Monday, September 24, 2012

Facebook and the election

I guess I am fortunate in that my friends on Facebook, regardless of their political persuasion and in spite of the heated nature of the upcoming presidential election, generally refrain from posting political stuff. If they do, it's likely to be them "liking" an update or photo from a candidate's or organization's page, and politically-themed status updates, especially angry or vitriolic ones, are very rare. I've come across very few political arguments, I've so far successfully avoided in participating in any of them, and I haven't had to unfriend anybody due to incessant or overly offensive political material (I do have a couple of people on "ignore," but then again so does everybody). Hopefully that will remain the case even though the election is still six weeks away.

That, of course, is not the case for everyone:
In a Pew Research Center survey, 18 percent of adults said they had blocked, unfriended or hidden updates from a friend because of a political post. Thirty-seven percent of people who post political content said they'd gotten some strong negative reactions. And that was in January and February, well before the election season heated up.
Political fighting over social media reached fever pitch during the parties' national conventions in August and early September, and the rancor is likely to pick up again Oct. 3 with the first presidential debate. The presidential election is just six weeks away, but for some, it can't come soon enough.
Linda Cowles likes to post informative articles about the issues, and she likes to read the articles her friends post. But she's had just about enough of people calling each other "zombies" and "terrorist-loving commies.
Cowles, 62, a recently retired nonprofit executive director, calls herself an independent. And she has been horrified by the "vicious" tone of friends' partisan posts. She questioned a friend's remarks about Obama voters the other day, and a few seconds later she was bombarded with nasty retorts from people she didn't even know.
"Some of the responses were just downright belittling: 'How can you be so stupid to think any other way?' " said Cowles, who lives in Pearland. 
Given the extreme level of political polarization among the American public, it's inevitable that social media will become a battleground, as people with opposing views clash. It's one thing if this clash results in productive discussion about the issues, e.g. "I think candidate X has a better tax policy than candidate Y because he is proposing tax credits that encourage small businesses to hire more people while eliminating loopholes that only benefit large multinational corporations." Unfortunately, more often than not these discussions turn into hatred, venom-spewing and name-calling, e.g. "You are a clueless, ignorant, un-American lemming for supporting this candidate and I hope you and your children die in a car crash before election day." This is especially true in the online world, where people tend to say things to other people via computer that they would never say face-to-face. That's even the case for non-anonymous forums such as Facebook.
All this opinion-sharing should be a good thing, says Homero Gil de Zúñiga, director of the Community, Journalism and Communication Research collective at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies the way new technologies - including Facebook - affect civic engagement and the political process.

"We have evidence that social media, when used in a particular way, actually enhance political participation and civic engagement," he said.

The Pew survey in early 2012 revealed that 36 percent of users believed social media are "very important" or "somewhat important" to them for keeping up with political news. And it's good for democracy, Gil de Zúñiga said, when our online friends are of all persuasions.

"We're finding that because your network is larger online, you are going to be exposed to heterogeneous networks," he said, "people who are different from you, have different thinking and different views."

And that's great, he said. Except when all that difference of opinion dissolves into name-calling and tacky jokes.

"When things get out of hand is when people polarize," Gil de Zúñiga said. "They get reinforced in their ideas, and that doesn't help democracy. The liberals become more liberal and the conservatives become more conservative; they don't listen to each other."
This is more or less how I feel. People usually don't enter into political arguments with an interest in learning about the other side's point of view or coming to a consensus; rather, they think "I'm right and the other person is wrong and I am going to explain to them why this is so." Once they discover that the person they're arguing with is just as intractable in their opinion as they are, name-calling ("you're an idiot!" "no, you are!") ensues, and the end result is that a person's dislike of the other side is reinforced. This is why I avoid getting into political arguments on Facebook: it's pointless.

But, as I've said, it also helps to have a group of Facebook friends that have generally avoided political discussion. Maybe that has something to do with the way I select my friends on Facebook. Maybe I've just been lucky so far and that's going to change over the next week or so as the presidential debates get underway.

In any case, this election cannot end soon enough.

No comments: