Columns

Johnson ’19: The potential and pitfalls of Facebook politics

By
staff columnist
Tuesday, October 11, 2016

As I scroll through Facebook, I notice a staggeringly disproportionate number of political posts compared to apolitical ones. I realize that the large group of politically minded people on my newsfeed and an inflammatory presidential election are factors here. But it does reflect a growing national trend. Pew Research Center reports that 44 percent of the U.S. population receives news from Facebook. By contrast, only 20 percent primarily get news from print newspapers.

Of course, sharing political viewpoints is essential to our democracy, and it is vital that all people feel safe enough to speak about their living standards and the policies that shape their lives. But when I scroll through my newsfeed, I do not see productive and civil discourse. I see a hostile and polarizing climate that does not have an impact on personal orientation or realistic change. This seems like a common truth throughout the country: A 2016 Cornell study on the best tactics to win an online argument found 70 percent of the survey population to be unpersuadable.

Facebook’s success as a social media platform is truly impressive. It has evolved from a setting to post life updates and vacation photos to a news source and political arena. Instead of perusing online or paper newspapers, users can simply click on a link that a Facebook friend found compelling enough to publicly like or share. Users can view highlights from a debate through article titles and can grasp an overarching sentiment from a meme. While this might save time and energy, it is a very narrow and unreliable means of understanding global news and the current political climate. And if you have curated your friends to include only those who subscribe to your political party or beliefs, there is no escaping biased sources and the constant validation of existing opinions. It is quite common to come across posts beginning with “delete me if you don’t agree” followed by a political statement, especially during this election season. There is staunch opposition to disagreement on a platform that ostensibly serves to encourage dialogue.

Posting about politics is not the problem. The problem lies in the language that is used, the extremity of the sentiments conveyed and the conversations that follow in comment threads. The emotions people express on Facebook in response to current political affairs are valid and important. But users can share and respond to those emotions in a respectful way that recognizes the impact of the space being used. User-generated Facebook content is too often not respectful or thoroughly thought out, consisting instead of dehumanizing memes, polemical posts and vitriolic comments.

On the topic of comments, commenting on a friend of a friend’s post on Facebook requires very little accountability or social responsibility if you are far enough removed from the original poster. Exposure to different viewpoints outside your usual circle is important, but it also opens the door for online harassment. An online poll by the Rad Campaign, Craigconnects and Lincoln Strategies shows that 63 percent of self-reporting adults have experienced online harassment on Facebook in 2016.  That number grew by one percent over two years despite the increasing effort by online facilitators such as Facebook to combat abuse.

Facebook’s platform has all the potential for exposure and interaction with new thought, but the culture that users have created is a reality of Internet use in general: uncivil discourse. Threads can reach hundreds of comments with zero productive output; it is easy to be obstinate and unwilling to compromise over the Internet. And if the majority of your Facebook friends share your personal beliefs, there can be social pressure to adhere strictly to those beliefs in a public forum. There needs to be a revolution in how users interact with the platform.

Facebook is such a powerful tool and can still be an ideal place to mobilize political action. It is currently the most popular social media site with 1.71 billion users,  and the ability to form subpopulations in groups and to publicize events is undoubtedly useful. The platform itself is not the issue — it is the people using it in a counterproductive fashion, commenting with uninhibited disrespect and abuse. Sometimes an emotional response is necessary, but there must be a recognition that those responses are likely someone else’s news.

Language is powerful, especially in our hyper-polarized political climate. If there is no other platform that will reach as many people, it is necessary for Facebook users to responsibly use their public posting power. That kind of cultural shift starts with each person taking responsibility for their own actions on social media.

Grace Johnson ’19 can be reached at grace_johnson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds toopinions@browndailyherald.com.