Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Problem with Facebook and Politics

In theory, it seems like Facebook could be a wonderful tool for equipping the voting public with relevant information and analysis and for generating political discussion at the grassroots level. And sometimes it is. But at other times, political speech on Facebook seems to be doing more harm than good. Here are some of the problems I see:

-        Human beings have always been prone to make judgmental (and often nasty) comments behind each other’s backs. And what better arena in which to judge people than politics? The thing about Facebook is that somehow people feel free to make exactly the kind of judgmental (and often nasty) comments that have always been made in private, but now in a semi-public setting. People on the left and right are now party to all the mean, uncharitable, deliberately ignorant remarks made about them by the other side. The kind of ad hominem attacks that would be considered extremely rude at politically mixed in-person gatherings is normal online.

-        The tone of righteous self-expression tends to preclude discussion. People often feel they have a moral obligation to share highly combative political statements. Such individuals feel that they are standing up for a worthy cause. But what are they really accomplishing? The tone of self-righteousness indicates to people who disagree that their views are being summarily dismissed. It is apparent that the poster has no interest in finding out why people might disagree with her or him and whether there might be any merit in arguments against his or her position.

-        Even when discussion happens, it tends to be of a strident, polemical nature. When we get into debates on Facebook, we are not addressing each other as individuals—we are addressing the crowd. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we feel pressured to write whatever will make us look good to our imagined sympathizers in the audience, rather than actually trying to communicate. We are less likely to admit we were wrong or ask for clarification. We feel we should write concise “zingers” for the crowd to applaud.

Perhaps others can add to this list. But anyway, what to do? Well, for myself, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

-        I try not to post or write anything that would be rude to say in-person to someone who disagrees with me. (If you’re not sure whether something is okay, you might picture someone you know personally who is on the “other side” and ask yourself whether you would say this to their face.)

-        I try to cultivate an attitude of humility. I make it a point to actively fight the natural human inclination toward self-righteousness. I remind myself that I don’t know everything, that I am sometimes wrong, and that I have a lot to learn from people who disagree with me.

-        When I engage in political debates on Facebook, I repeatedly tell myself that I am not writing to make myself look good; I am trying to understand what the other person is saying and to make myself understood. I try to write only what is conducive to clear communication.

-        If I find that a discussion has degenerated into a polemical tit-for-tat, I call a time-out. I do whatever I can to clear the slate and start over. This may include apologizing for my part in taking the conversation down an unfruitful path; stating that it was not my intention to pick a fight and what I really want is to understand what the other person is saying and to share my thoughts and feelings; and my latest strategy, which I’m just now developing is to TAKE IT OFF FACEBOOK(!)—perhaps by switching over to private messaging, but probably even better, by meeting in-person, writing a physical letter on actual paper(!!!), or even talking on the phone.

I know a number of people who are very political on Facebook because they have a strong desire to make a positive difference in the world. That is highly commendable. I think it would help a little bit for such people to move the tenor of online political discussions in a kinder direction. And I think the biggest difference we can make in the world is by loving our “enemies” one-on-one. That is, by taking the time and making the effort to communicate meaningfully with someone we think needs to change.  And if we’re doing it right, we’ll find out from them what we didn’t know we were missing ourselves.