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Politics is ruining Facebook

smartphone with the facebook logo on it

Retinafunk / flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Can’t we all just get along?

In the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka no one cares what I think about what Hillary Clinton wore during the last Democratic debate or the latest insult Donald Trump hurled at his critics. This is where I spent the first couple weeks of the New Year, and where a 10-hour time difference plus limited access to the Internet resulted in an unintentional detox from social media. Sometime between interviewing locals, writing, eating good food, laying on the beach and swimming in the ocean with the man I love, I made my New Year’s resolutions to meditate at least 30 minutes a day, make it to the gym more often, and most of all: Stop arguing with people online.

It hasn’t been easy. The United States presidential election is still 260 days away and counting, and yet all we see on Facebook these days is politics. By the time I returned to the U.S., the circus was in full swing. Gone were the pictures of my co-worker’s dog, the viral videos, the status updates from my best friend about what she’s having for lunch. Instead, it’s another article shouting about Bernie Sanders’s electability, or slamming Jeb Bush for posting a picture of a gun with the tag, “America.”

I want to see what the people I care about are up to, not just the most polarizing aspects of their personalities. 

What happened to the pictures of yourself, where you live, and who you love? Where are the updates about your family, your health and other general things about your life? I want to see what the people I care about are up to, not just the most polarizing aspects of their personalities.

It’s not just me who finds the tenor of today’s election politics alarming. Back in September, Politico called it when they declared that “social media is ruining politics.” More encompassing and controlling, and more totalizing than earlier media ever was, social media is affecting the overall tone and content of speech. Political speech, in particular, is becoming increasingly passionate yet hollow, and the very design of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter favors sound bites over substance. The inflammatory arguments we now see dominating online discussions are a result.

On social media, as on a cable news panel, it’s the loudest mouth that gets the most attention. Like Trump—who Politico describes as a “natural born troll”—I have somehow acquired friends whose aim, it seems, is not to inform but provoke. Many times, I’ve felt baited into anger, offended and misunderstood.

Communications expert and consultant Judith Glasier describes this desire to be right as an “out of body experience,” a neurochemical  reaction in the brain that shuts down advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion, and signals our more primal instincts to flee or fight, freeze or appease. The fight response, she says, is most common—and most dangerous. Even my reasonably minded friends have fallen into the fray, sharing incendiary content from dubious sources. Instead of substantive conversations between thoughtful adults, discourse is reduced to “Feel the Bern!” and “Give ‘em Hill!”

It’s not that I think people shouldn’t be political on Facebook. But of all the various social media platforms, Facebook is generally considered a more social platform—less of a soapbox than Twitter, and more a way for family and friends to keep in touch. 

It’s not that I think people shouldn’t be political on Facebook. But of all the various social media platforms, Facebook is generally considered a more social platform—less of a soapbox than Twitter, and more a way for family and friends to keep in touch. Studies have found that social sharing of both positive and negative events can be associated with emotional well-being and that, for women in particular, social media provides a low-demand and easily accessible coping mechanism. According to the Pew Research Center, social media users of both genders report higher levels of perceived social support.

Divisive political discourse, I fear, undermines these benefits. There’s been research that finds that politics on social media is usually highly partisan, and only results in further polarization. According to one study these dynamics likely “reinforce in-group and out-group affiliations, as literally, users form separate political groups.” Whereas other studies dispute this, I’d argue that this is exactly what is happening when we reduce our newsfeeds from portraits of our lives to political rants. We hear all the time about people unfriending family members or people they went to high school with due to opposing political views. It’s unfortunate. One, people’s political views can change. And two: there’s more to life—and to each of us—than who we intend to vote for.

Whereas there are benefits to social media, constant engagement has its downsides, too. Vacationing abroad, and being offline, I found myself removed from the culture I usually swim in, including the online identities we construct vis a vis the statuses we compose and articles we share. Sure, those first couple days sans Facebook, I definitely felt like I was missing out. But after a week or so, I felt mostly relief. Freed from the need to compete, and less driven to collect “likes,” offline, I felt happier, more connected, and more present in my daily life. As this one blogger for Elite Daily put it, “My world felt smaller and more intimate for the first time in a long time.”

Facebook isn’t the real culprit: The problem is when our brains get hooked on being right. And nothing activates our desire to win more than election politics. 

But Facebook isn’t the real culprit: The problem is when our brains get hooked on being right. And nothing activates our desire to win more than election politics.

Even as social media speeds up and simplifies communications, it’s within our abilities—and is perhaps our social responsibility—to slow down. Instead of slamming your sister-in-law over which candidate she supports, you might ask her what she likes about one over another. No, her answer probably won’t change your mind politically. But you might learn something about someone you love. Similarly, if you choose to post about the election, you could try and make what you share more personal. Rather than sharing without comment an article on one candidate’s plan to combat poverty, for example, you could contextualize it with a story about your own experiences making ends meet. That way, even if you and your friends don’t agree on the candidate, you might still understand one another’s point of view—and stay friendly. After all, isn’t that the point?  

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has written for Salon, The Daily Beast, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @melissapetro

Photo via Retinafunk/Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman