Should I post political things on social media?

Short answer: Consider why you are doing it.

A lot of the stories I’ve been collecting about fractured relationships deal with issues from social media. Some examples:

A post on my local NextDoor site after the election asked whether the election was really stolen. For those who don’t know that site, it’s usually filled with questions like “Can you recommend a plumber?” or “What’s the best Italian restaurant locally?” It’s a pretty quiet site, neighbors helping neighbors, usually. But after the election question, the site erupted with lots of people saying lots of stuff. It got nasty fast and went on for weeks. It was a relief when it stopped, and the site went back to its original purpose.

There are many stories. Someone who’s a distant connection posted something on her Facebook timeline about COVID-19. One man expressed a different point of view. I tried asking questions about where he got his information (one of the media literacy recommendations I made back in this earlier post) and he responded back with some information and a LOL. So far, so good. But then, the conversation was overwhelmed with other people piling on with an argumentative tone, and any progress I had made was lost.

After one of my talks, a woman asked for my advice. She follows someone on Facebook that she doesn’t know personally but admires for the thoughtfulness of his views. He had recently posted saying that if people didn’t agree with everything he did, they should not follow him anymore. She was conflicted with what to do, because she didn’t totally agree but wanted to engage.

But mostly the stories I hear are of people posting political messages on Facebook and being unfriended by relatives or old friends or even fellow church members. I could give you details, but it’s the same story over and over again. Fathers, mothers, brothers, cousins, son and daughters. One person posted that she blocked the pastor who had baptized her children because of the “crazy” things he posted. I heard one story of a sister-in-law who messaged a person who had posted something on Facebook with a statement that said:  “WE ARE DONE.”

Social media is one of the two causes that political scientists point to as creating our widened political divisions. (The other is social sorting, when we don’t associate with people who aren’t like us any longer.) That makes the question of how to deal with social media so important if we’re going to mend our fractured relationships and heal our country.

Why has social media become such a destabilizing force in our society? A few reasons.

·       One is that algorithms amplify division. Because they make more money by increasing engagement and because high emotions increase engagement, their money-making tactics have intensified the preexisting division in our society. Yes, those divisions were always there, but they didn’t rise to the same level before.

·       And more than that, I think social media has unleashed rudeness. We don’t have to be careful any longer about what we say because we’ll never see the person again. If it’s someone who is in our lives, up until recently, we may have been thoughtful about what we said. There’s an element of the impersonal in social media. And that may have bled into our personal lives as well. Once we’ve opened Pandora’s box, it’s hard to put the back the evils that were released. We are out of practice.

·       The Guardian just published a piece recently about how social media is a low-context medium.  Because those who see it aren’t in each other lives, they don’t understand where the thoughts come from, and this leads to two potential reactions: hostility or avoidance.

·       Another reason is that we’re substituting social media interactions for real life interactions. We live our life online more than ever, especially during the pandemic, and social media makes it so we can engage only with people like us and not with those who aren’t. It’s become another way to socially sort, the same factor that is happening in real life. 

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We can’t change the Facebook or Google or Twitter algorithms, but we can change how we use social media. And remember, the only thing we can change is ourselves. Perhaps, if enough of us change, Google and Facebook will have to change their algorithms once they don’t make as much money from them. I recently learned that Aldous Huxley said, “There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self. So, you have to begin there, not outside, not on other people. That comes afterward, when you’ve worked on your own corner.”

The research shows that untrue and outrageous claims get more engagement. So, one thing we can do is to stop clicking on things that are outrageous. Just assume that they are clickbait and move on. Or if you’re curious, leave the site and Google it and check a fact-checking source. If enough of us do that, then they’ll stop making so much money and have to pay attention.

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But if we really want to answer the question of whether to post political things on social media, there are some questions you can ask yourself about social media. First, why are you on that site — Facebook, or NextDoor or Twitter or whatever. What do you want out of being on that site? And what do you give up by being on social media?

I’ll go first. Just like many of you, at first, I wanted to connect with people I had met in real life and remain in contact with them as we moved on with our lives. And I connected with people who I’d lost contact with. I connected with people who went to seminary with me. I’m also connected with the woman I sat behind all through grade school. Because of Facebook, I do know she had surgery, but I rarely see her posts because of Facebook’s algorithm. (I just checked: She’s mended from the surgery but just broke her wrist.) But I also rarely see her or anyone’s posts because most of my engagement now on Facebook is for the groups I’ve joined. That’s my primary purpose now for using Facebook. I’ve learned so much from the groups and from my engagement on Twitter. I’ve been pointed to the latest research on topics I’m interested in and learned about people’s reactions around the country. And I have made some new “friends.” (I’ll come back to talk about those quote marks in a minute.)

Since we all only have 24 hours a day, when we add something new into our lives, we have to give up something else. Personally, I’ve given up reading as much as I used to. I used to read several books a week, but my time on social media has cut into that. I also don’t talk to my real-life friends as much in person.  And that’s a problem. We humans don’t get the same positive physical effect from online interactions that we do from in-person interactions. The power of what’s called “presence” is strong. Research shows that substituting social media for real-life interactions can result in a decrease in mental health. In fact, some doctors prescribe in-person groups for their depressed patients, precisely because they have such a positive effect on psychological health. And the pandemic, of course, has made this worse, because we’re all stuck in our homes and are living our lives online more than ever before.  

And another why question for my readers. Why do you want to post that story about Biden or Trump? What’s your motive? 

Again, I’ll go first. I’m probably weird. I don’t want to post political stories on social media because I don’t want people to be angry at me. It’s not just social media, I also don’t put up political signs in my yard or wear clothing for my candidate. The only times I’ve volunteered for a political campaign, it was a “get out the vote” effort, not one to talk about a candidate. So, I don’t personally “get” the desire to be public about political beliefs.

But I’m guessing that many people feel so enthusiastic about their candidate that they want people to share that enthusiasm. That’s evangelism, albeit not religious. Instead, politics has substituted for religion in our society. (That’s not coming from me, that’s what several experts say.) Another possibility for a motive is that posting political stories is part of being in a tribe. It tells people where you fit. This is what the term “virtue signaling” means.

Whatever your motive, be clear on what it is. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing.  

Importantly, think about the alternatives to posting that political story. As I talk about in my book, Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility Across the Political Divide, there’s another option that’s been shown to be more effective than evangelizing. That way is to stop yelling at the top of our lungs, and instead, engage with people we know in another way, a way that changes the conversation. If you’re bellowing your beliefs, you’re closing off the other way as an option.

Now back to the quote marks I put around the word friends. Here’s a philosophical question to ponder. We call these people our “friends,” but are they really? What are friends? Online “friends” aren’t there for you consistently. They usually don’t come over to your house and bring you food when you’re ill. I went to stay for several days with my best friend after her surgeries and took care of her. After she didn’t need someone full-time, other friends and neighbors filled in, stopping by at key times. Do online friends do that? Not most of them. I also think the online interactions are qualitatively different than what friends are in real life because they aren’t real friends. We get a dopamine high from the “likes” they give us, not from being with them. We need a new term, so we don’t get confused about what real friends are. I think the word used by Linked in — “Connections” — is more accurate to describe most of my Facebook “friends.”

And then there the question of how you feel about the people who manage Facebook and Twitter and so on. Do you agree with their actions? Some people I know have pulled off Facebook entirely because of that, others take sabbaticals.

So, when you decide how to engage on social media about politics consider these questions. It’s not that we can’t engage productively on social media as a previous newsletter described, it’s just that those conditions are uncommon. The conversation I described in the previous newsletter worked because it was a private conversation, one-on-one, over an extended period, and I approached it carefully and with intention. But that rarely happens. Instead, it’s more common for people who aren’t following the same approach to pile on with their comments and the potentially productive conversations get sidelined, like the example I cited above, where I started to engage but got sidelined in the tsunami of comments that didn’t convince anyone of anything, just created bad feelings.

What do you want from posting that political statement? Consider your motives and alternatives before you automatically post.

This Guardian article has suggestions for how to engage on social media that are consistent with my model, Ask, Listen, Affirm and Reframe. One that was new to me, which came from Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez, is to give the person room to retreat. I think that is a valuable addition.

But don’t do it where other people can pile on; your attempt to be reasonable will be drowned out. Instead, engage one-on-one.

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