as much as there needs to be acceptance for those who wish to post their views civilly, there also needs to be tolerance for those who wish to opt out of sometimes contentious political debate.
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